Posted by: Navy Teacher | February 3, 2012

Can a computer be an effective tutor?

There is an obvious answer to this question, right?  Yes, of course a computer can serve the role as tutor.  Robert Taylor wrote about the role of a computer serving as a tutor way back in 1980 in his book “The Computer in School: Tutor, Tool, Tutee.”  He provided explicit directions about how the computer must be programmed to serve in that role.  In an ideal situation, the computer presents the essential subject material and based upon the student’s response, the computer would then determine the next appropriate action.  Although it requires numerous hours of programming, the end result could be an effective tool that is capable of teaching many students.

It sounds like a great idea.  That is what the United States Navy thought when it bought into the idea of computers serving in the role of tutor.  The Navy spent millions of dollars to develop software that is capable of serving the role of tutor.  The programming was called Computer Based Training (CBT).  It was developed to train thousands of young Sailors the essentials about how to perform their job.  The idea was that the initial investment would pay off in the end because CBT would reduce the number of human instructors at school houses around the globe.  The Navy also launched Navy Knowledge On-line (NKO) which would provide numerous other tools to include career tracking and several CBT courses.  Sounds like a wonderful idea, right?

The initial CBT program was a failure.  As a leader, I expected my Sailors to report to my command ready to do the job they were “taught” to do.  For instance, if the Sailor was an electronics technician, he/she should be able to perform basic electronics troubleshooting.  A weapons technician should be able to perform basic maintenance on his/her weapons.  Unfortunately, soon after the transition to CBT courses, Sailors required extensive on-the-job training upon arriving to their first command.  Teaching someone how to use an oscilloscope or take apart a 9MM handgun is more effective when it is done utilizing kinesthetic or tactile instruction.  It was unrealistic to expect the student to learn those tasks by watching a computer screen and answering multiple choice questions.  The NKO career tracking software never gained steam and died before implementation.

Fortunately, the Navy realized that it was a mistake to depend primarily on CBT; especially for those jobs that require hands-on training.  A combination of CBT and classroom instruction has resulted in a better-trained Sailor who is more capable of performing his/her job when they report for duty.

That has been my experience with computers serving the role as tutor.  Do you have an experience with computers serving in the role as tutor that contradicts my experience?  Perhaps you have an experience that mirrors my experience.  Your input would be greatly appreciated.



  1. Thanks so much for sharing your first-hand knowledge with this, Barry. I think it is pretty hard to argue with a balanced approach to instruction that leverages multiple technologies (old and new) and learning contexts. We should always be skeptical when someone is telling us to put “all of our eggs in one basket”. This discussion is happening right now with the new buzz word “flipped classroom” (Google it). Specifically, online education and online tools like KhanAcademy ( for teaching math have a quickly increasing business-backed funding base in efforts to make learning more personalized, efficient and cost-effective. These tools most certainly have their place, just like CBT, but rather than improve what may be lacking on the human end and integrating new tools into such contexts to bring more relevant and sometimes more effective learning opportunities… there is a movement to simply replace them.

    As many have said, any teacher that can be replaced by a computer… should be. There will always be a need for truly great teachers who can leverage a host of learning tools and opportunities. These teachers are learners, flexible, knowledgeable, passionate, open-minded, risk-takers.

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