Back to School There's a lot of bad' educational software, 'but there's also more good stuff than ...ever'


A decade into the home-computer era and high-tech children's education, the information highway has come to look like an expressway: fast and crowded, perilous in the curves, blighted by ticky-tacky - but absolutely necessary to get anywhere.

Avoidance is not an option. U.S. schools are spending $5 billion on computers this year. More than 10 million children signed on to the Internet this summer. Those who hang back are going to miss out.

The problem, though, is the road kill. Fouling children's first computer experiences is shabby, nonrefundable software, craftily marketed to disguise shortcomings until removed from the shrink wrap. Brand names are no protection. Even the best-known companies market some "educational" software that insults the intelligence of children.

But the mastery of the computer may be the best protection and educational solution: Those who learn to negotiate the pitfalls are rewarded by wonderful, once-unthinkable opportunities.

"There's a lot of bad, but there's also more good stuff than there has ever been," says Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children's Software Revue, a magazine that has evaluated more than 3,000 software programs for kids.

Unfortunately, quality isn't always in the economic interest of educational software makers.

"The trouble is that designing software for education is a very costly enterprise that doesn't always translate into sales," says Wayne Harvey, vice president of the Education Development Center in Boston, a nonprofit research firm. "There are ways to do it inexpensively by leaving out the educational values, and a lot of that stuff gets bought. So quality is not necessarily in the economic interests of software makers."

Diane Graham, a Miami Shores mother of three, has known the highs and lows.

She and her husband, Andy, who use a computer to manage a wooden-floor-restoration business from their home, "bought quite a lot of children's software for the first couple of years," Graham says, "but we've slowed down. We found it wasn't all it was cracked up to be."

Among the software was "Math Blasters," highly recommended by Miami-Dade educators. "Our kids needed help in math, and one aspect I liked was the repetition of multiplication tables," Graham says. "But the kids were more excited about opening the box. Consistently, they prefer games like "Toy Story," which isn't educational at all."

This ambivalence is shared by many educators, who in recent years have been reassessing the potential - and limitations - of computers used to help children learn. In fact, some now question the practice of using technology to disguise "hard" schoolwork, such as times tables, as fun.

"Much of what we do is not 'fun' all the time," educational psychologist Seymour Papert argues in the September issue of Children's Software Revue. "We do very boring things very willingly when we know they are part of a larger, personally meaningful whole."

Hector Hirigoyen, past president of the Dade County (Fla.) Council of Teachers of Mathematics, complains that "traditional mathematics software is the drill-and-kill variety. You can buy a $10 pack of flashcards that does the same thing. It's a terrible misuse of time and money."

Often lacking, he says, is software that "asks you to conjecture and formulate, so you're actually thinking." (Sunburst, he says, is one maker of thought-provoking math software for older children.)

A review of computers and student achievement by Larry Cuban, an education professor at Stanford University, found little evidence of a connection.

"The results for achievement and attitude improvement from computer use are mixed at best," Cuban wrote in the summer issue of Technos magazine.

But others argue that much of the research Cuban reviewed was done before the advent of CD-ROMs. Technology improves so fast it's hard to get a reading on its impact.

In a booklet titled Young Kids and Computers: A Parent's Survival Guide, the editors of Children's Software Revue offer a caveat to the popular notion that making a child "computer literate" better prepares that child for the future:

"The risk comes from placing too much emphasis on the computer as a 'must' for children's future welfare. It's a better mind-set to regard computer use as simply one more experience that can support the development of good old-fashioned learning skills, such as being able to read and write, think logically and solve and analyze problems."

But for every negative, parents can find a positive, if they have become skilled computer users themselves, says Christine Master, Miami-Dade schools district director for instructional technology and a mother of two.

For example, she says parents can hardly make a mistake by choosing one of the major computer encyclopedias, which include music, videos and links to other educational Web sites.

Graham agrees, noting that her children love their electronic encyclopedia. "I find them flipping through it on their own, just for fun. I use it, too."

In addition, since most of the home-software market evolved out of the school market, many teachers can recommend good programs.

Among Master's personal favorites are PlaySkool, "anything by DK Multimedia," and the Sim City programs, which are especially popular among gifted students.

Beware of too much reliance on brand names, though. Disney software, for one, generally is considered high quality but includes disappointments, such as the new "Hercules Animated StoryBook." Some software companies, such as Learning Co., actually are conglomerates of many different software makers, and quality can vary.

Besides word-of-mouth recommendations, parents can find free reviews of new children's software online.

One good online source is the Super Kids Educational Software Review (, which rates hundreds of programs on educational value, kid appeal and ease of use.

Pub Date: 9/07/98

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