The Parallel Instruction Theory for Coaching in Open and Task-oriented e-Learning Environments

By Rik Min

The 'parallel instruction theory' for simulation environments, in short the 'PI-theory', was discovered, developed and published by Min around 1992. In this theory researchers suppose that a user in an open learning environment can only work and learn if the environment has been designed in such a way that all relevant information to take decisions is 'visible' or can be immediately 'retrieved'. On studying various kinds and large numbers of examples, it turned out time and again that traditionally presented instruction methods yielded better results than solutions provided in a modern way. Simulations with paper instruction materials turned out to function much better at the time, although the reasons were not very clear. In the end we discovered the above mentioned deficiencies of monitors and the software technique used at the time, when carrying out a small but not very successful experiment for AKZO in Hengelo (Van Schaik Zillesen & Gmelich Meijling et al., 1995). Learning environments with a malfunctioning instruction component proved on closer study to have been too sequential in design and too rigidly linked in general. Also the instruction text disappeared completely from the screen while one was working with the simulation. It was surprising to see that such a design did not work, for the reverse was so much more obvious.

It is clear that users of task-oriented working-, doing-environments and learning-environments like to have all information well-ordered and in view at hand. They want to be able to see the connection or coherence of things. An example will illustrate this. Large screens are favourite in work situations, which can be compared to learning situations. This is proved by the huge success of SUN work stations. They are sold well to people who can afford them. The price is still a problem however. The fact that large screens are so popular partly proves the ideas found on parallelism. Users want to be able to put relevant information somewhere, preferably on a large screen, so that they can consult it without having to move other relevant information from the screen. Users of screen-oriented work stations have an implicit need to put a lot of information sources or tools side by side as a reference point so that comparisons are possible. This is not merely a laziness of the brain but the result of learning being largely a question of making comparisons and trying to see the coherence.

In ordinary courseware the designer has often put a lot of information in one picture or text. It is not to be recommended for various reasons but it goes to prove that people in learning situations such as simulation environments, like to be able to survey everything they have finally found or what they have composed. Everything has to be at close hand and within view.

In general, the Parallel Instruction theory, as a design theory, can be understood as follows: when someone has to implement an instruction design or build an open learning- or working-environment, you should do everything within your power to have all loose components with in easy reach and ready for use. You should remain in the position (or state) which you have (or had) at the time. In particular the instruction, feedback, tasks, the 'solution space', scrapbook etc. should be parallel to the open learning environment of the (bare) simulator (with the key to the problem) (Min, 1992 & 1994). The PI theory has to overlap the cognitive load theory of Sweller, the split attention effect and the dual code theory of Mayer (Chandler & Sweller, 1991; Mayer & Anderson, 1991; Mayer & Moreno, 2000).

In the earlier period, the PI theory was described as a set of hypothis (rules) and formulated in the way of: if A and B is true, under condition (or rule) C, than situation D is predictable. A second condition is that the theory is partly proved in empirical studies with a statistic outcome with a high probability. More concrete:

Summerized on a other way: the PI theory assumes that a user in an open learning environment only can work and learn effectively, if the environment has been designed in such a way that all relevant information for decision taking is visible (or immediately retrievable), because otherwise problems with working memory will hamper problem solving.

People don't like working environments in which an important number of information objects or objects for comparising, are not parallel (in view). Nor do users like situations when there is no parallel instruction when he need it, to solve a problem or if it costs him too much cognitive load. Also if his brains do not work 100% or his eyes instinctively don't accept that there is too much distance between the 'problem' and the 'instruction' your software is sub-optimal.

Further research will have to reveal which cognitive psychological variables and design variables play a part for the user and in software. Also why and under which conditions the user will work best in such an 'task based environment'.

See also the paper of Adel Agina about theories underlying the PI theory

All this is no hard evidence in favour of the parallel instruction theory for simulations or do environments. But our findings are such that further empirical research will show whether our hypotheses are correct. In spite of this we published the idea in concept and as theory in 1992. Also because we developed a large number of prototypes with many different design variables which anyone can apply for to experiment with. They will find that the concept - provided it is used under the conditions discovered by us - really works. One way to guarantee a wide spreading of our experimental products was to publish the lot in one go on CD.ROM with a large number of software products, articles, manuals and figures and a book on parallelism and simulation technology (Min, 1993; Min, 1995).


Min, F.B.M., (1992)
Parallel Instruction, a theory for Educational Computer Simulation. Article. Interactive Learning Intern., Vol. 8, no. 3, 177-183.

Min, F.B.M. (1994)
Parallelism in open learning and working environments. Britsh Journal of Educational Technology, Article; Vol. 25, No. 2, pp. 108-112. ISSN 0007-1013.

Gritter, H., W. Koopal and F.B.M. Min, (1994)
A New Appraoch to Computer Simulations; Interact, European Platform for Interactive Learning; Article; Vol. 1, no. 2, ISSN 0929-4465.

Gritter, H. (1993)
Het ontwerpen, ontwikkelen en evalueren van ISAV (Instructional Support for ArcView): een COO-programma ter ondersteuning van het geografische informatiesysteem ArcView. M Sc Thesis, University of Twente, Enschede (in cooporation with the University of Southampton, J. Moonen and F.B.M. Min).

Schaick Zillesen, P.G. van, F.B.M. Min, M.R. Gmelich Meijling and B. Reimerink (1995).
Computer support of operator training based on an instruction theory about parallelism. Chapter in book. Kluwer Academic Publishers (Eds: M. Mulder, W. Nijhof en R. Brinkerhof). ISBN 0-7923-9599-9. p.209-226.

Agina, Adel (2002)
Theories underlying the PI theory of Min. Internal paper [online] available on