The family dog, the family car ... the family computer. Computers are showing up everywhere and the home is no exception. Recently, a teacher asked a grade five class how many of them had computers at home. In a class of 26, there were 23 that had a computer, in some cases more than one.
They are there for many reasons, most usually to bring home work from the office. Sometimes the home is the office. Often games are the driving force. Rarely is education the primary reason for buying a home computer, but once it is in the house, almost inevitably, parents look at the screen sitting on the desk and decide that they will use it to help their children get ahead in school.
Years ago finding high quality educational software was difficult. Now the problem is reversed. There is lots of software, how do you chose the best? Although the problem can be frustrating at times, it is well worth the effort. There is nothing quite like the magic of seeing a child struggling with spelling or math all of a sudden playing with words and numbers. In a matter of weeks what was an insurmountable obstacle and source of despair becomes a challenge, a game.
But beware! Many a parent has been lured by shiny packages and glossy magazine articles into the computer store. Their eyes glazed over as the sales person speaks computer jargon ("MS-DOS, 386, 2 Meg RAM, VGA ... you should have no problem") to them. With a light heart they plunk down $89 for the big box that has one diskette in it and go home. And then? Well it depends.
The fine print doesn't say anything about magic. The computer is just a tool and getting it to do stuff for you depends on the choices you make about what you buy, how you use it, who your kids are and why you are doing this in the first place. If this is where you find yourself, then help is on the way. Below you will find valuable educational software information that you will need to know before you can make the right choices for your home.
Computers and Education - Good Idea!
There are many good reasons for integrating computers into your child's education. The first reason is pretty straightforward, computer literacy. No matter what your children will do in life, including going to school, they will be using a computer to write, enter data, collect information or process transactions. The development of a natural facility to use a mouse and keyboard, to locate and store files, and to get a document printed will be essential job skills for our kids. Almost all educational programs will help out with some aspect of computer skills.
A second benefit of educational software is that it can be paced to the child's ability to learn. As a program becomes familiar, it can often be played at a more challenging level. Spelling programs have harder words, math programs have bigger numbers and problem solving problems have more difficult clues. Computers are non-judgmental so there is no risk in making a mistake.
Third, computers provide instant and consistent feedback. This is how flash cards work. If you come up with a wrong answer you find out about it right away. Your brain corrects its mistake at the time it made it rather than later. Unlike flash cards, educational software can provide this feedback in a much richer, more complex, environment.
Fourth, computer software can adapt to a child's strengths and weaknesses. Many programs will monitor responses and adapt program flow as appropriate. There is, of course a debate on what is appropriate. Some developers like to build programs that build on strengths to encourage users to keep on going. Others believe that one should identify errors and continually review until the problems go away. The personality of your child will determine which approach is best.
Fifth, each child has a learning style as demonstrated by Howard Gardner's work at Harvard. Gardner identified seven styles: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal. Most styles will co-exist in every child but some can be predominant and others quite weak. Try as they might, it is unlikely that teachers in a classroom setting will be able to adjust a lesson to suit the student. Software can be more accommodating. Some kids can learn a language by first learning rules of grammar, others have to hear it spoken before they will pick up anything. Multi-media language packages can do both.
Sixth, a computer can provide vast resources at a very low price. Decades ago, if you wanted to help out with your child's education, you might have bought an encyclopedia. Now, most multi-media computers come with a CD-ROM encyclopedia thrown in for free. Entire libraries of classics can be bought for as little as $20. At no time in history has so much information been made available to so many at so small a cost.
Finally, educational software can be fun. Few children will sit down to read a geography book much less an almanac. However, they will sit down with their friends for a game of Carmen Sandiego.
Kinds of Educational Software
Life is like a box of chocolates Forrest. You never know what you're going to get". So said Forrest Gump's momma, and much the same holds true for software. There are many approaches to writing educational software, so it is wise to have some idea of the different types before you buy. Choosing a program is much like selecting a video, a book or a chocolate. Unlike a spreadsheet where you can do an analysis of features to select the "best" one, the variety of methods and style in educational software often makes comparisons difficult. Simpler problem solving programs, or drill and practice are more suited to younger children. Simulations and games tend to be more interesting to older children. Here then are some of the basic types:
Storybooks are a relatively new arrival to the scene. They owe their popularity to the recent surge in sales of CD-ROM drives and multimedia computers. At its simplest level a storybook is just a computer version of a kids book. The graphics screen shows the pictures and text in large type. The child can use the mouse to move from page to page. From this common base, the variations between one program and another can be considerable. Some programs have a narrator speak the words as the page turns. In some cases, individual words are highlighted on the screen as they are read. In others the narration can be turned off so that the child can read, but when a word causes problems the child can click on the word and the computer speaks it. Some story books are multilingual, so that the story can be read in another language, usually French or Spanish. For older children, there are storybooks that provide links to additional information. By clicking on a highlighted word the reader can explore a subject in greater depth.
The story book is emerging as a whole new area of multimedia so we can expect many new titles to emerge in the next few years. Unfortunately, many publishers are rushing onto the bandwagon and creating computer versions of their existing titles by simply scanning in the pictures and text and throwing in a voice overlay to make it "multimedia". This makes for a very expensive book. If all you are getting is a book, you are better off buying a book. Look for software storybooks that are more activity oriented so that you are using the power of the computer.
Problem Solving Programs
Problem solving programs are the classics of learning software. For younger children the focus is on counting games or letter matching activities. These programs can get progressively more complex with subjects like algebra and calculus for teenagers. Many of the older programs can be found in this category. They may not be as slick as the multimedia offerings but often they are of very sound design offering enough variations to keep kids interested. Bear in mind that the new programs may require a new computer with more memory, better screen, sound card and CD-ROM to run. These old classics may be all that will run on your machine. The good news is that the older stuff can often be found at deep discounts, or in combination packages, or even on computer networks.
Another mainstay of learning is drill. Essentially this means exposing the student to some information or concept, testing to see if the student has learned it, then either repeating the information or progressing on to something new. Computerized flash cards are the simplest form of this genre, but there is lots of room for sophistication, especially when sound is introduced. Good drill programs provide a generous blend of interactivity, and links to other related information. Feedback is provided for right and wrong answers. Most importantly, the computer keeps close track of where there are problems and adapts the drill accordingly.
Adults buy word processors and graphics programs. They call them "productivity tools". Children get writing programs and drawing programs and we call them "creativity tools", thereby reflecting a cultural bias that as we grow older we should stop having fun and get to work. Nevertheless, these are among the most popular of children's software packages. They may not be learning any specific subject matter but they sure are developing computer literacy as well as being creative and having a good time.
The childrens' version of tools differ in many respects from the adult versions. They often have easier to use interfaces combined with sound. Erase a word and you hear the gurgling sound of the word being flushed down the drain. Also, children seem to like getting the layout of a birthday card first, then worry about the actual words. Adults would do the opposite - getting the wording down and then fuss with the format.
Adventures, Games and Simulations
Many skills are taught in adventure games - deductive reasoning, experimentation, accounting for items, and predicting behavior of any number of alien beings in different surroundings. Often adventures are built in multiple levels of difficulty so that just as the player gets the hang of it, the game gets very difficult. Simulations are games that duplicate real world processes. Players can try to run a city (hint: don't put the nuclear reactor in a downtown park), or an entire ecosystem. Some let you be a god and bring down plagues and pestilence on entire civilizations. You'll want to get specific advice from someone who has played these games since they can be very difficult.
Also there are games, usually intended for multimedia computers, that are played like a Nintendo or Sega game - but with learning involved. An alien creature will jump in front of you but before you can blast it away you have to answer a math question. Because they combine arcade games with education these programs are sometimes called "arcademics". While at first glance this might not appear to be the best way to go about teaching anything, if you are competing against Nintendo for your child's short attention span, this may appear to be a reasonable choice.
Reference works on a computer go beyond the encyclopedia and dictionary that are the mainstay of the household library. They include text, pictures, sound, and videoclips. Hypertext links allow readers to explore subjects at varying levels of depth. New titles are being released every day. For younger children there are reference programs on animals and dinosaurs. For older students there are titles on space, medicine, and contemporary issues such as sex and drugs.
What to Look For?, What to Do?
The large number of choices can be perplexing for parents. What follows are ten checkmarks for buying software.
(1) One size does not fit all
Make sure that your computer fits the minimum requirements for the software. The box will usually state hardware requirements in terms of processor speed and type, memory (RAM), hard disk space, graphics type, and supported sound card. If the program needs a minimum of four megs of RAM and you only have two, put down the box, it won't run. Also the word "compatible" gets used a lot, as in "the sound card is Sound Blaster compatible". The manufacturer of your sound card and the developer of the software may well have different ideas of what constitutes compatible. This brings us to the next rule.
(2) Try before you buy.
Educational software in stores usually costs between $40 an $90 per package. It comes in a shrink wrapped package and most stores have a strict policy of no returns if the box is opened. This is quite reasonable given that there is a huge risk to them of customers opening the box, installing and copying the software, and then returning it.
Still, there are some things you can do to make sure you're getting what you need. Many larger stores will have demonstration programs loaded on their own computers, just ask them if they have done this so you can try out the program. If it's not already loaded ask them if they will do it. Another method is to ask other parents, or teachers in your child's school if they have used the program you are interested in. There are a number of excellent books that review software and some of them have CD-ROMs on the back cover that include trial versions of many good programs.
If none of the above works, stick with programs that come from the industry leaders in the field.
(3) Be involved - it's your child
One of the neat things about kids and computers is that once they get going they can play on it for hours. A great baby-sitter and good for the kids too. However, kids are not that fond of installing software or of reading manuals, so you are going to have to do this. Do it at a time when the kids are not around. Then, once you have it running and you know how it works, introduce it with some fanfare. Get them going and get them excited. From time to time you will have to check up on them to make sure they haven't gotten stuck on something and become frustrated. Otherwise, let them explore. After all, this is only successful if kids use it on their own.
(4) Are we having fun yet?
There should be a built-in play factor in any software for kids. Even drill programs need to have some challenge combined with rewards for success to grab hold of a child's attention span. The Barbie and Lego are sitting on the floor only a few feet away so if the programs not fun, it won't get used. Give extra points to games that can be played with a friend.
(5) Interaction is the answer
Almost all learning programs will give feedback when a child does well, but some do it better than others. Look for interesting sound effects and good visual clues on the straightforward drill programs. In programs geared to discovery, exploration and learning look for features that permit easy linking to other parts of the program so that each time it is used it seems different.
(6) When the power is off
A big plus of some programs, particularly the creativity tools, is that they are useful after you turn off the computer. Writing programs and encyclopedias can be used for school projects, drawing programs can be used to create birthday cards, or to make hats, masks and paper dolls. The computer just becomes a means to and end.
(7) Is it child friendly?
A good user interface is essential for children's software. Kids just won't sit still for complex key sequences or long periods of inactivity while waiting for something to happen. The interface has to be clean, consistent and easy to understand. One advantage of using software packages from major suppliers is that they often use a common interface when developing a new program. Once you have learned how to use one of their packages, you can use them all.
(8) Those shoes fit last week
Kids are different, kids grow, kids change. One of the advantages educational software has over the schools is that it can often be more exactly suited to the learning style of any particular child. There is so much to choose from that the problem becomes how to select the right one. To do this you have to understand what kinds of things work for your child.
Remember that as children age, programs that were once perfect can easily become a crashing bore. What was perfect for a five year-old may be totally uncool for a seven year-old sibling.
(9) Be careful about content
You won't likely have problems with sex and violence in programs that are billed as educational software. It will never get as bad as what the kids regularly see on television. Nevertheless, there is definitely material of an anti-social nature that can be placed on the hard drive so, if your children are old enough to get their own software from friends, don't assume that it is all geared to wholesome educational purposes.
(10) I'd like a second opinion
Finally, take the time to consult the experts. There are number of excellent books available on the subject of edutainment, some with CD-samplers. There are several magazines that deal exclusively with computing in a family environment. They are all worth looking at, not only to get product information, but also to get up to speed on computers in education, and education in the home.
When Things Go Bump in the Night
Don't get discouraged. Let's face it - computers are inherently complicated things composed of billions of transistors with events happening in millionths of seconds. Although vendors have tried vary hard to make them easy to use, they will never be as easy to use as toasters. So if something goes wrong, don't be afraid to ask for help. Everyone has to some of the time. Don't worry about obsolescence. Your computer and your software will sooner or later become obsolete.
Probably the most pressing issue for parents contemplating a plunge into the educational computer software network is the fear that their children might know more about a product than they do and the children may steer them into purchases that may be poor. If information is what you need, help is on the way. Below you will find a sample list of rated educational software that the Council has tested over the year. By no means is this to be considered a complete list, but it may help out those who are terrified to begin.