Educational software finally makes the grade


September 13, 1993|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

When my oldest son was 5 or 6, I made a concerted effort to get him interested in educational software.

I remember one particular "reading-is-fun" program that I thought was terrific. I dragged the lad down to my office, parked him in front of the screen and put him to work.

Being a dutiful child (or at least semi-cooperative), Ike plugged away at it for 15 minutes, but he obviously wasn't enjoying it. Finally, he turned around and said, "Daddy, I do this all day at school. Do I have to do it at home, too?"

Feeling guilty, I handed him a Donkey Kong disk, which made him much happier. I also gave up on educational software for a while, at least in the home environment. I realized that programs that might seem like "fun" in the constrained atmosphere of the classroom were far too tame, repetitious and unimaginative to keep kids interested at home, in competition with TV and video games.

Thankfully, things have changed. Ike started high school last week, and educational software has come of age. Instead of providing repetitious drills barely disguised as simple games or computerized substitutes for workbooks, the best educational programs today are intellectual and sensory delights, encouraging youngsters to explore and solve puzzles in the kind of noisy, colorful environment they find entertaining and stimulating.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, today's computers have enough speed, memory, hard disk space and video horsepower to give programmers the elbow room they need for high-energy graphics, animation and even digitized video. Sound boards have brought these programs alive with voice and music, while CD-ROM drives provide the storage for hundreds of megabytes of graphic and sound information that make the magic possible.

CD-ROM titles such as Just Grandma and Me and Arthur's Teacher Trouble from Broderbund's Living Books series are pushing the envelope with interactive, animated versions of children's favorite books, while programs such as Dinosaur Adventure and Space Adventure from Knowledge Adventure provide a wealth of information in an entertaining format that takes advantage of youngsters' natural curiosity.

Second, software publishers have liberated themselves from the classroom, technically and psychologically.

Apple grabbed early market

A little history here. Apple saw the value of the educational market early on and made a concerted push to win it, offering nTC heavy discounts to school systems and teachers alike and encouraging educational software developers. As a result, during the 1980s, schools loaded up on Apple II computers that were obsolescent even then, while the rest of the world was moving to IBM-compatible machines and friendlier, more powerful Apple Macintoshes.

Before home computers were common, educational publishers had to write for the Apple II to generate enough school-based sales to stay in business. That put technical constraints on their programs that carried over into the retail versions they wrote for IBM-compatibles and even Macs.

OK, I can hear all you Apple II die-hards dipping your pens in poison. I'll concede up front that the machine was a real workhorse that spawned some fine educational software -- including the Carmen Sandiego series that remains a best-seller today. But there are limits to what you can do with a machine that has 128K of memory and two floppy drives.

For example, I just tried out a delightful new title from Paramount called Busytown, based on Richard Scarry's children's books. The program, graphics and music files occupy 13 megabytes of hard disk space, the equivalent of 100 Apple II disks.

The home computer buyers who purchased millions of machines over the last few years have equipment that can run these new programs. Their computers are far more powerful than the equipment in many elementary schools, and tight budgets have made it difficult for school systems to upgrade.

So the educational software market is shifting from the school to the home. As a result, publishers are not only taking advantage of new hardware, but also rethinking the design of their software.

Traditional educational software developers wanted programs that pleased teachers, and teachers (quite rightly) wanted programs that would complement their normal classroom work and keep children involved without creating too much noise or distraction. Transplanted to the home, those programs were often nerdsville.

From school to the home

Now developers are primarily interested in pleasing children, which means a youngster can click the mouse button on a pan of chocolate chip cookies in Arthur's Teacher Trouble and see the cookies turn into a noisy, doo-wop singing group. If educational programs aren't as overtly serious and focused as they were, they're more likely to keep children's attention and are still far more nutritious than afternoon sitcom reruns or kick-and-punch video games.

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