Mick Healey, Geoff Robinson and John Castleford

(1996) in van der Zipp, T; van der Schee, & Trimp, H (compilers) Proceedings: Commission on Geographical Education, 28th Congress of the International Geographical Union, The Hague, 4-10 August 1996, pp. 199-203



Computer-assisted learning (CAL) or, as it is also known, computer-assisted instruction, or computer-based learning, has been used in geography in higher education for over a quarter of a century (Huke et al., 1969). However, its potential is only now beginning to be realised. In product cycle terms CAL is only just moving out of the innovation stage into the early-maturity stage. The early enthusiasm of the 1970s gave way to loss of interest in the 1980s, in part because of exaggerated claims for the uses and impact of CAL on geography teaching, which in many cases were not met (Bohland & Libbee, 1977; Archer & Lavin, 1981). There are indications from both sides of the Atlantic that Unwin's (1991) prediction that the use of CAL in geography was on the verge of a resurrection in the 1990s is coming true (Carstensen et al., 1993; Castleford & Robinson, 1994; Proctor et al., 1995); a trend which seems to apply across higher education (JISC, 1995) and especially in the context of computer-based learning-support system (MacFarlane, 1995). This has been helped by the continuing spread of personal computers on to the desks of virtually all academic staff and an increasing number of their students and the development of user-friendly courseware packages. An important factor has been the establishment of a number of groups whose purpose has been to develop CAL packages for use in the undergraduate curriculum.

Computers may be used in a wide variety of ways to assist in teaching geography. These include using them as sources of data and information, as analytical tools, as laboratories for investigating the world, and as instructors (Unwin, 1991). This paper focuses particularly on the last of these, although the distinctions are not watertight and aspects of information retrieval, analysis and simulation may be incorporated into computer-instruction packages. CAL is not an homogeneous entity and has changed over time. For example, in the early days programmed learning dominated computer-aided instruction. Although this approach continues to be used for training and skill acquisition, it is seen as a rather sterile and mechanistic approach to learning. In educational applications more emphasis is now placed on developing imaginative, interactive tutorials.


Table 1 presents a list of the ways in which CAL has been claimed to benefit teaching and learning. Caution is needed in interpreting the list because it is important to guard against the unfounded claims and inflated expectations which are rife in the world of IT (Gold et al., 1991). None of the reasons automatically follows from using CAL. Indeed, Shepherd (1985) noted that the available evidence failed to point unambiguously to areas of geography for which computer- assisted teaching out-performs other methods. Nevertheless most of the items listed are potential benefits dependent on the quality of the 'courseware' and the context in which it is applied. As Ellis (1974, p.42) argued: "Thinking about the computer's role in education does not mean thinking about computers it means thinking about education".


A large number of constraints on developing and using CAL have been identified in the literature (Table 2). They vary in their significance and the ease with which they can be addressed. The most important constraints are the cultural ones. These reflect a mixture of personal and institutional attitudes and responses to change and higher-education policies. They include the relatively low priority in higher education afforded to teaching and learning compared with research, and the lack of incentives for departments and staff to commit the resources necessary to develop and disseminate the software. There are indications, however, that some of these attitudes are slowly changing. For example, in the UK national systems of teaching-quality assessment have been introduced, with week-long visits to departments in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) from teams of peers to assess the quality of the student learning experience. The international success of discipline-based educational journals concerned with geography (eg Journal of Geography in Higher Education; Journal of Geography; and International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education), although not all concerned exclusively with higher education, is another indication of the growing awareness of innovations in teaching and learning. A more specific cultural constraint on the implementation of CAL is the attitude to using packages developed in other institutions. The 'not invented here' syndrome encourages a demand for the ability to customise CAL packages to incorporate alternative examples, datasets and exercises, even if this potential is rarely taken up by users.

The educational constraints, listed in Table 2, suggest that there are a lack of clear guidelines and principles on what constitutes good CAL, and that CAL has a number of disadvantages in comparison with face-to-face tuition. The first set of criticisms are beginning to be overcome as more research results are reported (Laurillard, 1993), while the second set provides a reminder that CAL should not be seen in terms of replacing face-to-face tuition, but rather as a way of increasing the variety of learning modes and improving the quality of learning when used in appropriate circumstances. The technical and resource constraints are potentially the easiest to overcome, but require a willingness to invest the necessary time and money.


A number of initiatives have been funded by central government in the UK since the early 1970s to promote CAL in HEIs, including the Computers in Teaching Initiative (CTI) and the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP) (Robinson & Castleford, 1993). One of the main aims of these initiatives is to try not only to overcome some of the resource and technical constraints which have restricted the uptake of CAL, but also to change some of the cultural attitudes in higher education towards integrating CAL into the curriculum. GeographyCal is one of 75 institutional and subject-based projects funded by TLTP. By bringing together most of the geography departments in the UK in a consortium funded by a grant of 0.5m, the project attempts to reduce several of the constraints identified in the last section so that departments of geography may gain some of the potential benefits of using CAL.

The aims of the three-year project are to specify, develop, test, and deliver a library of high quality transportable CAL modules to facilitate an efficient and effective teaching and learning environment for core topics, concepts and techniques in introductory undergraduate geography courses. Each module provides 1-3 hours of student activity. To try to reduce the low take-up of many previous CAL products the project has emphasised collaborative development and evaluation so that a feeling of 'ownership' is encouraged among potential users. The subjects of the modules were decided following a needs survey of all consortium departments. Discrete manageable subjects were chosen. Of the 18 modules being developed, 7 are in physical geography, 6 in human geography and 4 are concerned with techniques and philosophy (Table 3). Each module has a panel of academics drawn from the consortium who are interested in the subject of the module. Development begins with a meeting of the panel to discuss the content and design of the module and then the module authors (2-8) under the guidance of a chair take on the responsibility of preparing the academic materials. An independent adviser acts as a consultant to the authors and evaluates the materials before they are sent to the development team of four programmers based at Leicester who convert them into CAL packages. Once the module authors and adviser are happy with the package it goes out for evaluation by the remaining members of the panel and by student groups. Following revisions in the light of these evaluations the CAL modules are then released for wider use. A teacher's guide is provided with each module to outline its aims and content and to suggest ways in which it may be used in teaching. Department, regional and national workshops have been organised to demonstrate the packages and to discuss how they may best be embedded in the curriculum.

To develop students' involvement and enthusiasm for the packages an interactive problem-orientated approach to learning is emphasised. The user-friendly courseware combines elements of text, graphics, images, animations and simulations; and formative assessment exercises are included (Laurillard, 1993). Asymetrix' Toolbook was selected as the authoring system because IBM-compatible machines operating under Microsoft Windows are the most common hardware platform in UK geography departments. The availability of a non-licensed, run-time version of Toolbook improves the portability of the modules, which are provided free to UK HEIs. Other institutions will be able to purchase the modules. The challenge for GeographyCal is how to maintain and update the existing modules and to develop further ones once funding ceases at the end of 1996. Discussions are currently taking place with the HEFCs and various publishers as to how to make the project self-supporting.


Archer, J.C. & Lavin, S. (1981) Computer assisted instruction in geography. Geographical Perspectives, 47: 16-29. Return to text

Bohland, J. & Libbee, M. (1977) Instructional computing in geography: current status and future prospects. Professional Geographer, 29 (4): 385-393. Return to text

Carstensen, L.W., Schafer, C.A.; Morrill, R.W. & Fox, E.A. (1993) GeoSim: A GIS-based simulation laboratory for introductory geography Journal of Geography 93 (5): 217-222. Return to text

Castleford, J. & Robinson, G. (1994) The development of computer assisted learning in UK universities. In T. Ottoman and I. Tomek (Eds.) Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 1994: Proceedings of ED-MEDIA94. Charlottesville, Virginia: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, pp.117-122. Return to text

Ellis, A.B. (1974) The Use and Misuse of Computers in Education. New York: McGraw Hill. Return to text

Gold, J.R., Jenkins, A., Lee, R., Monk, J., Riley, J., Shepherd, I., & Unwin, D. (1991) Teaching Geography in Higher Education. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Return to text

Huke, R.E., Fielding, G.J. & Rumage, K.W. (1969) Computer Assisted Instruction in Geography, AAG Commission on College Geography, Technical Paper No. 2. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Geographers. Return to text

JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) (1995) Exploiting Information Systems in Higher Education: An Issues Paper. Bristol: JISC. Return to text

Laurillard, D. (1993) Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology. London: Routledge. Return to text

MacFarlane, A. (1995) Future patterns of teaching and learning. In T.Schuller (Ed.) The Changing University? Basingstoke: Society for Research in Higher Education and Open University Press, pp.52-65. Return to text

Proctor, J.D., Sutton, P.C. & Michaels, G.H. (1995) Multimedia guided writing modules for introductory human geography, Journal of Geography 94(6): 571-577. Return to text

Robinson, G. & Castelford, J. (1993) Promoting computer based learning in UK universities: the Computers in Teaching Initiative. In M. Valcke and F. Lockwood (Eds.) Research in Relation to New Developments in Distance Education Materials. Heelen: Open University of the Netherlands, pp.113-125. Return to text

Shepherd, I.D.H. (1985) Teaching geography with the computer: possibilities and problems. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 9(1): 3-23. Return to text

Unwin, D.J. (1991) Using computers to help students learn: computer assisted learning in geography. Area, 23(1): 25-34. Return to text




For students:
  • Motivates students to learn
  • Gives students enthusiasm for the learning process
  • Individualizes teaching and learning
  • Allows students to learn at their own pace
  • Provides feedback necessary for students to correct learning mistakes
  • Encourages students to participate actively in learning
For staff:
  • Enriches a course by providing added variety
  • Can be employed at several different stages in teaching, including as a previewer or advance organiser, and as a means to extend new ideas
  • Can be used to explain theory and to give practical experience of solving real-world problems
  • Helps teachers tackle difficult areas of the curriculum
  • Can be used by students to work through individually to develop autonomy in learning and in groups to foster co-operative approaches to learning
  • Re-invigorates teachers
  • Can save teachers' time which can be used for other activities

Source: Based in part on material in Bohland & Libee, 1977; Gold et al., 1991; Shepherd, 1985

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Cultural constraints:
  • Relatively low priority given to teaching and learning in HE
  • Lack of incentives for departments and staff to develop and implement software
  • 'Not invented here' syndrome
  • Reluctance to try new methods of teaching
  • Fear of technology
Educational constraints:
  • Few established guidelines as to what makes a good item of educational software
  • Few principles to suggest which computer approaches are best suited to putting across particular geographical skills and concepts
  • Program software often unable to locate and treat sources of student learning difficulties
  • Typically unable to adjust to different levels of student expertise and familiarity
  • Can lead to significantly reduced interaction with staff and other students and, in its extreme form, can lead to students who become computer addicts
  • Lacks in-depth knowledge of subject being taught
Technical and resource constraints:
  • Lack of portability of much software
  • Limited shelf-life of software programs
  • Lack of support mechanisms
  • Time is needed to locate, acquire, test and implement software
  • Time is needed to prepare supporting teaching materials
  • Need to train teachers and students in use of software

Source: Based in part on material in Bohland & Libee, 1977; Gold et al., 1991; Robinson & Castleford, 1993; Shepherd, 1985

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Human Geography: Physical Geography:
International economic change Catchment systems (double)
Urban-rural processes Quaternary palaeogeography
International inequalities Slope development
Local economic change Biogeography and ecology
Environmental hazards Meteorology and air quality
Social change at an international scale Global tectonics
Techniques and philosophy:
Social survey GIS as a teaching resource
Making sense of information Map design

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