The Integrated Learning System comes from the United States, and has now been evaluated for the first time in 12 primary and secondary schools across the United Kingdom. It has proved surprisingly popular with both pupils and teachers.
Pupils work on the computer for about 15 minutes at a time using headphones, and have appreciated the opportunity for quiet study and privacy. Because the system presents exercises pitched at their individual levels, they can achieve 80 per cent success rates. Pupil motivation has increased to the extent that many, particularly at middle and upper ability levels, have been taking home print-outs and doing extra work.
The researchers in Dr Jean Underwood's team at Leicester University were so astounded by the 20-month gain in numeracy skills, that they double-checked their figures. "The gains far exceeded our expectations," says Dr Susan Cavendish. "Gains at primary were on the whole around 20 months - at secondary, they were around 13 to 20 months". All the project schools which asked GCSE pupils to revise using the system also reported better results, with more pupils achieving A-C grades.
Findings for English are still "open to question", however. Teachers reported improved reading and spelling by pupils, but there were no measurable gains. The researchers believe a full year is required before these will show.
So far tested only for drills and skills, the full ILS software combines two main elements: the educational content - student worksheets and exercises - and a management system, which automatically assesses pupils' ability, presents them with appropriate exercises, and records their progress.
One working model used a network of 12 computers on the perimeter of a large classroom, where the teacher could concentrate on the rest of the pupils. After 15 minutes, the two groups would swap places. Classes in future might spend half an hour a day on ILS, split between maths and English.
Even some of the most sceptical teachers have come round to ILS, as they have discovered considerable benefits. By removing a dozen pupils at a time, it has enabled them to concentrate on smaller groups. Marking and recording of achievement has also been done by the computer, which can print out reports for parents. Behaviour has been affected, too, with the system having a calming influence upon pupils.
So what are the snags? Money, for one thing. The American version tested, CCC's SuccessMaker, distributed by Research Machines, contains maths, English and science (though the latter has not yet been evaluated). It comes on 15 CD-Roms, has had millions of dollars ploughed into it, and would require a major investment to alter it for the UK.
The British Global Maths, from Systems Integrated Research, comes on only one CD-Rom but, although it is designed for the national curriculum, the program is not capable of fully-automated customising.
Also, it is early days in the research. More time is needed to see whether gains can be maintained, and whether or not there are real benefits for English.
"What we are preaching is caution," says Margaret Bell, chief executive of the NCET. "We've got very exciting results from one part of the study, and encouraging results from another."
The next phase of the project will be reported next autumn. About 10 more schools are being brought in, with specific attention paid to early years, special needs, and higher literacy and numeracy skills.
Integrated Learning Systems, a report of the pilot evaluation, Pounds 5.50 from NCET Sales on 01203 416994, from November 21.