Authoring Software and Lesson Planning

Shannon Jacobs


The overall goal of this article is to help 'regular' teachers see how they can use the computer to support their own lessons, without relying on a technobabbling consultant to tell them what they can (or must) do with it. Authoring software is software designed to help teachers be the authors of their own Computer Aided Instruction (CAI) lessons. Some common features are described, along with some ways to fit CAI into the lessons, depending on the match between what the teacher wants to do and what options the software provides. There are also many suggestions for using and evaluating such software and ``wish list'' features that could be helpful, even though they weren't part of the specific software described here. This article is primarily based on my work with an MS-DOS based system called PC-Quizzer (from Data Assist, P.O. Box 26114, Columbus, Ohio, 43226). [Note: The simplified figures in this article are only simulated, not actual PC-Quizzer displays.]


This article does several things. First, it describes one particular authoring system and its components, and shows how the software was used in a specific course. Also, it tries to put this teaching tool into perspective by describing how it was related to the lesson plans that coordinated all of the teaching tools with the objectives of the course. The underlying goals are to show what this kind of tool is capable of without getting lost in the ``glamor'' of the computer--sometimes a computerized teaching tool is so flashy that it takes over and we can lose track of what we were trying to use it for. We need to remember that the students come first, then the course goals and lesson plans, and finally the specific teaching tools that help the students do the actual learning.

Authoring Software

One of the original ideas of CAI (Computer Aided Instruction) was that computers could be used for certain kinds of teaching. There is still a lot of debate about exactly what kinds of material the computer is most suitable for, and a lot depends on the special characteristics of computers. For example, since a computer doesn't get bored, many teachers wanted to use computers to perform repetitive drills--even the best trained teacher can have trouble appearing spontaneous and enthusiastic on the 40th repetition. Unfortunately, the students are not computers, and a boring drill on a computer is still boring. Of course, creative imagination can produce interesting drills, but creativity is precisely where the computer is least helpful.

Authoring software can help teachers be the authors of their own CAI software without having to be programmers, too. Since this is a large undertaking, these systems usually have several component programs. For example, one program might edit quizzes, a second would give the quiz to the students, and a third program would show the results. The goal is to let the teacher focus on the hard part of creating good lessons, and then the computer can help with the delivery. Seen that way, the computer can be a very helpful tool, but not a panacea.

Perhaps the easiest part to understand is what the students see when they sit down to use the computer. The system I used was basically for giving quizzes, so the student part is called Quizzer. The perfect quizzer program should be as easy to use as other classroom `tools'--for example a textbook--and Quizzer is pretty easy to use.

Figure 1 shows a question at the top, with some possible answers. This is a question about good database file names (see the Lesson Plan in Figure 2). Answer B is highlighted as the student's choice, though they haven't actually chosen it yet. The student has asked for the help window for this question, and after reading it, can return to the question and decide if he still wants to choose that answer. The best answer is Answer C, since it short enough and neither too specific nor too general. After choosing an answer, the next question would appear. (The next question might be the same one, if the student made a mistake and if the program is set to repeat missed questions.)

The other parts of an authoring system are for the teacher, and are usually a bit more complicated. The crucial part is the program for making and editing the CAI material, called QuizEdit in this system. There are also some less important programs, but I'm not going to say much about them. These `utility' programs vary a lot between systems, and mostly have very specific functions. But the quiz editing program is the heart of this kind of authoring system.

A good quiz preparation program does many things besides showing a place to write questions. For example, sample questions or `templates' can show how to set up the questions. QuizEdit supports several types of questions, and has models of each type. For my purposes, I usually used multiple choice and true-false questions, which are also easy for the computer to grade and give instant feedback. (Most of the other question types, for example free text answers, could only be collected for the teacher to grade later.) Other editor features I often used included copying a question to make a similar one, moving questions around, and saving my quizzes. Most of this is pretty mundane. It's a little more complicated than an old-fashioned typewriter, but simpler than many popular word processors.

There are several things to remember as we consider how to incorporate this tool (or any tool) into lessons. First, the content is much more important than the tools used to deliver it. Second, if a teacher wants to use a particular teaching tool, but the tool requires advance preparation which is very true in this case--then it's VERY important to plan the lessons carefully. And lastly, don't expect miracles. Learning to use any new teaching technique or tool takes time, and at first it's slow work and the results won't be perfect. The computer can't change some things, and the methods I'm describing took several years to develop.

Lesson planning

Please excuse me for grinding my axe on this point, but lesson plans are VERY important, though many teachers give them short shrift. For example, some teachers will say things like ``Even when I make lesson plans, I usually drop the planned lesson to follow the students' interests'' or ``I can just plan my lessons in my head.'' Even one of the editors who helped me with an earlier version of this article thought that lesson plans are relatively unimportant and wanted to cut this section, but I'm still grinding my axe.

Clever tricks and gizmos--even the best CAI systems in the world--are no substitute for well prepared lessons. And lesson plans are the best tool for preparing and integrating all the parts of the lesson.

The more I teach the more I realize how crucial the lesson plans are. The lesson plan is the most important tool, the only one that really helps teachers see where the classes are and where they are going. The lesson plan has the teaching points, phases and timing information, lists of props, and even the `stage directions'. In the classes described in this article, writing the lesson plan came first, and the authoring system was used afterwards. When giving the lessons, the most important tool was the printed copy of the lesson plan that I could carry around the room. Finally, considering the mismatches between what I wrote in the lesson plans and what we could accomplish during the lessons was invaluable in improving the lessons and my teaching techniques.

Though this lesson plan has most of the parts of an actual lesson plan, it has been greatly simplified here. The times in the lesson plan should also be flexible. In particular, note-taking is something that varies a lot between students, and it's very good to allow for that if possible. The times shown in the above lesson plan are not wild guesses, but sort of `optimal' estimates. Especially as regards the practice quizzes, some students tend to take them seriously and want to take lots of notes, and others want to get done quickly and go on with the practice work, and the lesson plan need not prevent that. Actually, the lesson plan is also the natural place to record changes in the actual lesson as they happen.

For `student-centered' lessons it may be helpful to think of the lesson plan as defining `synchronization points' where the students should be gathered together. The examples in the sample lesson plan are the beginnings of the quizzes and the presentation of new material. At those times it's important for all the students to pay attention. In the sample lesson plan, there are actually three gathering points, because the students are already together when the practice quiz starts. If the teacher uses the same gathering points each time, good lesson plans can help achieve consistency, and the more consistent the teacher is, the quicker the students learn the rules of the lessons.

Preparing a Lesson

After the lesson plan was ready, a quiz was prepared. Since I wanted very short quizzes, only some of the teaching points could be covered directly. By `distributing' the questions over all the teaching points, sufficient coverage was possible. If your lesson plan makes your goals for the lesson clear enough, then the quiz questions also tend to be pretty obvious.

This kind of lesson uses the Quizzer program three times. It sounds like a lot, but each quiz was only three to five questions, recycled three times. The first quiz was the same as the final quiz from the previous lesson--just for review. Later in the lesson was an unscored practice quiz about the new material--this was actually the newly prepared quiz just mentioned. And at the end of the lesson was the real quiz about the day's new material. The schedule looked like Figure 3. Setting up the quizzes actually involved copying one old quiz, writing one new practice quiz, and then slightly modifying it to make an end of lesson quiz. (Specifically, the graded quiz included one extra question requiring a bit more thought.)

Though there was really only one new quiz per lesson, the authoring software had options to allow the quizzes to be `adjusted' for the specific use. The practice quiz, which was to help present and explain the new material, was set to give complete feedback after every question. For wrong answers it also gave the correct answer and an explanation, and then asked the question again until it was answered correctly. It's better if the feedback is by the content of the answer, not simply letters of the correct answers. By making sure that the students understood that this was only practice, but not part of their grade, the students were more willing to guess at the correct answers, which is something many Japanese students are hesitant about. This was also a good time for the students to take notes.

For the graded quizzes at the beginning and end of class, the instant feedback for each question was turned off, and the explanations of the correct answers were also unavailable. However, students who made a mistake would get the same question for a second try, so they had some idea of how they were doing; if they didn't see the question again they knew that they had answered correctly the first time. The final feedback came at the end of the quiz, when they received their summary score. One of my goals here was just to have the students finish each lesson feeling like they had learned something. When they had these final summary results on their displays it was a good time to run around the classroom saying ``100%! Very good!''

Bells and Whistles

This section describes some of the options this authoring system made available, and some features that would have been nice. In computer jargon, such features are often described as `bells and whistles' added to the basic software to make it nicer or more attractive. A convenient example would be that this program actually includes options to use the sounds of bells and whistles for right and wrong answers. (For Japanese students it should be ``PinPoong'' for correct answers and ``Boo'' for mistakes.) Aural feedback could be nice, but it wasn't an attractive option for a classroom with 90 computers.

Apart from the basic presentation of questions, handling student errors is an area with lots of choices. As already mentioned, this program allows for immediate feedback, either for the last question or cumulative for all the questions so far. The program could provide generic feedback, such as ``You're doing fine'' or ``Sorry, that's not correct'' or the teacher can provide feedback messages (with a bit more work). Setting up general right and wrong feedback responses wasn't too difficult, but with even more effort the teacher can provide specific feedback for EACH error, which can be very helpful.

Especially when using a program like this in a tutorial mode, a teacher might like to alter the sequencing of questions depending on student answers. For example, students who miss a question might get a similar, but simpler question before returning to the problem question, or a teacher might want to offer bonus questions to students with high scores. Unfortunately, this program has very limited control over the sequencing of questions. The basic design was to go straight through the questions, with the option of repeating the questions a student answered incorrectly. There was an option to ask the questions in random order, and some teachers might like this for testing. However, if a teacher prefers to go from simple to more difficult questions, or to link groups of questions, then this program offered only two options--the same order or no order.

This program also has an option for question specific help. I used this for hints and occasional translations of critical Japanese words. An optional help feature is very nice, and some students will use it a lot. (``Context-sensitive help'' is the computer buzzword.) Unfortunately, this feature was also linked to one of the problems the software had, and a general problem for any `high-level' program such as an authoring system. If a high-level program has a bug or does something confusing, it may be very hard to do anything about it. In this case, the on-screen directions mentioned the help feature and two other choices in a rather confusing way, at least for my students. Changing the on-screen directions so they were less confusing was rather difficult, and was one time when programming knowledge was helpful.

Sometimes you may want to use a anonymous questionnaire. My own uses were partly to find out how the students felt about the class, and to see if the class changed their attitudes about the subject of study (computers). Though this program didn't directly support anonymous questionnaires, it was easy enough to set up. For anonymity, at the beginning of the survey students used their class rather than their names. For a survey, Likert Scale items are very useful, and a few extra spaces helped make the scales clear, as in the above example. This was also a good place to use free entry answers, which are usually problematic to grade (because of many possible answers). This software didn't actually allow multi-line answers, but by using three questions the students could give me up to three lines of free form feedback about the class.

This version of the program did not include any timing features, something which could make for more rigorous tests. Some similar programs do include timers, usually with on-screen displays of the remaining time. However, after a while I came to feel that this is not an important feature. The main effect of strict timing is to increase the students' anxiety, and much research suggests that stress can interfere with learning [Brown 1994, p.280 in reference to Krashen]. Since I was usually using the quizzes as learning aids, strict timing would probably be counterproductive. Nor do I recommend major changes from study/learning mode to graded test mode--and adding ruthless timing just for tests would be an example of a major change. One of my main class goals was that the students learn to see the computer as a helpful tool, not as a ruthless adversary.

This program includes some support for graphics, but it was somewhat cumbersome, so I didn't use pictures. Newer programs, especially programs for graphic environments like the Macintosh or Windows, make it easier to include pictures, sounds, or even movies in the quizzes. But time for another warning: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo. If the demo looks too slick, there's a good chance only a skilled programmer can figure out how to do it. There is marketing-based pressure for `flash' that too often rushes past what normal teachers can do in the classroom.

The last item considered here is delivery: How do the quizzes get to the students? I used sneaker net, which is when you put your program on a floppy disk and you use your sneakers to run around to all the computers. A program with `real' network support is `aware' of your network and is doing fancy things with it--perhaps useful but definitely harder to understand. Basic CAI programs don't need to know anything about the network, and the network can still be very helpful in distributing the material and collecting the answers. But having a fancy network isn't that critical, except to some hardware salesmen. Don't be afraid of using sneaker net.

This software had other features that I used over the years, and I figured out a few tricks, too. It's the same as anything else you use in your lessons--with practice you get better at using it. At first it was a lot of effort to prepare and check one lesson a week (reused for many classes), but later I could prepare six new lessons every week.


This article itself is a pretty good example of one of the problems computers can cause in the classroom. Because the computers are so flashy, they tend to become the stars of the show (or the article) rather than remaining just another classroom tool. An article about using the blackboard effectively wouldn't have that problem. In particular, the rest of the lesson, and especially the lesson planning has been overshadowed here. But the lesson plan is the place where ALL the tools of the lesson should be brought together and integrated. While it's important to be ready to change your lesson in response to the students, it's also important to know what you are changing from.

In the classes described here, the situation is even worse because the use of CAI overlaps the actual content of the class. Transfer the situation to a regular writing class: you use paper and pencil for the quizzes and also for the regular work of the class, but you probably wouldn't write (or read) an article about using pencils, would you? But if the writing class uses a word processor, it's awfully easy to get blinded by lists of dazzling features. But this kind of authoring software is just another way to quiz the students and give them timely feedback about what they are learning. If you have the tool available (or can get it), then it's up to you to use it effectively. One of my favorite stolen sayings is that it's the poor craftsman who blames his tools. But it's also the poor craftsman who doesn't recognize and want the best tools, and authoring software can be one of the best tools for teaching.


Brown, Douglas H. 1994. Principles of language learning and teaching. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Copyright (c) 1996-2004 All rights reserved. Authoring Software and Lesson Planning