Ellicott City, Md.
Surrounded by books in the Centennial Lane Elementary School library, Sandy McCormick is selling parents on the value of educational software.
She begins by explaining how the Microsoft Corporation's line of "edutainment," reference, and personal productivity titles for the home dovetails with the curriculum in the Howard County, Md., public schools. She tells them that a wise software purchase is really an investment in a child's education.
"You're not buying a toy," she tells the roughly 100 parents gathered for the sales pitch, which Microsoft calls a "family technology night." "You're buying something that will grow with your child and that expands their ability to learn immensely."
Ms. McCormick, a Microsoft sales representative, reminds parents that for every 10 programs they buy at a discount, the school receives one free. This low-key, homey demonstration is one of hundreds being played out in schools around the country, a skirmish in a larger high-stakes battle for the loyalty and disposable income of millions of fledgling computer owners.
American families spent more than a half-billion dollars on education-related software in 1994, almost double the $277 million from the previous year, according to the Washington-based Software Publishers Association. This phenomenal growth has not gone unnoticed in board rooms from Silicon Valley to New York City.
Microsoft, which has a long had a presence in schools, recently began serious efforts to court home buyers of education software, and the Redmond, Wash.-based giant is not alone. Dozens of software developers, textbook publishers, and even film and television companies are muscling in to what once was a close-knit market.
Efforts to crack the home market a decade ago at the birth of the microcomputer revolution proved costly for many companies, noted Linda Duttenhaver, a spokeswoman for Davidson & Associates Inc., an education software publisher. Educational software still accounts for only a fraction of the $7 billion U.S. personal computer software market, with sales lagging far behind games.
But sales of education software for home use are growing so fast that the industry can no longer afford to consider it an insignificant offshoot of the larger school market.
"It used to be that schools drove educational software sales," said Lee Myers, the president of the Educational Software Institute, an Omaha company that buys from publishers and resells to schools. "But sometime in 1994, that situation completely flip-flopped."
Pressure on Schools?
Though one in every three American families now owns a personal computer, some analysts say it is far too soon to tell what effects home computers and educational software may have on schools.
But many believe that as more parents buy the latest computers for their homes, they may pressure schools to update technology that in many cases is obsolescent. (See Education Week, 2/9/94.)
In addition, some predict, that pressure may extend to such larger issues as resource allocation, teacher training, and educational equity in technology.
"Now, you've got all of these parents showing up in the principal's office saying, 'Why don't we have this piece of software?' and 'Why don't we have this hardware?'" Mr. Myers said. "I think the schools are not at all prepared for it."
Some analysts say the market forces could raise the quality of education software available for both homes and schools. Others, however, fear that if schools do not catch up with the home market, they will miss a golden opportunity to provide poor students with equal access to technology.
Consumers bought record numbers of personal computers last year, and many of those machines came equipped with "multimedia" features, such as cd-rom drives, vivid color animation, and stereo sound.
Many parents--including a good portion of those gathered in the library at Centennial Lane Elementary--bought a computer in hopes that it would give their children an edge in school.
"Around here, it's rare to find somebody who doesn't have a computer in the house," explained Harriet Fisher, a parent volunteer who arranged the Microsoft program in this affluent Baltimore suburb.
"And the few parents who didn't have a computer are convinced now that they need one," she added. "They're seeing that if their child doesn't have that at home, they're going to be at a disadvantage."
'Window of Opportunity'
Software companies are hoping to take advantage of that parental concern.
"I think you're seeing that a lot of publishers have seen that window of opportunity," said Kathy Quimby, a spokeswoman for MECC, a 20-year-old education-software developer based in Minneapolis.
Some software developers argue, however, that the influx of new products could diminish the overall educational quality of the programs marketed to parents.
The quality of the thousands of "edutainment" titles on the market varies widely, Mr. Myers said. "Because we don't have a good model of what 'education' is, it allows anybody to lay claim to being an education-software company."
Executives at many of the smaller established companies fear they may be swallowed up by such bigger corporations as Microsoft. One of them is Tom Snyder, the founder of the Watertown, Mass.-based Tom Snyder Productions Inc.
"All of the big companies know that the 'tainment' in 'edutainment' is the biggest part," said Mr. Snyder, who targets the 'one-computer classroom' with his products. "They know they can go out and get game developers, but they feel that, in principle, there should be some pedagogy involved also."
That concern, he said, may lead the newcomers to buy up companies with experience in the education-software field.
Many characteristics of the home market make it more attractive than schools to publishers. Most home computers, for example, are far more powerful than those commonly found in schools.
Although schools are slowly replacing aging hardware, more than half the computers in school laboratories and classrooms are obsolescent machines such as the Apple II and early dos models.
Newer, Faster Computers
Those computers cannot process information fast enough to run many multimedia programs, most of which are appearing in the cd-rom format. Combining animation, sound, and text, these programs allow children to learn geography, for example, by tracking "international criminals" around the globe, or by planning and embarking upon simulated journeys on the Yukon Trail or the Amazon River.
The greater power of home machines influenced the 3M Corporation's development of an interactive product based on "Newton's Apple," the public-television science series underwritten by the company. Last year, 3M decided to market the product--which is designed for children in the elementary and middle school grades--primarily to home buyers.
Though the company hopes to break into the school market, where "Newton's Apple" videotapes are popular, it probably would not have developed the software series without the promise of potential revenue from home sales, said David Iverson, the education product manager for St. Paul-based 3M.
Though such programs will not function on most schools' older computers, Mr. Iverson acknowledged that educators have good reason to be skeptical of the new wave of software as a reason to upgrade their equipment.
"The teachers and schools have been frustrated by the fact that computers change so rapidly," he said. "They're tired of hearing, 'Well, you need to upgrade one more time, and then you'll be able to get what you want.'"
Parents as Customers
Another reason companies are targeting home buyers is that selling software to schools remains a costly and cumbersome process, rife with red tape.
Schools often have little money to spend, and they may have curricular or other constraints on what they can buy. Also, the variety of machines found in schools has forced companies to develop several versions of the same programs--a costly undertaking, Ms. Quimby said.
Several industry experts noted that schools are slowly upgrading technology and becoming more attractive to sellers of software.
"I think the school market is bigger than people believe," said Sue Kamp, the S.P.A.'s education section manager.
Even so, software publishers say, selling to parents remains simpler. Within the constraints of the family budget, most are free to buy whichever product they believe will benefit their children.
That freedom persuaded Wordperfect/Novell of Orem, Utah to launch a line of children's mathematics and word-processing software for the home, said Dan Rask, the company's product marketing director for home education.
"I think we're a perfect example of a company that has seen that the explosion of interest in home computers is going to be the primary means by which we get new products out into the marketplace," he said.
Implications for Schools
Observers speculate that the rise in home sales could affect schools in several ways.
The most optimistic view is that the resources large software companies can commit to the market will elevate the quality of software in homes and, by extension, the software used in schools.
Mr. Snyder, however, cautions that the success of a software program in the one-on-one home environment does not guarantee its effectiveness in the classroom, where 30 or more children interact at once.
Ms. Quimby, on the other hand, worries that schools will miss a chance to provide poor children with access to the same technology that more well-to-do families have in their homes. That failure, she says, would assist the rise of new classes of "information haves and have-nots."
Mr. Rask believes that, as more and more children are exposed to high-quality multimedia instruction in their homes, schools will be forced to take notice.
"What I am struck with, above all, is that kids are instantly grasping onto software tools to learn at their own pace," he said. "We're creating a generation of overachievers, and our educators will be in trouble if they don't know what to do about it."
A Rare Opportunity
Several experts said the rapid growth of the home market, coupled with the spread of advanced telecommunications networks, have given schools an excellent opportunity to strengthen ties with the home.
Many publishers, said Ms. Kamp of the software trade group, are mulling the idea of developing school software that includes a homework component and guidelines for parents.
Two California companies, the Lightspan Partnership Inc. of San Diego and the Computer Curriculum Corporation of Sunnyvale, are testing home-school "on-line connections." (See Education Week, 1/11/95.)
Such connections might enable teachers to send parents computer messages with daily summaries of homework assignments or allow students to collaborate on assignments from their homes.
Other experts say schools also have a rare chance to guide parents in buying software that best meets a district's teaching goals.
A recent survey by the Software Publishers Association showed that parents are most likely to choose education software recommended by their child's teacher.
Mr. Myers of the Educational Software Institute said a recent trade show in California illustrated the uncertainty of parents faced with the overwhelming variety of software products.
Though parents at the show frequently asked him to recommend educational software for their new computers, most were reluctant to buy--even when he showed them products that would do exactly what they asked for, he said.
"They had the confidence to make the hardware purchase, but they didn't have the confidence to make the software purchase," Mr. Myers said. "They realized they were making a curriculum decision."