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Publishers Reluctant To Develop 'Courseware'

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Rye, NY--As schools increasingly view electronic "courseware" offered via computer as a new teaching tool to be used in conjunction with traditional textbooks, pressure has grown on publishers to fit the new medium to educators' needs and to produce courseware that is demonstrably effective.

The tensions and unresolved questions that such an expanded role for publishers raises were underscored last week by researchers and school officials at a two-day meeting of the schools division of the Association of American Publishers.

Richard Ruopp, president of the Bank Street College of Education in New York City, said some publishers are confused about what their role should be in developing software and how they should spend their dollars in order to realize a reasonable return on their investment.

Much of that confusion, observed Victoria Devlin, marketing manager for the school division of D.C. Heath and Co., stems from the publishers' reluctance to spend large sums of money for courseware until they know what public schools are going to do with computers, where they are going to put them, and what types they will buy.

"If school districts buy microcomputers and keep them in the principal's office," she said, "they will want only materials that manage the day-to-day business of the schools. If they buy computers and put them in every classroom, then they must have software for special subjects and drill and practice. And if they buy computers and place them in a learning center, then they must have programs geared to group use. Until publishers can adequately assess the needs of school districts, it's risky for them to plunge ahead and develop software they might not be able to sell."

But Mr. Ruopp said that software, to be economically attractive to schools, must be highly motivating and must sustain repeated use by a mix of students. Publishers, he added, must be concerned about "re-usability" when creating software for students.

Publishers who make full use of the computer's capacity--employing letters, numbers, graphics, sound, and color--will be more successful, he suggested, at selling their products than those who concentrate on a single dimension in their programs.

Still another obstacle for publishers is the high cost associated with reprogramming the materials for use on a variety of machines. "We've programmed materials for one computer and thought that adapting to a second machine would be easy," said Ms. Devlin, "but all the changes, when taken together, have made the cost of producing the same courseware for many types of machines outrageous."

Most publishers agreed that standardization of equipment would provide a major incentive for publishers to produce high-quality courseware for the classroom.

But they also admitted such changes will take time.

"Many of us are approaching the development of creative software materials for the schools with caution," said Rita Formica, Prentice-Hall's manager for elementary publishing. "We need to research thoroughly their potential uses by teachers and students before we are willing to make a substantial commitment to producing these types of educational materials for the schools."

Jeanette Brewer, superintendent of schools in District 4 in Philadelphia, urged the publishers to be sensitive to the problems faced by school officials during a period of technological innovation.

Too often, according to Ms. Brewer, publishers pilot new materials in the schools without first consulting educators to assess their needs and the suitablity of the programs for their students.

She suggested that consistent communication be established between the educators who use materials in the classroom and the publishers who supply them. Eventually, she said, publishers might market software and printed materials created by teachers to fulfill special purposes.

But Ms. Formica said the substantial investment education publishers must make to develop products for the classroom would "preclude publishing materials by amateurs that might not guarantee mass appeal or wide distribution among students."

Ms. Brewer said publishers must be aware of several areas of concern for schools intent on adequately preparing students for the future. She said that:

Instructional materials--both print-based and electronic--need to be well conceived, well written, and creative in order to capture the interest and imagination of a majority of students.

General curricula must be made adaptable by teachers for use with special students--the learning disabled, mentally retarded, and vision impaired--who are educated in regular classrooms.

Software that emphasizes individualized instruction in all subject areas must become available if students are to benefit from technology as a daily tool for learning.

Better management systems through the use of computers must be provided to teachers to facilitate record-keeping for the diagnosis of student problems, class placement, projections for future progress, academic reports, and notices to parents.

Partnerships between teachers and publishers should be formed to explore the feasiblity of publishing software on narrower but important issues such as sex equity and the effects of technology on society.

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