Author David Dobbs recently shares yet another lukewarm study of educational software funded by the U.S. Department of Education in his blog. The news is familiar: “students using educational software do no better learning primary school math and first-year algebra than their counterparts who follow a traditional curriculum.” The study itself has many flaws, primarily being the lack of random assignment of participants or the comparison of multiple software products. However, the results should hardly be seen as a surprise to most educators, who have largely intuitively ignored the school-purchased software in their shiny labs for some time, seeing the results as being negligible, at best.
Bells, whistles, fancy animations, videos, etc. cannot make technology the transformative tool it has the potential to be. Much educational software has limited the medium to colorful drill-and-practice, with cartoon-like characters set in situations that bear little resemblance to real-world situations. Little surprise, therefore, when there is little impact on student performance. Like a classroom filled with rote practice and unimaginative instruction, students’ performance reaches the limited ceiling of their surroundings.
On the other hand, consider the more successful classrooms you might have encountered. I think of the junior high school language arts teachers I was fortunate enough to have. These women, Mrs. Talbert and Mrs. Pruitt, engaged us from the moment we entered the room. Learning went beyond practice of basic grammar or reading to challenging us to stretch our creativity or to tackle a novel that we might have considered beyond our reach. Learning was meaningfully related to the world we lived in, such as the legendary “Russian Report”, which immersed us in the history and culture of our Cold War rivals. Software, too, can do such things, but it rarely does. Even the best software is only made truly effective with the involvement of the teacher, who works diligently to choose effective titles, to relate them to real-world situations and activities, and who recognizes the importance of a cooperative relationship between teacher and technology.
Whether computer-based or web-based, software is just a tool for learning. What critics and studies such as the one cited by Dobbs rarely address are the instances when such tools expose students to people and places like a textbook or lecture could never do, or the moments when a piece of software actually makes the lightbulb finally go off. Of course, this could be because such moments happen too infrequently, due to any of a number of factors ranging from restrictive, short-sighted administrator policies to a lack of awareness of effective methods on the part of teachers. When software titles are the primary form of computer application in a district, the least that should be done is to thoroughly review the software available and to provide instructors with training in how to effectively incorporate the software into their instruction. As identified by Alessi and Trollip (2001), some characteristics that educational software should display include:
- Clearly stated goals/objectives
- Learning is related to prior knowledge
- Adult control greater than student control (Students should have sufficient ability to navigate the software, but not at the expense of course objectives.)
- Easy-to-use, consistent controls (mouse-controlled whenever possible)
- Intrinsic motivation (Students should see the value of the tasks required by the software.)
- Sufficiently challenging but with ample opportunities for success
- Consistently engaging
The most important thing is that the software be used as a tool in instruction, just as the pencil, paper, or textbook. The same goes for the tools of Web 2.0, of course. Due to their newness, these tools require even greater attention be placed on teacher training. Students, of course, are engaging in self-training in blogs, social networks, file-sharing sites, etc., but their level of awareness is no substitute for a teacher, who is familiar with the resources to such a degree that they are able to envision ways in which they can do things in the curriculum not otherwise possible.
Alessi, S.M., & Trollip, S.R. (2001). Multimedia for Learning: Methods and Development. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.