Before 1920 
  The Future

  The 1950s:
Programmed Instruction and Task Analysis

IBM's Teaching Machines Project

Niemiec and Walberg (1989) and Molnar (1990) cite partnerships between universities and mainframe computer companies as pivotal points in early CAI development. IBM's Teaching Machines Project in the late 1950's was instrumental in developing programs such as one that taught binary arithmetic. The IBM 650, a high-speed digital computer, interfaced with a typewriter, was used as a teaching machine. This configuration was known as the "IBM 650 Inquiry Station."

The IBM Inquiry Station is a typewriter and a console which is capable of transmitting typed information to the computer and receiving information from the computer. The student sits at the Inquiry Station. The program of instructions in the computer presents the problem to the student by way of the typewriter. The student, in turn, types his answers, which is transmitted to the computer for checking.

IBM also developed a program called COURSEWRITER, the first computer language devoted to CAI programming.

During this period in the 1950s and 60s other teaching machines were invented and developed, but all of them, Lumsdaine (1959) noted, had three characteristics which distinguished them from other types of audiovisual media:

  • First, continuous active student response is required, providing explicit practice and testing of each step of what is to be learned.
  • Second, a basis is provided for informing the student with minimal delay whether each response he makes is correct, leading him directly or indirectly to correction of his errors.
  • Third, the student proceeds on an individual basis at his own rate - faster students romping through an instructional sequence very rapidly, slower students being tutored as slowly as necessary, with indefinite patience to meet their special needs. (p. 164)


Lumsdaine, A.A. (1959). Teaching machines and self-instructional materials. Audio-Visual Communication Review, 7, 163-181.

Niemiec, R.P. & Walberg, H.T. (1989). From teaching machines to microcomputers: Some milestones in the history of computer-based instruction. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 21(3), 263-276.

Molnar, A.R. (1990). Computers in education: A historical perspective of the unfinished task. Technological Horizons in Education, 18(4), 80-83.