Despite First Impressions, Experts Hail Software's Quality Gains
For many classroom teachers, the microcomputer "revolution" of the early 1980's fizzled as rapidly as it had begun when they tried in vain to integrate a first generation of generally bland, uninspired, and error riddled software into their lesson plans.
"In many cases, the software was so bad that it didn't run," said Geoffrey Fletcher, who oversees the educational technology office of the Texas Education Agency. "Instructional design was not very good, and portrayals of gender and ethnicity were fairly simplistic."
As the premise of new technology faded in many quarters, many disappointed educators concluded that "'there is no good educational software'," said Ann Lathtop, an associate professor at California State University at Long Beach who coordinates software evaluation for the California Department of Education.
But, she added, "I'm very sick of people saying [that]."
"it's a truism and a holdover from the fact that the very first software was very trivial," she said. "In fact, there was so much trivial software, it kind of drowned out the good stuff."
Other computer-using educators are even more blunt in characterizing the negative attitude toward educational software.
"I view it as another form of education bashing," said LeRoy Finkel, the director of media services for the San Mateo, Calif., office of education and the editor of the CUE Newsletter, which is distributed to 10,000 computer-using educators nationwide. "And it's an uninformed extension of education bashing."
The truth, Mr. Finkel and others say, is that nearly a decade after microcomputers became a fixture in the nation's classrooms, many of the estimated 11,000 education software programs available today are far superior to those early efforts. Educators today, they contend, have ready access to a diverse array of sophisticated software.
In addition, many believe that the development of easier-to-use personal computers and more versatile electronic storage media such as the compact disk bode well for even more sophisticated and useful programs in the future. "This is a very exciting time," said Warren Buckleitner, who edits an annual guide to young children's software for the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation.
Quality Versus Quantity
Observers agree that one of the most striking differences in educational computing today is the sheer number of software programs available.
"I have one part-time secretary just dealing with the daily actions of software companies," said Marvin Koontz, who heads the educational technology program for the Fairfax County, Va., public schools.
But, more important, said Anita Best, who edits The Computing Teacher, a journal of the International Society for Technology in Education, is that the problems that plagued early education programs-from on-screen typographical errors to blatantly inaccurate data--are practically nonexistent today.
"In a technical sense," she said, "software has improved."
Even so, experts say, only a handful of the hundreds of new programs released each year can be described as exemplary.
The editors of Only the Best, an annual guide of the most highly rated educational programs, point out that, of the roughly 11,000 programs available, only 185 met their criteria for inclusion in the 1991 edition.
A cumulative edition covering the years 1985 to 1990 contains only 914 highly rated programs.
Mr. Buckleitner also noted that, while his publication this year reviewed 80 new programs, "over half of them are really not good at all."
Nevertheless, he emphasized, the mass of average and poor products masks the emergence of a strong cadre of educational-software publishers whose work is on the "cutting edge," including Broderbund, Davidson & Associates, and Tom Snyder Productions Inc.
"Not all of the software is higher quality, but what's happened is that, at the upper edge, the best has gotten better," he said.
Ms. Lathtop said the record of the software industry compares favorably with that of any other type of publishing.
"The analogy with book [publishing] is excellent," she said. In that field, "you get a few best sellers, and one or two Pulitzer Prize winners, and nobody's surprised at the general
quality of the majority of the work."
No 'Radical' Change
Many educators may not have noticed the improvement of educational software because it has been a gradual process, said James A. Mecklenburger, a consultant for the Software Publishers Association.
The change, he noted, has been incremental, subtle, and more a refinement of basic concepts rather than a radical departure from what was offered in the early days of microcomputing.
"We haven't had such radical improvement in software that you'd look around and say that is different from before," said Mr. Mecklenburger, the former executive director of the National School Boards Association's Institute for the Transfer of Technology to Education.
But, he added, "the bottom-line test is: 'Is software better in that it helps educators and students be more successful?' It seems to me that there's some kind of prima-facile, anecdotal evidence that it is so."
Mr. Mecklenburger also noted that, despite the growing sophistication of software programs, the entire field of software development is still in its infancy.
Drawing an analogy to the early days of the motion-picture industry, he noted that, while today's software may not be perfect, it is the product of some important refinements over the past decade or so.
"Ten years after the movie industry began, movies were better than the 'Great Train Robbery,' "he said. "But most of the movies made in 1915 were better than the movies made in 1901, and the movies made in 1985 were better than those made in 1965."
Today, he said, software developers are much more experienced in their craft and in instructional design. In addition, he noted, the early software was designed to run on much less powerful machines than are now readily available.
A New Diversity
The educational-software market also shows a growing diversity, as older programs are refined and publishers that once ignored the school market have begun to tailor their programs to educators' needs.
While tool software--programs such as word processors, spreadsheets, and data bases--has long been on the market, these powerful programs are now much more widely used, said Gary Watts, a specialist in educational technology for the National Education Association.
In addition, he said, educational publishers have produced their own versions of some tool software.
"If they have a decent computer, there isn't a junior-high school in the country that couldn't be publishing its own newspaper or books of poetry," he said.
David O'Connor, the vice president and general manager of the educational-software division of Addison Wesley, noted that his company has begun selling special educational versions of such popular programs as "Lotus 1-2-3," one of the best-selling spreadsheet programs ever written. The educational versions come complete with special documentation and teachers' guides.
But some observers caution that the newest trends in educational computing--including such developments as "multimedia systems" that combine still and video images with sound--may not represent important pedagogical advances.
Yesha Sivan, the coordinator of the Technology in Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, argues that, while pedagogically sound software is now available for even the simplest of microcomputers, the surge toward multimedia applications may result more from effective advertising than from pedagogical concerns.
"The basic question is: 'Is technology doing the core things that we need to do?'. he said. "Presenting pictures and films and stuff like that, is that a major breakthrough in terms of teaching literacy, in terms of teaching numeracy, and teaching thinking skills? I'm not sure."
Multimedia is currently a buzzword in the software industry and is not without its critics, who argue that developers are simply trading on a vague notion to sell their machines.
"What is multimedia?" Mr. Sivan asked. "I actually thought of developing a course called hate multimedia because nobody knows."
But Ms. Lathrop said that the development of relatively simple programming languages, such as Apple Computer Inc.'s HyperCard and the International Business Machines Corporation's LinkWay, both of which are used to develop multimedia presentations, is "what's going to bring computers into the mainstream of education."
Mr. Fletcher of the Texas Education Agency said such programs, with their relative ease of use, are helping to pave the way for more complex programs that will allow students, working independently, to create far more sophisticated computerized term papers and presentations drawn from a variety of original sources.
The quality of computer-aided instruction has also improved as developers have focused more on higher-order thinking skills in such popular and well-regarded programs as the "Carmen San Diego" geography series and "Rocky's Boots," a program by the Learning Company that helps students to develop their skills in logic.
And, although many educators discredit such applications, the quality of so-called "drill and practice" software also has improved, observers note.
"The critical issue today with software is not so much the quality," said Rita Oates, who heads the technology office of the Dade County, Fla., public schools and who has used computers since she was a high-school student in the late 1960's. "The real problem is we can't blame the software anymore, we have to take the responsibility for using it well or using it badly."
Educational software is also easier to use today, Mr. Mecklenburger and others noted, because of improvements in the "interface," or the internal software that guides the interaction between the machine and the user.
In the early days of personal computing, no such standards existed throughout the industry, and users faced a confusing array of incompatible systems.
Today, a standard and reliable syntax exists involving the use of "icons," pull-down menus, and the "mouse," thus providing some rudimentary standardization for computer users.
"To return to the movie analogy, it's just like at one time there was no close-up, and no pan, and no longshot," he said. "All of that stuff had to be invented."
Mr. Buckleitner of the High/Scope Foundation added that many educators were discouraged by the plethora of manufacturers who entered the educational market in its early days.
But recent hardware developments-such as low-cost color monitors, reasonably priced hard-disk drives, "user friendly" screen interfaces, and sound capability--not only will allow software developers to stretch their limits, but will make it easier to learn how to use the machines.
"All of these things have decreased the learning curve" for novice users, Mr. Buckleitner said.
Mr. Sivan of Harvard was quick to note, however, that, while hardware advances may well improve ease of use, they do not guarantee that software written for a new machine will be an improvement over what already exists in the market.
Experts agree that advances in software development have not always been accompanied by a change in the way educators view the role of microcomputers in teaching.
"The single biggest problem [with using computers in education] today is the lack of support from the administration,'' said Ms. Oates of the Dade County schools.
Too frequently, she argued, administrators with no computer background fail to purchase sufficient copies of software, forcing teachers into unwilling software piracy to meet their instructional needs.
Other times, administrators do not understand the additional maintenance needed to keep computers functioning properly, Ms. Oates said.
Paradoxically, the increased availability, diversity, and reliability of software may also dissuade many teachers from experimenting with untried software, some observers say. "In the [early 1980's], you had to hunt hard to find something in your [instructional] area," Mr. Watts of the N.E.A. said. "You used to have to be a scavenger."
"Now," he added, "you have to be a good selector, which raises a whole bunch of questions about the role of state departments [as software reviewers]."
Kenneth Komoski, the executive director of the Educational Products Information Exchange Institute, a New York-based consumer group, said that teachers often are not exposed to the information they need to evaluate software critically.
Mr. Komoski, whose group recently helped launch a five-state consortium that distributes an online list of all available educational software, said that, even though some 40 independent and state-supported agencies perform evaluations, "if you aggregate all of the evaluations, only a third of the software has been evaluated by anybody."
Educators thus get the impression that there are only a few high-profile programs of value to educators, he said.
Mr. Finkel of the San Mateo schools agreed that the improvements in technical quality are not widely advertised because teachers generally are not exposed to the best of what is available.
And often, he added, novice computer users are the last to receive the latest software.
Districts "give [them] the old machine, they give [them] the old software," he said. "Whenever I do workshops, whenever I show teachers software, I always show them the cutting-edge stuff, so that they have something realistic to compare."