Is there a wufflegump in your house? Creative Computing talks educational software with four top developers. Sherrie Van Tyle.
The amount of educational software on the shelves has multiplied so rapidly in the past few years that winnowing the good educational software from the mountain of chaff can be a harrosing task. For guidelines in choosing educational software, Creative Computing asked four leading educational software developers what they think educational software should do and what the future holds. Joyce Hakansson
"Learning is the most enjoyable thing I can imagine for children," says Joyce Hakansson, who started her own educational software development firm two years ago in a renovated Victorian house in Berkeley, CA. Since then, the Joyce Hakansson Associates (JHA) team of programmers, educatrs, musicians, artists, writers, and children has produced 19 educational games distributed by four publishers.
Hakansson designed the Computer Gallery at Sesame Place, a theme park in Pennsylvania, from 1979-81 at the request of the Children's Television Workshop, the originators of "Sesame Street." She began her career in educational software in 1973 when she looked for a more intuitive way to convey math principles to her own young children. She and a parent volunteer started a computer lab in conjunction with the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at Berkeley. The next year, she directed their Computer Education Project, which has taught 30,000 to 40,000 people each year to use computers.
She believes that educational software should be entertaining, an enhancement of the learning process. "Children need positive educational experiences to feel confident with a self-learning tool like a computer. So we put a lot of play, laughter--the theater--into our software. Software should be one more tool in children's lives. But we try not to take it totally seriously."
She acknowledges that "the computer has become an artifact of our culture. But computers do not make kids smarter. Computers can enhance children's self images, their feelings about themselves.
Sherrie Van Tyle
But we shouldn't be slavishly tied to the technology."
Space shoot-'em-ups reward aggressive behavior, she says; the player who shoots down the most planes, who is the most aggressive, is the most heavily rewarded. JHA programs, on the other hand, aim to create an environment of learning and play, in which the child is in control rather than in the path of an errant missile.
For example, in Alf in the Color Cave, the child controls the joystick and fire button to animate shapes and to make sounds. She calls it a "video busy box." The child manuevers Alf through tunnels, and, if successful, moves through all three screens to the end, where a magic color change occurs. But the game is programmed so that each screen is fun to do in itself. Alf meets an obstacle, a Wufflegump, while on his journey, but she emphasizes "there is no sense of harm, damage, or destruction. He is never scared or running away."
Children need different skills today to prepare them for the world, she points out. The mountain of information means that rote learning is less important than in the past; knowing how to find and use facts, however, has become vital. "Creativity, confidence, acceptance, and adaptability to change, to new contexts are even more important these days."
Instead of writing programs with exercises that have only one crrect answer, "JHA creates learning environments. There is no one right way to do it. Children are encouraged to try things, to find that there are many ways to solve a problem. Rather than trying to find concrete answers, the problems usually are open-ended."
She notes that the computer is good at performing repetitive tasks such as computation. Of course, the child still needs to learn the relations between the numbers to evaluate the results.
Some traditional educational tasks are accomplished better without the computer, she points out. For example, in math, learning volume and weights is easier in three dimensions than on the computer. Free drawing is better with crayons and paper; and as yet the fine lines of book illustrations haven't been duplicated by computer graphics. Workbooks and flashcards remain valuable.
As for the future of educational software, "we're going into a time that is very unsettled...I have no crystal ball." For high school students and adults, however, she foresees increasing access to large libraries of information by computer.
JHA's goal is clow threshold" software. "The software is the child's window to the machine; it should be as natural, as intuitive, as barrier-free as possible."
She gives an example: "When you look at a shovel, you know what to do with it--it looks like something you did with. It is part of our culture. As software producers, we need to use some of the metaphors of our culture as touchstones. Even if the terminology is not exact by engineering standards, software should be natural, friendly, and familiar." Thus, in one JHA program, the instruction "delete" was eliminated in favor of "erase," because "delete is not a people word." She elaborates: "We try to validate the individual intuition."
JHA tries to look at the world through a child's eyes. In Duck's Ahoy, for example, the player moves gondolas in the canals of Venice to gather ducks. Limited to a 16K cartridge, JHA could show the ducks submerged but could not show them swimming safely to shore. To allay any anxieties in young players, the documentation explains that the ducks went swimming, reached the beach safely, and sunned themselves. "Whenever possible, we concern ourselves with the child's perception of the world." Tom Snyder
In preschool software, the adult's feelings about the software may be more important than the child's, according to Tom Snyder, head of his own educational software development company in Cambridge, MA. "If the software isn't intriguing to parents, the parents don't want to be there. We are overrating the value of young kids interacting with the software by themselves. A young kid alone with software is almost not worth talking about.
"i recommend that parents buy software that intrigues them. Then the parent and child can work together. Then the child can choose some software and get the parent involved."
For the preschool child, "nine-tenths of the reason the kid is at the computer is to get lap-time, access to the parents. There are so many teachable moments that arise--when parents can intervene with an example or an explanation." Accordingly, Tom Snyder Productions (TSP) schedules Parent's Nights for young children to bring in their parents to playtest the software.
Snyder became acquainted with computers almost 20 years ago when at the age of 15 he sent one of his designs to IBM. They responded by delivering hardware parts to his home and encouraging him to experiment. Instead, in the late 60's, he became a keyboard musician with a rock 'n roll band under contract to Capitol Records. He majored in French at Swarthmore College and obtained his master's degree in education from Lesley College in Cambridge, MA. He teaches science and music at Shadhy Hill School in Cambridge. In 1980, he founded the Computer Learning Connection, but changed the name to Tom Snyder Productions (TSP) in 1983 to distinguish the company name from others in the field.
He comments: "Of all the areas, the greatest potential for 'bogusness' exists in the educational market. It is an open invitation for those with no interest or training in education to do brightly colored, interactive programs and after the fact, deem them educational."
Snyder aims for the collaborative approach in the classroom. In the Snooper Troops series of mysteries, students can work singly, in pairs, or on teams. The teamwork fosters cooperation in reaching a goal.
TSP has also designed simulations for the classroom. In one module Snyder simulates navigation: Groups of kids search for whales and along the way learn to use radar, sonar, and a telescope, and to map in detail. Not only must students cooperate to reach the goal, but they learn the basics of note taking and organizing data. Working with pencil and paper are part of the learning, too.
Snyder believes that "the computer is at its peak value in the classroom when the kid isn't at it. It creates openings in experience; it invites him to look up the Amtrak schedule, to go to another kid and ask how far it is from Detroit to Denver." In terms of teamwork, "you may not learn something unless you repeat it to someone else."
cooperation would enrich video games, Snyder believes. In the traditional arcade game, "the arcade game player is in a glass sphere. If another person speaks to you, it damages your game. If your eyes leave the screen you die. But if you had a pause button to freeze the action, you could stop, talk about strategy, and get suggestions. Cooperation puts holes in the sphere."
Unfortunately children are usually asked to learn for abstract reasons ("because it's good for you"), Snyder points out. Classroom simulations in which students run a factory or an oil company provide a context of learning for children. Solving a concrete problem serves to motivate the child. One of the students described how much he had learned by playing the factory simulation: "We got to make decisions that really mattered."
Snyder acknowledges that teachers have used games to motivate kids for a long time; the computer provides what Snyder terms "rich, dense opportunities." TSP has a sailing simulation to help teach navigation, in which the stars rise and the earth spins during the program. "When I'm asked why we sweeten it up with sugar, I say that I have to consider the market. Why would anyone buy something that is boring?" he says.
Computers in the classroom should still be considered an experiment he says. "Everyone who can should participate in the experiment. But not to the extent that a great deal of money is spent on computers to replace the curriculum."
Society's expectations for educational software are misguided, he thinks. The boom in the microcomputer market coincided with criticism of the teaching quality in schools. It gave the public the idea that computers can take care of bad education. He says "that's unfair. A computer is a great laboratory tool, but it should be clear that it is a tool; the computer is a mild servant. It can't solve the problem of bad teachers. And we're not in the Toffleresque era of home education. All we have invented is a good alternative to TV. That's a far cry from education."
Snyder foresees more use of Logo. "It helps kids to think procedurally. I also see more and better classroom simulations. The simulations currently available are not advanced; the sailing simulation was done four years ago. I don't know why more hasn't been developed for groups of kids working together. I look for advances in how to structure group dynamics." Jan Davidson
"If it can be done as well in a book, we don't want to do it. It must be unique," says Jan Davidson, founder of Davidson & Associates of Rancho Palos Verdes, CA, developers of the popular educational packages Word Attack!1, Math Blaster!, Speed Reader II, Classmate, and Spell It.
Davidson, who holds master's and doctoral degrees in language arts from the University of Maryland, also founded Upward Bound, a nonprofit educational association that offers supplemental math and reading courses as well as SAT preparation. Before that, she was a high school and college teacher.
She became interested in computers as a motivational tool. "i have been a teacher for many years and am always looking for a way to motivate students. That's how I got involved with computers. Often, the software will get them started, and they will go on to use books. This is true for both high school students and young children."
Despite her belief in the computer as a motivational tool, she emphasizes, "if a $5 or $10 book offers the same information as software running on a $1000 computer, it doesn't make sense to invest in the software."
For this reason, Davidson & Associates haven't developed complete SAT preparation programs yet. "The students take the test on paper. They are allowed to mark the booklet, to circle and to underline points. I try to create an environment similar to the one they will be in while taking the test."
She thinks "educational software needs to be more quality-oriented, to attack a particular skill or area." One general characteristic to aim for is multiple activities--more than just one game, each building on the previous one in a logical sequence. In addition, she points out that "data disks extend the life of the programs. The additional words in Word Attack! and the stories in Speed Reader II also provide users with a cost effective way of expanding their existing software without having to purchase new programs."
A third criterion is an editor feature, in which the user can add his own spelling words or math problems.
Further, "testing is essential to quality. Educational software needs lots of testing." If more programs were tested, we would see higher quality software. It needs to be tested for educational soundness; are the materials presented in a way that will motivate the student? It also needs to be tested for bugs. We try to do all the things to it that a student would to make it crash.
"our emphasis is on the home end of the software market. I see a trend toward more quality and completeness. That extends the life of the products." Sterling Swift
Sterling Swift, of the Sterling Swift Publishing Company, agrees that quality is essential in educational software. "The real issue in my judgment is the quality of product that is developed. I would rather do fewer products and better products. Frankly, that has been a problem in the education market. Quality builds in a confidence level for the consumer. In the past few years in the software market, some people have been a little greedy."
The Austin, TX based company publishes 64 titles of software and books for the classroom market. Swift, who has a degree in marketing from the University of Texas, is a veteran of college textbook publishing; he worked for the Prentice-Hall College Division for 14 years, in the college division of Harper & Row for five years, and managed the second largest college bookstore in the country at the University of Texas in Austin. Because the bookstore sold everything from trade books to women's clothing, his retail experience made him aware of the computer retailer's problems.
In developing software, he also keeps the average teacher in the classroom in mind, "I have been in the classroom on Monday at 9:00 a.m. and seen those blank stares."
The future of educational software is promising. He says "the computer in K-12 is proving to be a valuable tool. Schools have made major financial commitments, and we have pretty conclusive proof that it is assisting in the educational process. But we need to become more sophisticated about videodiscs,f or example.
"The sky is the limit for software development. We want to be on the cutting edge and not get bloody. The idea is to produce the software and bring the market with you. The software is becoming better. Some people are good enough to conceptualize it. The Macintosh in 1984 is where the Apple II was in 1977. People must rethink ways to use the computer--to take advantage of what the Mac has to offer--and not just hook up software to a mouse. That is just dumb," he says.
Swift develops software by helping authors perfect the product, packaging it, and selling it both in the United States and internationally. As enthusiastics as he is about the future of computer sftware, Swift says "programs that are mostly text, whether they are 40- or 80-columns, are just page-scrolling--nothing but a waste."
Further, "we've not even scratched the surface of what can be done graphically. Young people today expect the graphics of MTV--substantial use of the visual arts.
"The computer can be a tremendous reinforcing tool, if the program truly deals with problem-solving, as in a simulation, or in a real tutorial."
He gives the example of Math Worlds, a middle school math program that deals with manipulation, algebraic functions, and geometry. Students work with manipulation by using a bag of blocks. And "you can use the computer to give you quick access, as a number cruncher. It extends the analysis of a problem. The whole purpose is to present the analysis and reason behind the math manipulation."
Swift's new program, Graphic Gradebook, written by Tom Irby, takes Visi-Cals cells and adds graphics to produce pie and bar charts from the grade information.