Educational computing: where are we now? (editorial) Betsy Staples.
This issue of Creative Computing focuses on the use of computers in education--hardly a new idea. Universities and colleges have been using mainframes and minis in mathematics, statistics, and other quantitative subject areas for decades. Microcomputers have been worming their way into all levels of education for close to a decade.
Educational computing still has a long way to go, however, before it becomes the integral part of the educational process that computer literate parents and educators want it to be.
The problems faced by people who want to use computers as educational tools have changed over the years. It used to be that hardware was the primary obstacle. Early cassette-based Apple II's, TRS-80 Model I's, and Commodore Pets were balky beasts that could be relied upon primarily to fail when they were needed most. (How many contemporary computerists have ever heard the bone-chilling screech of a computer program being played through the speaker of a cassette player as its user searches for the correct volume?)
Disk drives were scarce luxuries--and far too temperamental (not to mention expensive) to expose to the rigors of classroom use. (The original line of Creative Computing Software included quite a few educational programs, but only two floppies.)
Today the computer hardware industry is of age. The new machines are far from flawless, of course, but for the most part, we can call them "reliable" with a straight face. The current generation of Apples, the capable Commodore 64, the old faithful Atari line, the newer Tandy models, and many other micros have proven their durability in countless classrooms around the world.
And disk-based systems are now the norm. Which brings us to the problem at hand: Now that most of the hardware hurdles have been overcome, the primary barrier to effective utilization of computers in education is lack of high quality software.
Yes, we've said it before, but unfortunately, it is still true that a great deal of the so-called educational software on the market today is worthless. We are reminded that it is true every month when we try to find worthy products to review in "Growing Up Literate." We find that the products of only a few manufacturers rise to the top of the pile month after month. So many of the others suffer from poor pedagogy, inadequate documentation, amateurish programming, lack of support, and a plethora of lesser ills. "How discouraging it must be," we think, "to be a parent or educator drifting helplessly in this uncharted sea of highly touted, expensive, and potentially useless software."
What's a mother (father, teacher, grandparent) to do? The most important thing is to make every attempt to preview educational software before purchasing it. This formal sounding "preview" can take any form from looking at a friend's copy to sitting through a formal presentation by a salesperson. Probably the most practical way is to ask an employee of your local computer store to let you play with a program for a few minutes before you decide whether to buy. Another way, of course, is to look for favorable reviews here in the pages of Creative Computing. But since space constraints allow us to evaluate only a few packages each month, we may never be able to publish the review you are looking for.
You can, however, apply the same criteria we apply to a package when you do your own evaluation. Long-time readers and those who keep up with "Growing Up Literate" probably have a pretty good idea what these are, but for new readers, we list them here in no particular order.
* Purpose. Different types of educational programs serve different purposes. The most obvious, and the easiest to program, is drill and practice. Drill and practice programs, many of which wear the guise of games, definitely have a place in the educational process, but they must not be confused with programs that actually teach. To make good use of a drill and practice program, the student must have some knowledge of the subject matter being drilled. A tutorial program that is designed to teach a series of concepts or facts can be used to advantage by almost any student in the recommended age range without prior introduction to the material. The last major category of educational software is simulations. Simulations use experience to teach both facts and concepts. Using a program that requires him to bring a malaria epidemic under control, for example, the student learns facts about mosquitoes, chemical pesticides, and treatment of disease. He also assimilates (painlessly, we hope) important ecological concepts.
* Documentation. The user's manual does not have to be fancy, but it should be well organized and free of spelling and grammatical errors. It never ceases to amaze us how many programs that claim to be educational come with error-fraught documentation. The user's manual should also tell you what the program is designed to accomplish--it should list educational objectives.
* Pedagogy. When we say that a program must be pedagogically sound, we mean that it must teach or drill facts and concepts that are worth knowing in a manner that is consistent with proven educational techniques. Asking the student, for example, to choose the correctly spelled word from a list of incorrectly spelled words is not pedagogically sound.
* Programming. The program should take advantage of the latest hardware advances and software innovations that your computer offers. Good graphics add to the appeal of a program, but if the student must sit idle while hi-res screens are loading from disk, he will soon come to think of them as an annoyance rather than an enhancement. There should always be a way to "give up" on a question or return to a menu without resetting the machine. Other good programming techniques are less obvious, but software written by an imaginative professional programmer will always stand out when compared with programs of lesser quality.
Obviously, there are many fine points to be considered in each of these categories. As you become familiar with good software (and bad) you will develop your own checklist and soon find that you can identify a quality package after only a few minutes of inspection.