PIGS IN POKES
by MARIAN LORENZ and ALAN MOOSE
The software market has exploded with educational programs. Unfortunately, buying this software can be likened to "buying a pig in a poke." The chance of buying an unsuitable program is needlessly high, not because good software doesn't exist, but because most packages are sealed, preventing you from even reading the documentation.
Dealers usually carry only the most popular software, and those we visit rarely demonstrate more than games. Thus, many educational software purchases must be made through catalogs, relying on catalog descriptions or reviewer's opinions. Software reviews depend on the skill and background of the reviewer, which may not be strong in educational experience.
Since educational software is usually expensive, how then can a teacher or parent find carefully designed, well written programs! We will present some background and a checklist to assist you in evaluating educational software.
Instructional software falls into five main categories. These are: Drill/Practice, Tutorials, Simulations/Problem Solving, Games, and Management.
DRILL/ PRACTICE: This type of program supplements previous instruction through reinforcement and practice.
For many of us, drill has negative connotations. Yet, drill and practice are an important part of the learning process. These programs can help with math, spelling, history, geography, and other subjects that require memorization, and can be good remedial tools. Using a computer can be a private activity and can reduce the self-consciousness many pupils with learning problems feel when they have to perform in a group situation.
TUTORIALS: These programs are instruction units that teach rules and concepts. They may be used to introduce new concepts or to re-teach work previously presented. Computers can provide immediate feedback, and students learn faster the sooner they know whether or not their answers are correct. Computers are not judgmental, they don't get tired, and a students's attention can be maintained longer at a computer. Also, the student has more control over the learning process than occurs in a group lesson.
SIMULATIONS/PROBLEM SOLVING: A simulation is a model of a real-life situation recreated by the computer, a situation that may be too expensive, complex, dangerous, or remote for classroom use. These programs allow the student to make use of known skills and concepts to develop new problem solving strategies. They should teach students to make decisions, think logically, and understand conceptual relationships.
GAMES: These are programs that allow students to apply skills and concepts in a game environment. They make provisions for learning rules, developing, and revising strategies. Games can feature competition with the computer, with oneself, or peers. Games can be cooperative efforts. Team games in which students cooperate to meet a comman goal foster cooperation and positive interaction.
MANAGEMENT: Programs of this type are tools for the teacher. They can be used to schedule, test, keep records, and analyze student progress.
The first step in evaluating (or writing) instructional software is to define your need. Be as specific as possible about your goals and instructional objectives. This will help you determine whicht type of programs you want. Additionally, it will provide a reference against which to judge programs. An effective educational program combines educational and technical expertise. Therefore, you will want to consider the content and documentation, educational suitability, and technical aspects.
An important first area to evaluate is what the user sees - the screen displays. Four general principles can be used to judge the effectiveness of screen designs.
(1) Displays should be easy to understand, and they should not be crowded. For most students, six lines of double-spaced text is a reasonable maximum. Young learners can benefit from enlarged or colored text. Text printed in capital letters is not as easy to read as conventional capitals and lower case letters.
(2)Important information, new vocabulary, key words, and instructions should be highlighted, perhaps by using inverse video. Flashing words, letters, or phrases can be distracting, and are more appropriate for prompts.
(3) Text for students to read must follow established rules of punctuation, grammar, usage, and capitalization. Spelling errors in educational text are inexcusable.
(4) Graphics, sound, and color should be integrated with the program. They should convey information, draw attention to important facts, or reinforce learning. Too much sound can be wearing on the nerves and disturb a classroom. We believe that sound should not be used to indicate mistakes because it announces the student's errors.
After evaluating the screen displays, assess the educational integrity and usefulness of the program. Read the documentation and run the program. Two facets deserve special mention here. First, does the program accommodate student differences through branching and timing? Unless speed of response is a factor, the user should control the length of time the display remains on the screen. Branching is a way to structure a program so that a slow learner is not frustrated by inability to proceed, while still challenging the more able student. If the student responds correctly, the program can go to a more difficult level. If the student does not respond correctly, the program can return to an easier level or reteach the item.
The second facet is harder to achieve and may be comparatively rare. This is provision for teacher or parent to modify the program. For example, can the on-screen instructions be edited! Can the word lists, problems and/or informational data be amended? We suspect that this feature will go a long way toward the ultimate acceptance of computers by teachers in their daily work.
Finally, poor documentation can ruin an otherwise excellent piece of work. Documentation must include commentary on both technical and educational aspects. Technical documentation must give explicit instructions on how to use all parts of a program. (We own a well-known educational program, part of which we've never been able to use because the instructions are so poorly written). Equally important, the documentation must determine the knowledge the pupil is assumed to have. The goals and objectives of the courseware should be spelled out and the concepts identified.
The following is our checklist for evaluating educational software programs. You may discover other criteria as you make your choices. Gradually we will all accumulate experience that will make these choices better, and we hope this is a useful start.
SOFTWARE EVALUATION CHECKLIST
1. Is the user's guide description of the program adequate?
2. Are goals and objectives defined?
3. Are prerequisite skills, vocabulary, and concepts given?
4. Does the guide provide information, suggestions and materials to help the teacher gain maximum use from the program?
5. Does the guide give simple directions for amending or individualizing the program?
6. Are there clear instructions on how to run the program?
7. Does the guide indicate RAM required to run program?
8. Does the guide indicate the peripherals needed, if any?
9. Can cassette programs be transferred to disks?
10. Are back-ups available, if not, can they be made?
11. Are there established and understandable procedures for restoring a crashed program?
12. Is the target population defined?
13. Is the program appropriate for the target population?
14. Is the program compatible with the curriculum?
15. Is the content consistent with the given goals and objectives?
16. Does the program provide understandable directions for the user, avoiding computer jargon?
17. Can user return program to instructions if needed?
18. Can user operate the program independently or with relatively little need for assistance?
19. Is there interaction between the user and the computer?
20. Can the program be personalized by user input of name?
21. Will the program run to completion?
22. Are screen displays attractive and easy to understand?
23. Are color, sound and graphics used to effectively enhance the lesson?
24. Are there distracting or irrelevant portions in the program?
25. Is the language suitable? Is tone appropriate?
26. Does the text follow established rules for grammar and punctuation?
27. Is spelling correct?
28. Are positive responses reinforced?
29. Does reinforcement make use of behavior management techniques?
30. Are computer responses to incorrect answers/input non-punishing?
31. Are the concepts and skills presented in appropriate sequence?
32. Is the content accurate and complete?
33. Does the instructional plan make use of learning theory?
34. Does the program provide for individual differences?
35. Are provisions made for determining if user has mastered the material presented?
36. Does program save student's score, response pattern, or otherwise track progress?
37. Is program bulletproof to accidental or deliberate tampering?
38. Will company replace defective or damaged media?
39. Is program sensitive to cultural values and differences?
40. Does documentation ostensibly qualify authors, programmers for the work?