Reviews of educational software often read as if they were written about a blockbuster special effects movie. The reviewer—frequently a newspaper's technology or business editor—rates the "gee-golly-whiz" factor of the software's pyrotechnics and determines whether the program delivers its promised thrills, chills, action, and adventure. Children will learn, it's assumed, if the software can keep them glued to the screen.
Sorting through such razzle-dazzle to find out whether a product educates as well as entertains is getting easier, though. State education departments, school districts, and a few education groups have begun evaluating software as classroom tools rather than toys that sneak in learning as kids play ["Other Resources," in this issue].
The SchoolNet Software Review Project is one of the most interesting of these new efforts. Funded by the state of Ohio and the federal government, it was started in 1996 by a handful of teachers in the Columbus, Ohio, suburb of Reynoldsburg who worried that schools weren't spending their software dollars wisely. "Too much software was being purchased without any thought to what skills and learning it was supposed to work on," explains Marlie Griffin, a special education teacher at Taylor Road Elementary School.
By the summer of 1996, faculty from Taylor Road and nearby Reynoldsburg High had developed a "protocol" for reviewing software, essentially a checklist of questions for teachers to answer as they tested software. Most of the questions were aimed at determining how students learned with the software and what they learned, but the protocol was also designed to determine the flexibility and efficiency of the program. The questions ranged from the substantive—Does the software encourage collaboration?—to the technical—How easy is the software to install? And with each, the reviewer assigned a rating—1 being the lowest, 5 being the highest—as a measure of the software's effectiveness.
Using this protocol and an expanded version developed in 1997, about 35 teachers across Ohio have tested and rated more than 350 software packages, CD-ROMs, videodiscs, and other multimedia packages. These evaluations are posted on the World Wide Web, making for an exhaustive database of software reviews by teachers and for teachers.
To look at the reviews, go to www.enc.org/rf/ssrp. Below, we've profiled 16 software packages that the Ohio teachers rated highly. The choices reflect the biases of the Ohio project and its teachers. For example, although some teachers might find use for drill-and-practice software, this rating system favors software more oriented to problem-solving and inquiry.
Also, the Ohio teachers measured how effectively the programs supported both Ohio and national standards in math, English, and science, and some teachers may not agree with those standards.
In the profiles below, we've supplemented the teachers' comments and evaluations with product descriptions, system requirements, and other information. With some products, manufacturers have released new versions since the teachers' review.
Prices listed are for a single copy of "school editions" of the software (if offered). These usually come with a teacher's guide, activities, and lesson plans. The age recommendations listed are from the SchoolNet Software Reviews; publishers' recommendations may vary.
—Drew Lindsay and Julie Hope Kaufman
National Geographic Society, P.O. Box 10597, Des Moines, IA 50340-0597; (800) 368-2728. $375. Disk: Macintosh System 7.0 or later; Windows 3.1 or later.
Recommended grades: 3-6.
Description: The software's activities are designed as an eight-week curriculum unit in which students conduct original research on the sources of acid rain in their community and the pollutant's environmental impact. Students use pH paper to measure the acidity of common household liquids, build rain collectors, measure the acidity of local rainwater, and record and report their results on computer-generated charts, graphs, and maps. The program is part of an international National Geographic telecommunications project, and each class is assigned nine to 15 other classes around the nation as research teammates. All teams report their findings to the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., where a scientist helps track patterns in data.
Strengths: Teachers rated the software a 5 in three of the four categories. "This would be a great class project."
Caveats: Offers little guidance for students to operate without supervision. It must be run in conjunction with the National Geographic's NGS Works, a $200 program for word processing, painting, and creating data notebooks, graphs, and maps. Classes must have an Internet connection.
Noteworthy: Rated "exemplary" by the California Instructional Technology Clearinghouse. Winner of a 1990 Technology & Learning magazine Award of Excellence.
Feed Me!: Investigating The Needs Of Living Things
Optical Data School Media, 512 Means St., N.W., Atlanta, GA 30318; (800) 524-2481; www.opticaldata.com. $395. Videodisc with CD-ROM.
Recommended grades: preK-4.
Description: Program leads children on video adventures in which they investigate the food we eat through hundreds of still photographs and movie clips. In the activities under An Apple a Day, for example, they see through time-lapse filming how an apple tree buds, blooms, and bears fruit. In other activities, students identify plant and animal parts, study how food changes as it's cooked, and measure ingredients and temperatures.
Strengths: "Multimedia graphics are very well done, a wide variety of content areas are covered, and it is great fun." Program addresses 11 science standards established by the National Research Council.
Caveats: CD-ROM, videodisc, and teacher's guide should be used as complete program to be most effective.
Noteworthy:Technology & Learning magazine in 1995 described this as "truly a rich resource" and praised its exhaustive teacher's guide.
Sciences 1 And Sciences 2
Educational Activities, P.O. Box 392, Freeport, NY 11520; (800) 645-3739; $99. CD-ROM: Macintosh (requires ClarisWorks 2.1 or later or MS Works 3.0 or later); Windows or MS Works.
Recommended grades: 3-12 for Sciences 1; 4-12 for Sciences 2.
Description: Both programs teach students to locate, organize, analyze, and draw conclusions from data. Sciences 1 covers themes about dinosaurs, space, weather, and inventions; Sciences 2 covers themes about the environment and earth, life, and physical sciences. A sample activity: Research the typical day of a dinosaur.
Strengths: Teachers rated both programs a 5 in three of four categories.
Caveats: Software does not provide data that students gather for analysis.
Noteworthy: The content of both programs is highly aligned with relevant standards. Both software packages support 10 of the national standards in math and science.
Super Solvers Gizmos And Gadgets
Learning Company, 6160 Summit Drive North, Minneapolis, MN 55430; (800) 685-6322; www.learningco.com. $49.95 for disk/$54.95 for CD-ROM. Macintosh System 7.0.1 or later; Windows 3.1 or later.
Recommended grades: 3-6, but flexible enough for use by other ages.
Description: Students build cars, airplanes, go-carts, and other vehicles to race against cartoon character Morty Maxwell, the Master of Mischief. To collect parts to build a vehicle, kids enter a maze with a vehicle blueprint and solve a series of scientific puzzles about everyday gadgets such as wheelbarrows, teeter-totters, and skateboards. The program is designed to help children understand basic properties of physical science, such as force, balance, electricity, and gears.
Strengths: Video game concept is entertaining. "This is the type of software that makes learning fun and exciting."
Caveats: Few tools are provided to import or collect outside data, text, or graphics. A new version of the program has been released since the teachers' evaluation.
Noteworthy: Honors include a 1994 Only the Best award from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Too Much Trash
National Geographic Society, P.O. Box 10597, Des Moines, IA 50340-0597; (800) 368-2728. $325. Disk: Macintosh System 7.0 or later; Windows 3.1 or later.
Recommended grades: 3-6.
Description: Designed as an eight-week curriculum unit that teaches data analysis and environmental issues, the program leads students in an exploration of trash, how their community manages it, and how it can pollute. In one activity, the class collects, sorts, and weighs its trash, analyzes the contents, and develops a plan to reduce waste. Like Acid Rain (above), students work with research teammates nationwide and a scientist assigned to help collate data.
Strengths: An excellent piece of software for student research.
Caveats: Offers little guidance for students to operate without supervision. It must be run in conjunction with the National Geographic's NGS Works, a $200 program for word processing, painting, and creating maps, data notebooks, and graphs. Classes must have an Internet connection.
Noteworthy: Winner of Technology & Learning's 1992 Next in Series award, which goes to programs that are follow-ups to previous award winners.
What's The Secret, Vol. 2
3M/Imation/Layton Marketing Group Inc., 1212 Red Fox Road, St. Paul, MN 55112; (800) 219-9022; www.laytonmkt.com. $39.94 (includes teacher's guide). CD-ROM: Macintosh 7.1 or later; Windows 3.1 or later.
Recommended ages: 6 to 13.
Description: Based on the Emmy-award winning "Newton's Apple" series on PBS television, the program is anchored on 10 real-world questions that draw students into learning about the Arctic, the brain, flight, and glue. Activities in each of the categories include experiments, puzzles, and videos. Among the more interactive: a flight simulator in the "How do airplanes fly?" section.
Strengths: "So rich in content and varied in presentation that it would hold students' interest for a long time. An excellent integrated math/science program." Program addresses six of the academic standards established by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and 10 of the science standards set by the National Research Council.
Caveats: Teachers cannot modify software parameters, limiting the program's flexibility.
Noteworthy: Honors include a 1996 Best Education Software Award from the Software Publishers Association.
The Graph Club
Tom Snyder Productions, 80 Coolidge Hill Road, Watertown, MA 02172; (800) 342-0236; www.teachtsp.com. $79.95. Disk: Macintosh System 6.0.7 or later; Windows 3.1 or later.
Recommended grades: K-4, but some activities also appropriate for 5-8.
Description: An introductory program to teach students how to do surveys and then sort, classify, and analyze data through tables and bar, line, and circle graphs. Students tap more than 150 colorful icons—from elephants to Easter eggs—to illustrate their work. Among the activities: a "match" mode where students compare different types of graphs representing the same data. Software is designed to support standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and to encourage cooperative learning, problem-solving, and cross-curricular integration.
Strengths: Helps students make the transition from graphing with manipulatives to graphing in the abstract. Teacher's guide is complete and informative.
Caveats: Teachers need to spend time learning how the software works before using it in class.
Noteworthy: Rated "exemplary" by the California Instructional Technology Clearinghouse. Honors include a 1994 Only the Best award from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
MathKeys: Unlocking Probability
Houghton Mifflin Co./Learning Company, 6160 Summit Drive North, Minneapolis, MN 55430; (800) 685-6322; www.learningco.com. $99. Disk: Macintosh System 7.0 or 7.5; Windows 3.1 or later.
Recommended grades: There are separate programs for K-2 and 3-6.
Description: Students set up and run probability experiments using one of the program's "machines" to flip coins, roll cubes, spin tops, and do other number-generating exercises. Students predict and analyze the outcomes of their experiments, and the results can be automatically illustrated through charts and graphs.
Strengths: "Really good software for exploring probability. . . introductory video provides excellent guidance for incorporating this software in your math program."
Caveats: Does not identify areas of student difficulty or suggest ways to improve performance.
Noteworthy: Winner of a 1996 Developmentally Appropriate Software Award from the Kids Interacting With Developmental Software Project.
Thinkin' Things Collection 2
Edmark Corp., 6727 185th Ave. N.E., Redmond, WA 98052; (800) 691-2985; www.edmark.com. $59.95. Disk and CD-ROM: Macintosh 6.0.7 or later; Windows 3.1 or later.
Recommended grades: Various activities are appropriate for 2-12.
Description: Features five activities designed to enhance students' higher-level thinking skills, memory, visual and spatial awareness, and problem-solving. With Oranga Banga's Band, students write one-, two-, and three-part rhythms on a rhythm machine with nine instruments and 27 sound effects. In Frippletration, a spinoff of the traditional Concentration game, students match objects by how they sound and how they look. In Toony's Tunes, students learn such classic songs as "On Top of Old Smokey" and compose their own works. Snake BLOX and 2D-3D BLOX help students explore spatial relationships as they create two- and three-dimensional objects on-screen.
Strengths: The software rated a 5 for encouraging self-directed and collaborative learning and for using a variety of approaches to introduce concepts.
Caveats: Tasks are based on real-life situations, but their applications are limited.
Noteworthy: Honors include a 1996 Directors' Choice Award from the Early Childhood News.
Classroom Newspaper Workshop
Tom Snyder Productions, 80 Coolidge Hill Road, Watertown, MA 02172; (800) 342-0236; www.teachtsp.com. $149.95. CD-ROM or disk: Macintosh System 7.1 or later.
Recommended grades: 3-7.
Description: Designed as a six- to 10-week classroom unit, the program takes students step-by-step through planning, writing, and designing a newspaper. Students learn to interview, report, and write stories on math, history, and other subjects.
Strengths: A "strong guide" for helping students write in the newspaper format. Accompanying teacher's guide provides extensive and high-quality resources for integrating software with curriculum.
Caveats: Although this software is an outstanding model for newspaper writing, another program would be needed to actually create a newspaper.
Noteworthy: Program designed by Peter Owens, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and a former teacher and journalist.
Imagination Express—Destination: Rain Forest
Edmark Corp., 6727 185th Ave. N.E., Redmond, WA 98052; (800) 691-2985; www.edmark.com. $39.95. CD-ROM: Macintosh 7.0 or later; Windows 3.1 or later.
Recommended grades: 2-6.
Description: Students write electronic stories and books set in a Panamanian rain forest. Choosing from backdrops featuring jungle scenes, Kuna Indian villages, exotic plants, flowers, and trees, they plan plots, animate characters, and add voice-over narration, music, and sound effects.
Strengths: Program rated highest for its emphasis on central concepts in many disciplines. "Meaningful connections among broad concepts and across many disciplines are made."
Caveats: The program is essentially a creative-writing instrument, although a great deal of rain forest information is included.
Noteworthy: Honors include a 1995 Newsweek magazine Editors' Choice Award.
Read, Write & Type
Learning Company, 6160 Summit Drive North, Minneapolis, MN 55430; (800) 685-6322. www.learningco.com. $69.95. CD-ROM: Macintosh 7.0.1 or later; Windows 3.1 or later.
Recommended grades: K-2.
Description: Features more than 200 games and activities aimed at teaching phonics, reading, and writing, as well as keyboarding. Talking hands—Lefty LaDee and Right Way McKay—lead children through activities where keyboard characters come to life as animated cartoons and describe the sounds their letter makes and its letter blends. Students also practice writing stories based on animated sequences.
Strengths: "Graphics and animation will keep student interest at a high level." When kids master various skills, they are rewarded with certificates of achievement. The software rated highly for encouraging children to think critically about writing for a given audience.
Caveats: The software scored only a 3 for establishing a natural progression of skills for students to follow.
Noteworthy: Named Best Typing Software in 1996 by Superkids Educational Software Review.
Learning Company, 6160 Summit Drive North, Minneapolis, MN 55430; (800) 685-6322. www.learningco.com . $49.95 for disk; $54.95 for CD-ROM. Disk: Macintosh System 6.0.5 or later; Windows 3.1 or later. CD-ROM: Macintosh System 7.1 or later; Windows 3.1 or later.
Recommended grades: 4-8.
Description: Students canoe up the Amazon River to its headwaters in the Andes region of Peru as part of a mission to find the cure for a mysterious disease and deliver it to the Inca King. Students manage the expedition, selecting the supplies and routes. Along the way, they study the geography, people, wildlife, history, and ecology of the river and rain forest.
Strengths: Provides students an opportunity to explore connections between rain forest animals and their habitats.
Caveats: Children under 10 years of age may need help learning this program. A new version of the software—Amazon Trail II—has been released since the teachers' evaluation.
Noteworthy: Honors include a 1996 Newsweek magazine Editors' Choice Award and a 1995 Only the Best award from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
WorldWalker Destination: Australia
Soleil Software Inc., 3853 Grove Court, Palo Alto, CA 94303; (800) 501-0110; www.soleil.com. $44.95. CD-ROM: Macintosh 6.0.7 or later; Windows 3.1 or later.
Recommended grades: 3-6.
Description: Children explore the ecosystems, animals, and people of Australia. In one of the program's five activities, they go spelunking in caves and find bones to solve dinosaur "skeleton" puzzles. In the section Walkabout, they explore Australia's deserts, forests, and swamps. Written in Spanish, French, and English, the program is designed as a multilingual tool; children can toggle from one language to another at any point, and the Language Explorer activity aims to introduce students to the three languages with card games and skills work.
Strengths: "Highly recommended. . . excellent program for exploring and classifying animal life in Australia. It has impressive graphics."
Caveats: Soleil claims the software is interdisciplinary, but it is chiefly science-based.
Noteworthy: Honors include a 1997 Bologna New Media Prize for Best Geography Title.
Zurk's Alaskan Trek
Soleil Software Inc., 3853 Grove Court, Palo Alto, CA 94303; (800) 501-0110; www.soleil.com. $44.95. CD-ROM: Macintosh System 7.0 or later; Windows 3.1 or later.
Recommended grades: 1-8.
Description: Program offers five activities to explore the ecosystems of Alaska. Children can write and create animated stories or nature "movies" about animal and plant relationships (one example: an animated sequence of a wolf hunting a rabbit). The Balancing Act section offers more than 560 math problems where children can weigh and compare polar bears, lemmings, and other arctic animals. Accompanying "field guides" identify Alaskan plants and animals in Spanish, French, and English.
Strengths: "An excellent program for integrating all curricular areas." It is rated particularly high for stimulating critical thinking.
Caveats: Teachers cannot modify software parameters, limiting flexibility.
Noteworthy: Awards include a 1997 Only the Best honor from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.