Deborah Alpert Sleight
Educational Psychology
Michigan State University

Fall 1992

A new way of providing support for workers in business and industry has been developed by integrating productivity software, computer-based training, online help, and databases into an integrated tool called performance support systems. This tool is still quite new, and has only been described in its use in the work world. It may have potential for solving some problems in the schools as well. This paper describes traditional performance support systems (if that word can be applied to a new performance technology) and their use in business. Then their potential use in schools is imagined.

The Problem in Business

Job requirements in business and industry have changed, which means employees have to learn more information, learn information that is more technical, analyze and use this information, and perform their jobs more quickly. According to Gloria Gery, "...the development of competence is taking place in an increasingly uncontrolled environment--at the very time competency curves must be accelerated. The reasons by now are familiar to nearly everyone: many jobs today have become more complex, involve more variables, and require more analysis, synthesis, and interpretation in increasingly diverse contexts. Even entry-level jobs." (Gery, 1991, p. 10)

In order to compete in the new global information age, workers have to know how to decide which information they need, how to find the information they need, and how to analyze the information once it is found. They also have to know how to use the tools that enable them to find and process the information. The problem is that, although the job requirements have changed, the training and job support tools have not.

Currently, good job support may include classroom training, manuals, printed job aids, a helpful and knowledgeable supervisor, and the guy next door who knows everything about the job. Although some companies provide this kind of support, many do not. But even this kind of support, which sounds ideal, has problems.

Traditional classroom training teaches employees the things they need to know before they need to know them, and teaches these things away from the workstation where the employees will use them. "Training programs are rarely integrated into the job situation; they often precede the job, inerrupt the job, deal with a subset of the job, conflict with the job, are irrelevant to the job, or follow learning that occurs on the job while waiting for training to occur." (Gery, 1990a, p. 5)

People tend to forget things they studied if they do not use them right away, and in classrooms they may not be motivated to learn because they do not yet see the need for the learning. "[People] think in terms of getting the job done. And, in getting the job done, they typically are ready to learn something new only at the moment they need to know it--when they have no other choice. But people are only human. All too often, when they need it most, they forget what they've been taught, can't remember what they've read, or can't find what they're looking for." (Dublin, 1990, p.2)

The manuals and job aids may contain all the information and procedures the employee needs to know in order to do the job, but it takes the employee time to find the information. The guy next door may be busy, and the supervisor may not be available when the employee needs to ask a question. The length of time it takes employees to find the information they need is too long for the fast paced business world of today and, increasingly, of tomorrow.

A solution to this problem may be electronic performance support systems, which provide training exactly when it is needed, and provide easy access to the information an employee needs to do a job.


A Solution: Performance Support Systems

An electronic performance support system is an "integrated electronic environment which is available to and easily accessed by each employee and is structured to provide immediate, individualized online access to the full range of information, software, guidance, advice and assistance, data, images, tools, and assessment and monitoring systems to permit him or her to perform his or her job with a minimum of support and intervention by others." (Gery, 1989, p. 21)

The components of a performance support system (PSS) might include databases, productivity software, training modules, expert systems, online help, intercomputer network access, hypertext data links, artificial intelligence mentoring, and anything else that would help the user accomplish his or her tasks. All these components would be integrated into an interface that would make it easier for the user to find the information, tool, or help when it is needed.

The PSS database can contain anything that can be digitized, which currently includes data, motion video, still images, graphics, and audio. The data could be searched in typical database fashion, by specifying key words or strings. It could also be searched in a non-linear fashion, by connecting related concepts with hypertext links. An employee reading a database entry could switch to related entries, which could be video, audio, graphics, text, or other data. This would be similar to a person reading an encyclopedia entry, then reading the cross referenced entries listed in the "Read also" section of the entry, then reading the cross references from the second entry, and from the third entry, and so on.

The PSS could also include productivity software such as programs for word processing, accounting, statistical analysis, computer-aided drawing, database management, and so on. Although these programs would likely be off-the-shelf commercial programs, they could be accessed through the same interface as the rest of the components of the PSS, making it easy for the employee to access them.

A third component of a PSS is the advisory component, or expert system. The advisor would be available to help diagnose specific problems and guide users through specific procedures. For example, an expert system could be written that could guide an agent through filling out a rarely used form in an insurance company. The employee would indicate to the expert system which form was in question. The expert system would then ask the employee a series of questions and tell the employee what kind of information should go in each section, thus guiding the employee in filling out the form.

The training component of a PSS might include mini-tutorials on specific topics related to the task at hand. A person working in a manufacturing company looking for flaws in a machine just assembled might need to review how to identify different flaws. A video tutorial could demonstrate how to do this, and could even provide practice in the form of a simulation.

An expert system could also be part of the tutorial, guiding the employee through each step of the actual process of identifying the flaw. These tutorials could be in multimedia format, text only, audio, or whatever format was suitable for the topic. Multiple formats for one topic could be produced, allowing the employee to select the format he or she prefers. In this way a user's learning style could be accommodated.

The online help component of a PSS could be made more specific and context-sensitive, so that when an employee had a question, help would be available, no matter what part of the PSS he or she was in. An artificial intelligence mentor could monitor the user's activity, and offer advice if the user wants it. (The user would have to turn on the "Advice" toggle for the mentor to be activated. Otherwise it could become annoying and intrusive!)

The PSS could contain intercomputer network access, for electronic mail within the company or across the world. Employees could talk with each other or with colleagues at other companies, and could exchange files. Communication would be much faster, and the number of people the employee could communicate with would be much greater.

With the integrated components of a performance support system, the tools and information an employee would need to do the job would be easily and quickly available at his or her desk. A PSS would help solve the problem of employees having to learn more, but having to learn it away from the place and time it is needed. It would help solve the problem of information overload by providing easier ways of finding the information needed.

One of the possible disadvantages of a PSS would be that it might tend to isolate employees at their desks. People like to socialize at work. A new arrangement of work time and break time might need to be scheduled. Also, some jobs are done better when people are working together. I would think that performance support systems could be connected to allow people to work collaboratively.

As with any other prolonged use of computers, employees' health could be affected. Adjustable chairs, keyboard holders and anti-glare screens could be provided to prevent or alleviate problems with eyes, backs, necks and shoulders.

The Problem in Education

These same problems are present in a different way in education, for both teachers and students. From the students' point of view, teaching usually takes place outside the context in which the knowledge will be used, so students do not see any need to learn.

Students are taught about computers as objects of instruction, instead of how to use them as tools, even though the business world -- for which education is preparing students -- uses computers as tools.

Students spend a lot of time trying to find the information they need to do a task, instead of spending time doing the task. We are not teaching our students how to function in this new world. Our students are falling behind other countries in grades, knowledge, and motivation.

Not only our students are falling behind, but many teachers are alienated and burned out. One of the problems teachers face is that they are overwhelmed with so much to do, they don't have time to evaluate their own instruction and improve it. They need all the time they have available just to be able to prepare lessons for several classes, teach those classes, grade the students' work, and keep track of administrative details.

Another problem is that teachers have lost control of their time and expertise, and are now executing someone else's plans. Their profession has become de-skilled, so that what they are required to do is to teach students only the types of knowledge and skills that can be evaluated on standardized tests. "Increasingly, teaching methods, texts, tests, and outcomes are being taken out of the hands of the people who must put them into practice. Instead, they are being legislated by state departments of education or in state legislatures..." (Apple, 1987, p. 69)

Alienation results from not being in control of your job and from your job not being valued. Teachers feel alienated because they are poorly paid, which would seem to reflect on the value society puts on their job, and they have little or no control over what and how they teach. (Vavrus, 1979, pp. 2-4)

A Solution

Although performance support systems are not a solution for all education's problems, they may be able to help with some.

"During the next decade, schools will gradually shift from a teaching/learning model based almost exclusively on human instruction to a new approach that combines teachers and machines. This shift will be driven by financial pressures on schools and America's desire to have a workforce capable of competing in the increasingly automated international marketplace. The speed of this transformation will depend on (1) how quickly America moves to a knowledge-based economy, (2) how much educators resist changing their occupational roles and organizational structures, and (3) how many resources society commits to producing quality instructional courseware and to retraining teachers and administrators." (Dede, C., 1984, p. 14).

The performance support system model for schools might be different from the ones used in business, and the teacher's and student's systems would be different from each other. Performance in education is different from performance in business and industry; the latter is a more limited, more precisely stated set of tasks to be accomplished, whereas the former is less precise and less limited. It is much easier to create a set of tools and information for a known set of tasks than it is for an unknown set.

Therefore, a student's PSS would lean more heavily toward the reference function in providing easy access to vast amounts of information than toward the tutorial function of providing learning on demand. There would be some tutorials that could be included, certainly, such as for difficult math or science concepts. And a network connection would be necessary to connect the student to various computer networks.

The teacher would assign students to research some area and create a report. The students would search through the multimedia, hyperlinked database for information. They would also search the internet for resources. When they had gathered the information they wanted, they would create the report, which could be typed or multimedia report. They could send this report to the teacher's PSS.

A teacher's PSS would be similar to the student's system, but it would also contain tools for administrative activities such as grading, testing, and recordkeeping, and tools for creating instruction and lesson plans.

The components of a teacher's performance support system might include:

The teachers PSS could also be connected to the students' systems, so the teacher and students could communicate with each other, and the teacher could supervise individual students' work on the system.

How Performance Support Systems Would Change Education

Performance support systems would be involved in changes in education in two ways: 1) education would have to change to make it possible for the performance support systems to succeed in the schools, and 2) the use of performance support systems would change how teachers teach and how students learn.

In order for schools to accept and use performance support systems, each teacher would first have to become a computer user. In order for teachers to become computer users, the schools would have to provide them each with a computer to use on the job at school. Each computer would have to contain software that is easy to use and that provides something that makes their teaching easier.

There is no mystery to this prescription. In general, people won't use computers if they don't see any advantage to having to learn something new. If they are doing fine with things as they are, why put up with the bother of learning to use a computer?

In addition to being advantageous and easy to use, new technology has to be readily available if it is to catch on. If teachers have to stand in line to use a computer, or go to another room, or schedule an appointment, they will likely just get the work done the old fashioned way, instead of having to wait. This is the same way it works in the business world. People are more likely to use the computer if it is handy, useful, and easy to use.

Before teachers will start having their students use the computer as a tool, they have to feel comfortable enough themselves to use it as a tool. A strategy for getting performance support systems into schools, and more importantly, in USE in schools would be to get the teachers knowledgeable and excited about their own performance support system, and after that to give one to the students. In this way the teachers would not be intimidated with either teaching their students to use technology with which the teachers themselves are uncomfortable, or with having their students more knowledgeable about the technology than they are.

I think we have been overlooking teachers in our rush to throw technology at the schools. Much research is done and many papers are written on how to teach children to use computers, but little is done on how to get teachers to adapt computer technology for their own use.

Teachers would have to be willing to give up their exclusive hold on information, because students would also have access to it. This problem was encountered in the companies Zuboff researched, when they moved to a knowledge technology base.

"It concerns a subtle power shift. Taking the decision making out of some people's hands and giving it to others." (Zuboff, 1988, p. 255)

"Managers perceive workers who have information as a threat. They are afraid of not being the 'expert." They are used to having everyone come to them and ask what to do." (Zuboff, p1988, .252)

"As we face change, the big issue is, 'What's in it for me?' If I can keep the box narrowly defined, then I know my strength as a manager. I don't know what my new skills will need to be, so that makes me uncomfortable. Managers say, 'You want me to build skills in others that I'm not sure I have myself, and my future is uncertain to boot!" (Zuboff, 1988, p .252)

If we replace "manager" with "teacher," and "worker" with "student" in the above quotes, we have a description of a problem that is even now taking place in schools where technology has given students more information, and therefore more power, than they had previously.

If performance support systems are used in the schools, we will see some changes in what is taught and in how it is taught. Currently teachers have to spend a lot of time teaching students how to find the information and tools they need to do their studies. Because tools and information would be easier to use and find with a performance support system, teachers would have more time to spend teaching students how to use the information they have found, how to analyze, predict, deduce, and synthesize the information. Teachers would have to know not only how to teach these higher order skills, but would have to be able to do the skills themselves!

With their own performance support system, students could spend more time researching subjects, and constructing their own knowledge. They could spend their free time exchanging messages on the Internet with other students or with experts in the student's field of interest. They could use software to model math problems, then spend their time analyzing the results of the modeling. They could make predictions and see if they were right.

The students would have more time to use higher order thinking skills and problem solving, not to mention learning how to use computers as they will use them when they graduate and enter the work world.

Imagine a performance support system for a high school English teacher and her students. The teacher, Miss Alpert, gets to her classroom early to turn on her computer and look at the day's lesson plans that she created previously in her personal information manager (PIM) a free-form relational database manager. She prepares the students' computers by typing a command that tells the network which student folders to put on the desktops of the computers. The first class is a senior English literature class.

As the students settle into their seats and open their folders, their computers automatically record who is in class and who is not. This information is then sent to the teacher's computer and to the administrative offices for inclusion with other class information.

The students are studying a Shakespeare play. Previously Miss Alpert had run a network search of materials on Shakespeare. She downloaded a digital video file of the play, and some files containing analyses by Shakespeare experts. She has each student watch a video of part of the play on the computer monitors. Afterwards the teacher engages the students in a discussion of the facets of the play--its language, action, metaphors, and so on. The students are then assigned to watch a different part of the play and analyze it on their own.

The students have access to the motion video version of the play, a word processor file containing the script that the teacher had prepared earlier, a dictionary of Shakespearean English, and other related information that can be found in the on-line database. After the students are finished analyzing, the whole class discusses the play. Eventually, when the class has analyzed the entire play, they will annotate the script and video, and create a computerized lesson of the play for use in other classes.

After the class leaves, Miss Alpert spends the time between classes looking at the lesson plans for the next class, which is a writing class. She inserts into each student's folder the last writing project, which she has annotated and graded. Again she tells the network which class to prepare for, and it displays each student's folder on the desktop of each computer.

The writing class students sit down, open their folders, and start reading the teacher's annotations on their papers. As they do this, Miss Alpert records some thoughts and anecdotal information on the previous class.

The students have prepared a writing project at home. They copy the assignment to their folders at school, and the teacher tells the network to randomly place the latest assignment in other students' folders. The students then read and critique the anonymous projects. The resulting discussion is stored in the appropriate project's file, and is sent back to the student who wrote it. Each student will rewrite the project later at home. (Later, in Art class, they will illustrate their projects, and desktop publish them.)

The writing class includes a short lesson on English grammar, which Miss Alpert prepared earlier with the help of an expert system that came with her performance support system. The expert system answered her questions about the grammar problem, and then gave her access to a computer-based training authoring program, with which she prepared the lesson. The lesson was then downloaded to each student's folder. When the students had free time, they knew there would be a short, self-paced, computerized lesson on some problem area.

At the end of the day, Miss Alpert spends some time debriefing on the day's activities, and preparing for the next day. She looks at the report of the intelligent tutoring system, which records what each student did, and notes problem areas for the teacher to investigate. When she is ready for the next day, Miss Alpert connects to the Internet and answers some messages from her colleagues at other schools around the world, and sends some messages of her own. She is particularly interested in finding out if any teachers have created or run across some teaching programs on an obsure English author of the 19th century.

When she is done, the system automatically backs everything up on tape, then shuts down for the night, although it continues to operate its fax and modem, in case any messages come through in the night.


Performance support systems in business and industry provide learning on demand and easy access to the tools and information needed to perform specific tasks. Performance support systems could also be used in schools to support teachers' performance, and to enhance students' learning. The systems would be different than they are in business and industry, due to the differences between education and work. School administration, teachers and students would have to change in order for performance support systems to be successful. Use of the systems would change the way teachers taught, students learned, and schools functioned.


Apple, M. (1987). "The De-Skilling of Teaching." In Teacher Renewal: Professional Issues, Personal Choices. Bolin, F. and J. Falk (eds.), Teachers College Press, Columbia University, New York.

Bielawski, L. & Lewand, R. (1991). Intelligent Systems Design: Integrating Expert Systems, Hypermedia, and Database Technologies. John Wiley & Sons, New York.

Brand, S. (1988). The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T. Penguin Books, New York.

Carr, C. (1992). "PSS! Help When You Need It." In Training and Development, Lakewood Publications, Minneapolis.

Dede, C. (1984). "The Likely Evolution of Computer Use in Schools." In Computer Literacy for Teachers: Issues, Questions, and Concerns, Tashner, J. (ed.), Oryx Press, Phoenix.

Dublin, L. (1990). "Performance Support Systems...Now!" Handout for the 8th Annual Computer-Based Training Conference and Exposition. The Dublin Group, Inc., San Francisco.

Geber, B. (1990). "Goodbye Classrooms (Redux). " In Training, January 1990, Lakewood Publications, Minneapolis.

Gery, G. (1989). "The Quest for Electronic Performance Support." In CBT Directions, July 1989, Weingarten Publications, Boston.

Gery, G. (1990a). "A New Vision of Training." In FYI: The Quarterly Journal on Information Technology. Data Base Architects, Inc., Alameda, CA.

Gery, G. (1990b). "Performance Support Systems: Concepts and Development Issues." Handout for the 8th Annual Computer-Based Training Conference and Exposition. Gery Associates, Inc., Tolland, MA

Gery, G. (1991). Electronic Performance Support Systems. Weingarten Publications, Boston.

Gibbons, H. (1990) "The Instructional Potential of AI." In CBT Directions, February 1990, Weingarten Publications, Boston.

McFarland, T. and Parker, R. (1990). Expert Systems in Education and Training. Educational Technology Publications, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

Parsaye, K., M. Chignell, S. Khoshafian and H. Wong (1989). Intelligent Databases: Object-Oriented, Deductive Hypermedia Technololgies. John Wiley and Sons, New York.

Puterbaugh, G. (1990). "The Role of CBT in a Performance Support Environment." Handout for the 8th Annual Computer-Based Training Conference and Exposition.

Rosenberg, M.(1990). "Performance Technology: Working the System." In Training, February 1990, Lakewood Publications, Minneapolis.

Reid, I., and J. Rushton (eds.) (1985). Teachers, Computers and the Classroom. Manchester University Press, Dover, NH.

Schaaf, D. (1990). "And Now, On-Demand Learning." In CBT/Interactive Technologies. Lakewood Publications, Minneapolis.

Taylor, R. (ed.) (1980). The Computer in the School: Tutor, Tool, Tutee. Teachers College Press, Columbia University, New York.

Turkle, S. (1984). The Second Self. Simon and Schuster, New York.

Vavrus, M.J. (1979). "The Relationship of Teacher Alienation to School Workplace Characteristics and Career Stages of Teachers." Research Series No. 36: The Institute for Research on Teaching, Michigan State University.

Zuboff, S. (1988). In the Age of the Smart Machine. Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, New York.

(c) Deborah Alpert Sleight, 1992
Permission is given to reprint for non-profit use providing credit is given.

Deborah Alpert Sleight
Educational Psychology
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824