Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 42 / NOVEMBER 1983 / PAGE 116

Learning With Computers

Glenn M. Kleiman

The stack of new books and magazines on my desk fell over yesterday. I took that as a sign that I should write about some of them in this month's column. I've selected four publications that will be useful to many teachers, parents, and students. The first two concern educational software, and the other two are new dictionaries of computer terms. In future columns, I will review new books on Logo, teaching computer literacy, and other topics.

Courseware Report Card

Each issue of the Courseware Report Card contains comprehensive reviews, written by experienced educators, of a variety of educational software packages. All types of educational programs are reviewed, including drill-and-practice, tutorials, simulations, games, authoring systems, classroom management systems, and versions of Logo and turtle graphics. The programs are for Apple, Radio Shack, Atari, and Commodore computers.

Each review begins with a listing of the relevant subject areas, grade level, type of program, hardware requirements, price, and publisher's address. Then there is a brief summary of the program, followed by a very detailed description complete with pictures of the screen displays. Finally, there is an evaluation, divided into ratings of the program's overall performance and content, ease of use (for both students and teachers), error handling, appropriateness as a computer activity for students, documentation, and educational value. In each category, the program is given an A to F grade, and the reviewer explains why. A summary box displays the grades on each of the six criteria.

I find the reviews in the Courseware Report Card to be more useful than any others I have seen. I like having a description of the program separate from the evaluation, and the screen pictures help me get a better idea of how the program looks. I also like the fact that the reviewers explain the grade they give the program on each of the criteria, so you can determine whether you agree with their views. This is especially important for the appropriateness and educational value criteria, since educators disagree about the educational value of different activities and about which types of programs take best advantage of computers.

Courseware Report Card publishes two different sets of reviews – one for programs for elementary school students and the other for secondary school students. Each set can be purchased separately. Reviews are published five times during the school year, with at least 20 reviews each time. Each review is self-contained and three-hole punched, so you can conveniently file your copies by subject area, grade level, hardware compatibility, or however you choose.

Courseware Report Card is published by Educational Insights, Inc., 150 West Carob Street, Compton, CA 90220.

Courseware In The Classroom

Courseware in the Classroom: Selecting, Organizing and Using Educational Software, by Ann Lathrop and Bobby Goodson (published by Addison-Wesley, 1983), would be useful to anyone concerned with finding and evaluating educational software. This book is divided into six sections.

Section 1 presents an overview of how computers can be used in all areas of the curriculum.

Section 2 discusses six categories of software: (1) reinforcement and remediation (that is, drill-and-practice); (2) tutorials; (3) simulations and demonstrations; (4) problem-solving (for example, Logo, logic games); (5) program development aids (PILOT, shell games); and (6) tools for teachers (for example, classroom management and material preparation programs).

Section 3 focuses on criteria for evaluating courseware. The authors begin by discussing the most important general questions to ask: "Does the software meet specific instructional objectives?" and "Does it take good advantage of the computer's capabilities?" They emphasize that there is no point in using computers for activities that could be done just as well without them. They go on to discuss other criteria for content; screen formats; ease of use for students and teachers; types of feedback the program supplies; use of motivational devices such as graphics, sound, and competition; technical quality; instructions; and printed documentation. They point out that the reviewer must decide which criteria are most important for particular types of programs, groups of students, and classroom situations.

Three evaluation forms are given, with examples of how they can be used. These forms were developed by the Northwest Regional Laboratory in Portland, Oregon; the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics; and the California Library Media Consortium for Classroom Evaluation of Microcomputer Courseware.

Section 4 covers the details of organizing and running a courseware library.

Section 5 contains a directory of recommended courseware. The authors give a brief description of each program, with the information necessary to obtain it. They do not provide their own reviews, but give references to reviews that have appeared in magazines and other publications. Only programs that have received positive reviews are listed.

Section 6 consists of appendices containing copyright regulations; sources of evaluation guidelines, courseware reviews and courseware directories; and policies and procedures for selecting instructional materials.

The Courseware Report Card and Courseware in the Classroom are mutually complementary. The former provides detailed reviews, and the latter provides information about doing your own reviews and finding other published reviews. Both publications will help educators find the software they need to make good use of computers with their students.

Dictionaries Of Computer Terms

A great many dictionaries of computer terms are available. Some are intended for children, some for adults who are novice computer users, and some for computer science professionals.

My pet peeve about computer dictionaries is what I call "recursive definitions." These define technical terms by using other technical terms. You look up a word, and the definition contains several words that you don't know. You look up each of these in turn, but their definitions contain more words you don't know. For example, one dictionary defines instruction as follows:

Data which causes a computer to carry out an operation and specifies the values or locations of all operands. A program controller examines each instruction and initiates the specified action. An instruction usually contains an operator (indicating the type of command) and one or more address parts, and sometimes a tag.

The italicized words are defined elsewhere in the dictionary. How many people who looked up the meaning of "instruction" in a computer dictionary would know the computer jargon meanings of "locations," "operands," "address," and the other terms? If you are dedicated, you might look up each of these words and then look up the technical terms used in defining them. You might keep pursuing this through several levels of definitions and then try to finally figure out the meaning of the original word in which you were interested. However, I'd prefer a trip to the bookstore in search of a new dictionary.

By the way, for those of you who are not familiar with the concept of recursion, a recursive procedure is one that can "call itself." Think of yourself as using a find-the-meaning-of-a-word procedure. One part of this procedure would tell you that if a definition contains a word you do not know, you put the original word on hold and apply your find-the-meaning procedure to the new word. That is, the procedure reapplies itself to a new word – an example of recursion. When you find the meaning of the new word, you return to trying to understand the meaning of the original one.

I have recently obtained two dictionaries that have mostly accurate and understandable definitions. Both are careful to provide clear examples and minimize the use of technical terms in definitions. For example, here are the definitions of "instruction" from the two dictionaries:

A single operation to be executed by the computer. Instructions may move data, perform arithmetic and logic functions, control I/O devices, etc. A sequence of instructions forms a program.

A single order that tells the computer to carry out some specific task. An instruction in a program might tell the computer to operate a line printer, add two numbers together, store information in memory, or to perform any one of a number of other functions. Each instruction must be retrieved from memory, decoded and executed by the computer's central processing unit. A program is simply a series of instructions designed to solve a problem or accomplish a task.

The first definition is from the Illustrated Computer Dictionary, by the editors of Consumer Guide (Exeter Books, 1983). This dictionary is intended for computer novices. The second definition is from A Dictionary of Computer Words, by Robert W. Bly (Dell Publishing Company, 1983). This one is designed for students and contains many good analogies and humorous illustrations.