What Is Computer Assisted Learning and How Does It Work?

In today’s classroom setting, it seems like we’re constantly battling with technology.

On one hand, technology has revolutionized the way teachers teach and students learn.

On the other, it can become a distraction that takes away from the learning process.

If you’re a teacher like me, you know that it can be a huge pain to get students off their smartphones or computers and get them to pay attention to the lesson.

All you can see are the tops of their heads while they text and post on social media—and you just know they aren’t posting about the irregular verbs you’re currently teaching them!

Luckily, there is a way to incorporate that very same technology that is distracting your students into your classroom environment and use it to help them learn better.

Understanding the Pros and Cons: What Is Computer Assisted Learning?

Most kids (and adults!) these days spend a huge portion of their time on their computers, tablets and phones both at home and at school, so it’s no surprise that computers are being incorporated into the classroom.

Computer Assisted Learning (or CAL) has completely modernized the way that students learn, both in the average classroom as well as in language-learning settings. Computer Assisted Learning can make lessons much more interactive and engaging, and can pique the interest of even the most reluctant of pupils.

This isn’t to say that CAL is not without its flaws, however. The same individuality and fun that makes CAL work well can also lead to the isolation of students, as well as distract them from the lesson they’re participating in.

Before you can decide whether or not Computer Assisted Learning will become your new teaching methodology, let’s take a look at exactly what CAL is, and what the benefits and drawbacks could be of its use in your classroom.

What Is Computer Assisted Learning?

Computer Assisted Learning encompasses a lot of different technologies and ideas, but can be understood easily enough. The Intense School, which focuses on computer and information technology, summarizes it simply as “the use of electronic devices/computers to provide educational instruction and to learn.”

It might shock you to learn that some form or another of Computer Assisted Learning has been taking place in classrooms since the 1960s. CAL doesn’t just involve computers, it also includes the use of other electronics such as CD and MP3 players (or record players in the 1960s), DVD players, tablets, smartphones and televisions. These tools can be used to better illustrate a point the teacher or professor is trying to make, or to heighten engagement among students.

Just think about it: Wouldn’t you learn more from actually watching a foreign film for your language class than you would from just talking about it?

Computer Assisted Learning also includes online courses and supplemental course materials used in colleges, homeschooling and distance learning. Basically, any type of technology that can be used to learn most likely falls beneath the umbrella of Computer Assisted Learning.

The great thing about this teaching method is that it can be implemented in every type of classroom, from a kindergarten art class to a medical school class in which students use computer models to learn to operate on the human body. It can also help students take classes at home either on their own or to supplement their other learning. This can lead to a much more personalized experience, as well as a more in-depth understanding of the knowledge being transmitted.

How Can Computer Assisted Learning Help Students with Languages?

While the use of CAL can be useful in any classroom, it’s especially beneficial in language learning classrooms.

In fact, it’s so effective that it gets its own acronym too! CALL, or Computer Assisted Language Learning, is quickly becoming one of the preferred teaching tools among foreign language instructors.

Using CALL, language teachers can help their students retain more vocabulary and grammar by having them watch videos, play computer games, or even navigate the internet using only their target language. It also enables students to use that target language in a more active way, which helps them learn it more naturally than just rote memorization. The words and rules of the language become something more useful to them, so they’re able to remember them better.

Here are just a few examples of how Computer Assisted Learning can be used to help students learn languages:

Visual Learning

Many students are visual learners, and benefit greatly from seeing an image or an example of the terms being discussed in class. Computers are a great help with this, because teachers have the entire internet at their disposal. You can easily search the web for pictures of fruits, animals or even colors to help your students see what you mean and have an image to associate with the word you’re describing.

You can also use videos from DVDs, YouTube or your own personal projects to help illustrate a point. Seeing something really happening or really being used in a video makes it much more real to the learner, so they remember it much longer.

Listening Practice

Listening practice is a vital part of learning any language. CAL helps with this by enabling you to play music or record conversations, so your students can listen to the language being used naturally and in real situations. They can then emulate the speakers or singers and find their own voice in their new tongue.


Computers are a great way to give students exams. You can either create your own test and have them sit at the classroom computers to take it, or you can find pre-written tests and other exam materials on the internet and use those in your lessons. Taking tests on the computer can help students feel less rushed and can make them feel as if they have more privacy than they would if they were in a crowded classroom.


Games are perhaps one of the best ways to use CAL in the classroom. Language students (especially young ones) love playing computer games or doing puzzles in their target language.

To them, it doesn’t feel like learning—it feels like having fun. They won’t even realize they are getting smarter as they try to get to the next level or solve a tough crossword, when in fact, they’re learning and retaining more than they would have otherwise!

Internet Searches


Another fun way to use a student’s target language in the classroom is by having them do an internet search in said language. Activities like WebQuest begin with the teacher giving students a query to look up with a search engine. The students then have to find the answer using only their target language, which can be a real (but fun!) challenge!

Online Courses

Last but certainly not least, CAL can include online courses. These courses can be taken on one’s own time at home, possibly as a part of a full college course load, or they can be taken as a supplement to a language course they are already taking in person. There are hundreds of free or paid language courses to be found online, and many of them can be extremely effective.

Before we dive into the benefits of CAL, let’s look at a few disadvantages to be mindful of.

Some Disadvantages of Computer Assisted Learning

While CAL might seem like a flawless technique, it does have a few downsides. Here is a look at some of the disadvantages of using Computer Assisted Learning in your lessons.

It Can Be Expensive

Cost is perhaps the biggest barrier to using CAL in the classroom. Computers, electronic devices and software are expensive. As such, having a computer for each student is just not a realistic goal for some classrooms.

It Can Be Difficult for Teachers to Implement

Any time electronics become involved in something, it gets more complicated, at least initially. Teachers have to learn how to use the tech themselves before they can have their students use it, and sometimes the proper training can take up a lot of precious time. We have all had that teacher who wastes a bunch of time during the lesson because they don’t know how to use the computer or the overhead projector… no one wants to be that teacher!

CAL Activities Don’t Always Fit the Teacher’s Goals

When using third-party programs, videos or lessons, it’s sometimes hard to find one that exactly fits your needs or teaching style. There are going to be times when an online quiz doesn’t have the exact words you want to test for, or that the video you are watching uses every part of speech you need to highlight. Teachers have to find a way to integrate CAL into their lessons without letting it dictate the material to be learned, and sometimes finding the balance can be tough.

It Can Lead to Isolation Among Students

While an individual, personalized learning experience is a good thing, the isolation it can lead to is not. Just imagine a classroom full of students, each at their own computer, not looking at each other and only interacting with that computer in front of them. Socializing is an important part of language use, and we learn new things about language from interacting with each other. Students need other students to help them learn, and CAL can inhibit this.

Still, CAL can be an incredible teaching resources when integrated into the classroom. By using it to supplement your curriculum rather than dictate it, CAL can transform the ways students learn languages—or learn anything, for that matter!

5 Advantages of Computer Assisted Learning

There’s a myriad of reasons to use CAL in the classroom.

Here are a few ways CAL can empower your students:

1. It Caters to the Individual

With CAL, each student can go at their own pace and make progress in their own time. Computer lessons or games normally adapt to the individual based on their own progress, not on a set standard, so each student is able to have a more personalized experience.

2. It Promotes Active Interaction and Use of Target Language

It is fine to sit in class and repeat words and make verb charts, but the real learning comes when you use that knowledge in a real situation. Students who actively using the language they’re trying to learn helps them remember certain words or phrases better.

3. It Lets Students See Their Progress

Again, the feelings of success and satisfaction are key to encouraging students to want to learn more. Because of this, CAL is a great method to use in the classroom. Students can easily see the progress they’re making. Every time they solve a puzzle or get to the next level in a game or an online course, they feel as if they’re doing well, which keeps them engaged in the lessons.

4. It Breaks Down Complex Topics into Smaller Pieces

Sometimes it’s tough for teachers to break down complex topics because they don’t know the best way to go about it. Computer games and lessons do this for you, however, and break down material into bite-sized chunks that can be  learned and retained more easily.

5. It’s Interesting and Engaging

Let’s be real: A bored student isn’t a good one. While some students adore lectures, many others require more stimulation to stay involved and actively learning. CAL is perfect for this, because it offers many ways for each individual student to engage and stay interested in the topic at hand.

Bringing It All Together

In the end, it’s up to each individual teacher to decide whether Computer Assisted Learning is right for their lessons. As long as the pros and cons are evaluated fairly, the use of computers in the classroom can be a great way to utilize new technology and enhance the language learning experience.

Jessica A. Scott is a novelist and certified TEFL instructor from Louisville, Kentucky. While her first love is writing, her second love is learning Italian, a goal that she has been pursuing since her sophomore year at the University of Louisville.

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