Choosing The Best Educational Software
Selby Bateman, Features Editor
Sharon Darling, Research Assistant
Of the thousands of educational software programs available, which ones are worth your time and money? Here's a short lesson from the experts.
"One recommendation I always make to parents—one that not enough people are making—is that you should really begin to look for educational software for your three- or four-year old child," says William Bowman, chairman of Spinnaker Software.
"That's the time to begin thinking about buying a home computer and getting educational software. It's going to be easier for you to find things that are generally applicable to the learning skill areas of young children than it will be to find the more specific software for older kids," he adds.
Spinnaker's educational software lines include the new Fisher-Price Learning Software for children from three to twelve years of age, as well as such best-selling programs as Kindercomp, Alphabet Zoo, In Search of the Most Amazing Thing, and Kids On Keys.
"The next real criterion is that the software's got to be fun," says Bowman. "If it's not fun to use, kids won't use it no matter what their ages are—and that's where an awful lot of educational software falls down. The next thing for a parent to do is to consider how much he or she is going to be involved with the child. A little involvement is always required. But some software, like Spinnaker's, really expects the parent to be more involved," he adds. "The software is a little bit deeper, it's a little more advanced in terms of what you can do with it."
Trying It On For Size
Getting educators and software developers to agree on a set of specific guidelines would be almost impossible, given the many conflicting views which abound in the computer-based learning field. But there are a few fundamental pieces of advice for anyone buying educational software. The following tips from educators, software houses, and leading independent program developers may be of help as you wade through the flood of educational software packages:
• Shop at a software store that allows you to run some programs prior to purchase, or that lets you buy packages on approval. Such stores may not be easy to find right now, but retailers are discovering that an increasing number of customers are demanding more than just the promises on the outside of a package to buy an educational software product.
"Buying blind" is the way Dr. Sam Barkliss, chief executive officer of Computerose, Inc., an educational software firm, describes the predicament most parents and some teachers find themselves in when purchasing educational packages. They should be offered the opportunity to test the educational value of software before a purchase.
But What Does It Really Do?
• Determine what age and learning levels the software is designed for. Once that is established, find out exactly what the program intends to teach, says Leigh Mosley, an educational consultant at Peachtree Software. "A parent should ask, 'Is my son or daughter going to learn from it?'"
Some companies are better than others at telling you who the target audience is, what level of learning is required, and what the goals of the packages are. Always keep in mind the software user—the child's age, learning level, interests, and dislikes.
• Be aware that the nature of "educational content" is often difficult to assess—and usually the subject of much debate among educators and software houses. Many educators and software producers believe that specific learning objectives are crucial in producing good computer-based educational products. Others stress the validity of programs which invite youngsters to explore and "play" in a less structured learning environment.
The General And The Specific
For example, software that stimulates a student's creativity might be more useful than a program that deals with a specific learning problem in school, notes Kent Kehrberg, director of software for the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium.
"It may be difficult for a parent to match up a very specific program with a problem a child is having in, say, algebra," he says. "In a case like that, it's very difficult for someone besides the teacher to pinpoint [the problem]."
• Read published reviews and other articles about software packages and the goals of various software companies. The more knowledgeable you are about manufacturers and their products, the easier your task when picking out new software.
Tutorials, Simulations, And Drill-And-Practice
For example, when shopping for software, parents should know the three basic types of educational programs—tutorials, drill-and-practice, and simulations, notes Sherwin A. Steffin, vice president for research and development at Eduware Services, Inc.
"Tutorials help you attain a new skill or understanding," he says. "They generally ask the question, 'How to?' With drill-and-practice, you already know how, but want to know better, so you need repetitive exercises." Simulations can offer examples of the way things work in just about any field.
• Consider how much replay value, or depth, a product has. Will the child use the package a few times and tire of it, or is there enough variety and challenge to offer a stimulating environment?
As William Bowman puts it, "Does the software provide multiple paths to creativity, and does it accept multiple paces from different children?"
The Price Tag For Learning
• Price and future availability of software from the same company can be important factors. Depending on the needs of the student and the goals of a company's software line, you may wish to purchase an entire series of complementary programs over time. How much this will cost you and its effects on the student's learning goals then become very important.
"A lot of people out there are getting too great a price for what they're selling, and for what the market will support," says George Esbensen, national sales coordinator for MicroEd, a Minnesota-based company which produces educational software. "A lot of what's being passed off as educational software is not."
• Take your child to the store when selecting software. This can be especially helpful—and save you later disappointments—if the child can actually see the program working in the store. If that's not possible, at least you can get a better idea of some of the likes and dislikes of the youngster for whom you're purchasing the program.
Sophistication, Power, And Interaction
• How flexible is the software program? Are there built-in options which allow a variety of challenges and motivational changes as the user works with the program? As computers become more powerful and software becomes more sophisticated, the level of interactivity between user and program is increasing dramatically. The best educational software takes advantage of that power and sophistication.
• Is the software both easy to use and error-free? Educational programs which freeze up or frustrate a user can immediately discourage users, especially younger children. Be aware of both potential problems as you evaluate software you see or that you've purchased.
Fritz Luecke, manager of computer software for Weekly Reader Software, suggests that you determine how easy and helpful the program guide booklet is that comes with the package. Many parents, teachers, and students want to be able to insert a program into the computer and use it without having to use a guide, particularly if that guide is confusing or incomplete.
NEA Teacher Certified
Finally, you might want to look at the NEA catalog of educational software. With the proliferation of educational software packages, the job of separating the good from the mediocre gets tougher every day. For more than a year now, the National Education Association (NEA) has been trying to give some guidance in this area. Approximately 50 NEA reviewers have been testing educational programs submitted by software authors and publishers. Those which meet the NEA's stiff requirements are given an "NEA Teacher Certified" stamp of approval, and are included in a catalog of approved software.