The major kinds of software are described, rather artificially, in the categories below. Games represent one of the largest segments of the industry, but these are not considered in any detail in this discussion.

Productivity - Often referred to as tool software, this category includes the fundamental core of software programs essential for general productivity as a competent student or professional. These include word processing, spreadsheet, database, and graphics programs. Specialized programs will be important to specific disciplines and jobs, but these core programs are important for almost everyone.

Drill and Practice - Much maligned by teachers and the popular press, drill and practice software represents one of the earliest specialty areas in educational and training software dating back to the mainframe days of the 1960s. Despite the criticisms, drill programs in math, typing, and other areas can be effective and useful to certain students under the right conditions.

Drill and practice provides students with practice on concepts they have already learned. Good drill and practice provides feedback and explains how to get the correct answer. Some contain student management systems that keep track of student progress. Two of the most popular titles of this type are Math Blaster, and Number Munchers, by Minnesota Educational Computer Consortium.

Problem Solving - With increased emphasis on problem solving skills, a number of titles have appeared that promise to improve thinking and reasoning ability. One popular program is the Oregon Trail which creates problems for students to solve in a wagon trip in 1850. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego and its subsequent variations, is probably the most well known.  There are now many kinds of similar software, stand alone and on the Internet, but the efficacy has not been thoroughly investigated.

Tutorials - A tutorial is designed to teach a new skill or knowledge. Many tutorial programs have been developed for education and training at all levels, and these are especially popular with the military.  Multimedia applications are increasingly popular.

Demonstration and Presentation - The most prevalent software in this category is PowerPoint, which is used to make a slide show.  This may be the most widely used application of professors and teachers for synchronous presentations to accompany lectures and speeches.

Reference - These are electronic forms of encyclopedias, atlases, dictionaries, and other informational databases.

MultiMedia - While this has been a separate category, all it really means is that a software program incorporates sound, graphics, animation, video, and pictures. Many software programs on the Internet and CD-ROM have comprehensive programs that use all these elements for entertainment and instruction.

Simulation - A simulation is a facsimile or "virtual" activity offering a student the ability to vicariously experience something through a computer without actually suffering the consequences of mistakes, such as flying, driving, or engaging in some scientific experiment. As in other cases, the distinctions between categories can become blurred. For example, with more intensive graphics and audio, the Orgeon Trail could qualify as a simulation rather than only problem solving. On the other hand, a simulation, such as Sim City, which simulates growth and planning problem for city planning, certainly requires problem solving.

The Computer as a Tool

Although even pre-school and kindergarten children may use computers, and there is a "Writing to Read Program" available for children this young, most children around the third grade are able to begin to learn keyboarding skills, although there is considerable debate about this practice and the desirability of training children in such skills.  Some writers are especially worried about children using computers for fear they will become socially stunted, isolated, or otherwise damaged by unknown effects of the equipment on both psychological and physical development.  So far there is little evidence to answer such questions.

Computer-Assisted Instruction.  Although students may use CAI, the teacher should be careful to explain the purpose of using software at school. Children should not think that computer use is for entertainment, even in a game format, and especially their parents should be made to understand this distinction. This does not mean that students should not enjoy using the computer, but its use in most classroom activities, most of the time, will be educational and not recreational. If popular games are played, children and parents may get the notion that the teacher is wasting time in frivolous pursuits. There are some excellent educational programs designed in game formats, but everyone should know the difference between these and those that have no substance other than pure entertainment. Students should be given a review and demonstration of the types of software, such as drill, tutorial, simulation, problem solving, and games, and receive an overview of their purposes.

Other Uses of Computers for Students

Subject Matter

The curriculum subjects of American education are Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, Language Arts, and Fine Arts. At the elementary level, mathematics, language arts (reading and writing), and fine arts are emphasized. At the Kindergarten and 1-3 grade levels, reading software is the most prominent, followed closely by mathematics software. At the 4-6, 7-8, and 9-12 grade levels, mathematics software is the most predominant category. In the last few years, the WorldWideWeb (WWW) has made it possible to provide a wide range of learning activities and resources for teachers and students. In the past, the emphasis was on specific commercial software packages for use in the classroom, but the WWW has expanded the horizons far beyond individual software and CD-ROM applications.

Science and social studies are introduced in the middle grades, and gradually students are introduced to highly specialized content in each area. Mathematics is ultimately divided into geometry, algebra, and pre-calculus. Science is split between the physical sciences and biology. Reading drops out as a subject, except for occasional reference to study skills, and students may become immersed in English ranging from parsing sentences to writing themes and studying literary greats. Social studies focuses on history, and there is now a trend to reemphasize geography. Fine arts becomes an elective for most high school students who may play in the orchestra or the band and engage in specialized visual arts.

Mathematics and Science

The computer was originally a device to "crunch" numbers, thus it seemed to fall within the domain of mathematicians. Mathematics is increasingly important to the future of American technology, and the computer can be both an instructional device for teaching mathematics as well as a tool for engaging in mathematics study and applications to real problems. Currently the entire mathematics curriculum is being changed at the university level, as professors of mathematics and education deal with ways to make it more attractive and interesting to students.

Although most students are able to demonstrate competency in computational skills, the overwhelming majority are incapable of solving problems requiring several successive steps (Dossey et al. 1988). This has caused a closer examination of teaching and the school curriculum, with recommendations for changes in curricula, teaching methodologies, and assessment techniques (Steen, 1989). Metacognition strategies are emphasized by new reformers, meaning that students must be active participants in their own learning rather than passive receivers of knowledge. This requires interactivity and feedback, something that cannot be accomplished by classroom instructional techniques alone for each student.

Mathematics is dependent upon feedback and corrective learning, more so than subjects dependent upon reading and memorization, although teaching strategies in mathematics often emphasize teaching by telling, rote, and memorization of rules (Cooney, 1988). If students miss key concepts in mathematics and sufficient practice in applications, failure may be certain because the foundation for future learning is absent. There have been many recommendations to reform how mathematics is taught (e.g. McKnight, 1987; Alliance of Business, 1987).

The computer can become a very useful tool in the elementary curriculum and at higher grade levels to enhance and improve achievement. Also, there is a trend toward integrated instruction of science and math, and the computer can serve this role as a multimedia device. Results of computer-assisted instruction in mathematics has been very positive. Children who use the computer as a tutor make great gains in mathematics achievement. Even drill programs give children a lot more interaction with math concepts and problems.

Programming Instruction

Early in the computer movement, there was an emphasis on computer literacy, which was interpreted to mean programming instruction for students of all ages. The main reasons for this were:

(1) schools could not afford to buy many computers, so the few they purchased were housed in labs;

(2) most software was poor, and teachers had difficulty incorporating lessons in the lab with classroom activities; and

(3) the only effective way to use a computer was to program it.

The Office of Technology Assessment ( reported that results of research on programming instruction are mixed, and there is no overwhelming evidence to believe that programming improves mathematics achievement. In this respect, LOGO and BASIC, two popular programming languages used in schools, have not been shown to improve thinking skills in general, as hoped by many practitioners (Palumbo, 1990).

In the 1940s, E. L. Thorndike, the "father" of educational psychology, challenged the theory that the brain is a muscle and, through a series of investigations, was able to demonstrate that mental discipline training did not actually exercise various mental faculties. Students who completed courses in Latin or Geometry were no better at solving logical problems than students who had not taken these courses. The emphasis was shifted to transfer of learning, the theory that the knowledge bases must be specifically applied to problems and that those who are well-grounded in a knowledge base will more easily solve novel problems.

Computer programming languages do not apparently teach, either specifically or incidentally, the language of mathematics, logic or thinking skills. Children may be able to make computer programs but not be able to demonstrate transfer to other types of problems where thinking is required for solutions and planning. du Boulay (1980) reported that students who experience difficulty learning mathematical concepts also have difficulty learning programming concepts. The conclusion was that learning to program required a lot of time, time that could be devoted to learning mathematics directly.

Math and Science Software

The percentage of software for mathematics by areas is skewed in favor of basic skills. Science software is more abundant at the high school. Secondary schools are reluctant to use software. However, where such software is used, there have been good results. High school students who used computer simulations to learn Newtonian laws of motion achieved significantly more than students who did not use the program (White, 1984). Microcomputer-based laboratories (MBL) have been used to provide students with discovery tools for measuring natural phenomena, such as properties of light, heat, and sound . If children are permitted to use an inquiry-based approach with such tools, they apparently learn much. However, if the teacher forces the children to watch a demonstration rather than experiment, the value is far less. Mokros and Tinker (1987) and Thornton (1985) reported that children were able to reveal an understanding of distance and velocity after using graphing programs on computers. One of the problems with inquiry-based or discovery approaches is that they take time and do not fit neatly into the school day and into lesson plans.

Language Arts

No subject in American public schools has received more attention and resources than reading (Haberman, 1989). But it is worth noting that computers will not interfere with reading nor with interest in books. In many ways, the computer can support and even create an interest in reading about many topics.

Except for math, the majority of software packages have been developed for language arts activities. Those who benefit the most from reading software are low-achieving and minority children. Many studies have shown the computer to be highly effective with these pupils. Roth and Beck (1987) reported on success with low-achieving, poor black children using reading recognition programs. Olson and Wise (1987) report on successful gains of poor readers who used a computer program with audio feedback.

Vocabulary, grammar, and spelling have received far less attention from software developers, but computers are useful indirectly, at least. The computerized spell checker and Thesaurus have apparently benefited many writers of all ages. There are also some grammar checkers. Expanded use of word processing programs has apparently had a beneficial effect in education for motivating children to write. Some schools teach keyboarding at an early age and introduce word processing. Many secondary teachers use word processing, especially in English classes. Some particularly useful sites for writing instruction are these:

Adaptive and Assistive Technology

There are many, diverse applications of specialized software and hardware for disabled children and adults. These include positioning, mobility, and ergonomics, which is particularly important for the classroom.   Augmentative and alternative communication systems that enable people with speech and language disabilities to communicate with others more effectively.
There are numerous devices for sensory disabilities (blindness, visual impairment, low vision) and auditory (deafness and hearing impairment, hard-of-hearing) impairments.  Many of these systems are also helpful with students who have learning disabilities.

Software Evaluation

One of the early concerns about educational software was quality. The original intent of software evaluation was to determine if a product waseffectiveor the extent to which it matched or surpassed traditional instruction as measured by achievement or gain scores on tests. In a research design students can be carefully matched with others in order that two or more groups might learn the same content but under different treatments. Very often software evaluation is based on expert opinion. Using an instrument or set of criteria, a professional educator reviews a piece of software and makes a subjective evaluation about its quality. Research and expert opinion are highly different approaches to software evaluation. Obviously research takes time and costs money; expert opinion is easier to obtain.  With rapid expansion of the WWW, many are now concerned with evaluation of web sites.  It is a practical impossibility to evaluate millions of web sites and hundreds of thousands that are added each year.  As a result, there is now greater emphasis on teach "media literacy" to students so they can be better consumers.

Importance of evaluation

Evaluation is important to be certain that available resources for software are used wisely. Textbooks and other materials purchased in the school are approved for use, sometimes at the state and local levels, by various committees. The tremendous growth of the software industry has made evaluation at the classroom level even more important. In the past, with fewer options, the best software was easier to identify. Teachers must be certain that software they use in the classroom matches the curriculum goals of the school and is also correlated with the needs of students at various levels.

Evaluation Approaches. The principal goal of software evaluation is to determine those software programs that could be used in classrooms with particular students. Most software in education is evaluated by expert opinion using private or explicit criteria. Unlike a book or video tape which can receive a cursory overview, software requires more effort. The evaluator must load the program and work through the lessons in order to make judgments. Many teachers do not have the time to do this. Therefore teachers often rely on evaluations done by others which can be found in various places as printed information or on-line. A number of computer magazines and professional journals publish reviews of software, some school districts and states have provided software evaluation data, and professional groups have been established for the purpose of evaluating software. It should be remembered that "bad" software may be effective software, and "good" software may be ineffective because experts have rated them rather than actually testing them with learners to determine effectiveness.

Evaluation Criteria

In the final analysis, software is only acceptable if it meets local educational needs of students. The following aspects must be considered.

Content Accuracy. The content should be current, free of factual errors, improper use of statistics or inaccurate graphical displays. If content does not fit with a particular theoretical approach of the reviewer, it should be noted as such but not necessarily criticized. The content should have educational value; it should meet the needs of a common school curriculum or that of a specific school or classroom in question. It should be free of racial, ethnic, or sexual stereotypes.

Documentation. Although many programs have increasingly included help and other informational features on the software itself, it is desirable that documentation be provided in some source, usually most useful in a booklet or manual. The manual should provide clear, important information. The goals, objectives, and warranty statements should be prominent. In some cases, lesson plans and associated activities may be provided, enhancing the software to teachers.

Use. The software should be easy to operate, but this should be judged from both the teacher's perspective and that of the student. For example, the directions and other information should be easy for students to understand and use, without the need for too much supervision from the teacher. Most software will operate from a menu, which may or may not use icons. Menu based systems should not have too many sub-levels, where students get lost. For children in general, and younger children in particular, responses required should be logical and limited to a few function keys. If a particular set of keys are used for responses in one part and then changed later, confusion and frustration can result. It is also desirable to be able to bypass directions and informational screens.

Instructional Characteristics. The following should be considered:

Technology has been and will continue to play a large part in instructional management. Computer software has already been developed for many areas of instructional management including computer managed instruction; grade reporting; test generation and reporting; Individual Education Programs (IEPs); student reports for students, parents, teachers, and administrators; computer-based testing; and integrated learning systems (ILS).

Computer-Managed Instruction (CMI). This category refers to any type of program that records instructional events for educators: school, class, and student records; generating test items; scoring tests; performing statistical analyses on test scores; making diagnostic/prescriptive recommendations; and monitoring student progress. In actuality, CMI programs incorporate features of word processing, spreadsheets, and databases, and may be combined with specific kinds of linkages to create reports. A particular CMI program may have one or a combination of these features: the computer may provide tests, print reports, keep frequent records on student responses/progress, generate recommended materials or activities, and print reports on the proper forms.

Recordkeeping. One aspect of CMI that technology is especially suited for is recordkeeping. Electronic gradebooks have been available for many years. Advantages of using electronic gradebooks also were discussed by Vockell and Schwartz. One of the main advantages is that once scores are entered, it is relatively simple to perform additional functions (weighing, averages, etc.) on those scores. Other advantages including saving time, computer generated report cards, and recalculation of grades when changes are made. One of the main disadvantages or shortcomings of electronic gradebooks is inflexibility. Many of the electronic gradebooks are designed to record and average scores, and prepare reports.

Prescriptive Learning. Computer creation of the Individual Education Program (IEP) is representative of this type of program. Most schools will not rely upon this system strictly, because if test analyses are involved, a psychologist and special teachers must be involved in making decisions about test profiles.

Computer-based Testing. Many schools, especially in large districts, use computerized testing for tracking student progress and achievement. Teachers may develop and enter their own test items into a test generation program, but the validity (the extent to which measurements correspond with criteria) and reliability (same results over repeated administrations) must be established first. At the very least, the teacher should develop sampling domains for test items, regulate the number of items from a particular domain according to the extent they relate to outcomes and the opportunity to learn, and coordinate them with objectives.

In some districts, tests are kept on computer or students take tests which are "scanned" (optical scanning) and scored by the computer, with reports sent to the teacher. Reports can provide complete information about the statistical properties of the test, such as the mean, mode, median, standard deviation, standard scores, percentile ranks, standard error of measurement, and other properties. As computers become more available in classrooms, teachers will use them for assistance with paperwork and testing. The cost of test generation programs runs from very inexpensive shareware to expensive programs that generate a multitude of statistics including item response theory.

Integrated Learning System (ILS). An ILS is a special type of program developed by less than a dozen companies in the United States. ILS programs are developed primarily for the elementary level. Designed to work on a network, usually on equipment installed by the company, they combine computer-managed instruction with lessons in the basic skills (reading, math, writing, and science). Systems vary, from presenting lessons and generating reports for the teacher to examining and revising instruction as students interact with the programs.

The major producers of ILS are Jostens Learning Corporation. These programs are not common in public schools because of the expense, but a sufficient number of districts purchase such programs, usually with federal funds, making it a profitable segment of the industry.

The problem confronting schools using ILS is to establish congruence between lessons in the computer curriculum and the approved school curriculum, and to involve teachers in the process. Ultimately, comprehensive programs of this type will be very useful in all subject matter of the curriculum, especially in the higher grades. However, the prices will have to become more competitive, especially in education where resources will be limited.

Performance-Based Assessment. In performance-based assessment the examinee performs some task that requires an in-depth understanding of a skill rather than just reciting knowledge or recalling facts. Performance-based assessment is not new; it has been used in business and management for many years, and has recently received a lot of attention in educational areas. One area of interest is the use of technology in performance-based assessment.

Computer simulations have been used in assessment, but most allow the teacher to see only a finished product, not how the examinee arrived at that product. Information on the student's decision-making process would provide valuable information for teachers. Video-taping is another use of technology in assessment which has been widely used.

One of the most widely used types of performance-based assessment is portfolios. Many of the schools using portfolios do not manage them with technology, which could ease the physical burden of dealing with and storing large amounts of information. Some schools do use technology in the management of portfolio.


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