Reaction to Software on Slavery Raises Issues Surrounding New Types of Media

By Peter West & Peter West — March 24, 1993 7 min read

MERRILLVILLE, IND.--Seated around tables in a cluttered office at the American Steelworkers Union Hall in nearby East Chicago, a handful of parents are holding an impromptu consciousness-raising session about the African-American experience.

“Slavery was not a game in our history,’' says Paulette Davis, whose children attend school in the Merrillville Community School Corporation.

Across the table, Dean A. Kephart, a representative of the Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation, a prominent software developer, nods his understanding.

The anger and dismay expressed by Ms. Davis and roughly a dozen other parents here was sparked earlier this year when teachers at a Merrillville elementary school allowed students to try a MECC software program called “Freedom!’' that seeks to simulate the experiences of slaves seeking escape from bondage via the Underground Railroad in the 1830’s.

The simulation rewards success with “freedom,’' and metes out penalties for failure that include “death,’' “whippings,’' or a “return to bondage.’'

Although shipped without incident to a third of the nation’s 14,500 school districts, the program touched a raw nerve among parents in this predominantly white suburb of Gary, Ind. They charged that much of the dialect used in the program was unintelligible and that the program exposed their children to ridicule by trivializing black history. (See Education Week, Jan. 27, 1992.)

In answer to their complaints, MECC pulled the product from the market and asked customers to return or destroy their copies.

MECC officials say that the recall was unprecedented in the company’s history, and experts add that the move, if not unique, was highly unusual in the educational-software industry.

And although the controversy here appears to have been aggravated by local racial tensions, educators and software developers believe that the recall and its aftermath raise important questions about the appropriate uses of such an intensely personal--and largely unfamiliar--medium to address sensitive social issues.

Some even question whether computer simulations should be used at all as teaching tools.

“One big issue is, what is the amount of knowledge that teachers, parents, and others have with the new media and their peculiar features?’' says Yesha Y. Sivan, the coordinator of the Technology in Education Program at Harvard University.

Racial ‘Friction’ Cited

To be sure, sensitive issues like slavery are particularly difficult to discuss objectively in any educational context, says Dorothy Jenkins Fields, a social-studies specialist and a black-history archivist for the Dade County, Fla., public schools.

Ms. Fields, who reviewed portions of an early version of “Freedom!’' during a one-day field-test of the program, says she generally supports the concepts contained in the software. But she adds that MECC probably could not have anticipated the adverse reaction in Merrillville, because reactions to such material vary widely and do not divide neatly along racial lines.

In support of the program’s historical accuracy--which parents here do not contest--Mr. Kephart notes that Kamau Kambui, a black researcher who takes older children on field trips to re-enact the experience of traveling on the Underground Railroad, was a consultant in the development process.

Mr. Kambui attended the meeting here to answer questions.

But parents note that no effort had been made previously by the district to teach the contributions of African-Americans to U.S. history. Thus, they say, some aspects of the program, such as the dialect used by one of the elderly slaves who “advise’’ prospective runaways, while historically accurate, exposed their children to ridicule from white students.

A Very Personal Medium

Experts also note that role-playing, while often an effective instructional strategy, can personalize a sensitive issue like racism in a way that students may find uncomfortable. This is especially true, they note, with the newer, multimedia software products, which are considered to be a much more intensely personal medium of instruction than the traditional print medium, particularly by today’s electronically sophisticated students.

Joanne Rizzi, one of the directors of the multicultural program at the Children’s Museum of Boston, says museum staff members consulted extensively with child psychologists and media professionals before mounting a recent multimedia exhibit that encouraged children to take on the roles of children who have been the victims of racial prejudice as well those who have made racist remarks.

While stressing that the museum experience is, over all, very different from the classroom, she points out that interactive media, whether computer software or laserdisks, create unique learning environments for children.

“Because it’s a medium that kids get involved with, it is very immediate,’' she says. “It’s not like reading a book. This feeds your imagination in a different sense. Kids take it more seriously.’'

Parents at the meeting here also complain that success in working computer simulations may say more about a student’s technological skills than his or her ability to think critically.

“What about the child that does not have good computer skills?’' Ms. Davis asks. “He is never going to get to ‘freedom.’ ''

‘Trivializing’ Life

Similar considerations contributed to a decision by Tom Snyder Productions, an acclaimed developer of educational software in Massachusetts, to abandon the traditional simulation format for its products.

“I’m highly suspicious of simulation as a teaching tool [because] simulations trivialize everything,’' he says. “There are so many strikes against you when you try to put something like [slavery and its effects] on the computer.’'

He also argues that simulations can confuse students.

“You can get enormous commitment [from students],’' he says. “But if you give them too much choice, it’s like the real world. It’s like, ‘God, what do we do now?’ ''

Mr. Snyder also points out that the graphics available on most school computers, often the aging Apple II models, tend to reduce serious subjects to a cartoonish level.

Fostering Student Discussion

In place of traditional simulations, Mr. Snyder’s company--which specializes in programs for the “one-computer classroom’'--now produces software that he calls “choice-driven discussion generators.’' These programs are designed to facilitate student-teacher interactions by prompting students step by step through a simulated conflict.

A recently released product called “Decisions, Decisions: Prejudice,’' for example, places an entire class of students into a situation, drawn from a composite of actual events, in which a newspaper in a tourist town editorializes against a business that is trading in racial memorabilia.

“The situation then posed by the teacher is: You’re the mayor of this town. What do you do? Or do you do anything?’' says Bruce Michael Green, who developed the product.

Students then work through the problem in teams, entering their decisions at various critical stages into the computer, which then advances the scenario.

There are at least 300 alternative paths built into the program, Mr. Green notes.

“As they go through [the simulation], the tension continues to build,’' he says. “You can do all of the ‘right things,’ whatever they may be, but not always get the positive consequences.’'

Fear of a Backlash

Whatever their approach, software developers agree that tackling such issues as racism can be very difficult even with the help of expert consultants and extensive field-testing.

That perception is verified at the meeting here, where many participants say that “Freedom!’' should have been examined by more students and parents, rather than school administrators, before it was put into classroom use.

“You can’t continue to put out software like this and fix it with add-ons later,’' says Kevin Hubbard, a systems analyst with the Inland Steel Corporation whose children attend Merrillville elementary schools. “That’s failure.’'

Others point out that instructing teachers on the use of the software is essential, and they suggest that the Merrillville teachers were not as well trained as they should have been.

“It says on the box: ‘Teacher not included, but required,’ '' Mr. Green jokes.

Educators also say they fear that incidents like the one surrounding “Freedom!’' might prompt software developers to shun controversial topics in the future. Textbook publishers, they note, have been accused of watering down or ignoring politically charged subject matter to avoid a backlash from potential buyers.

“Is it that we don’t teach the Holocaust because of the terrible things that happened?’' asks Rita Oates, the instructional supervisor for technology with the Dade County schools. “Or we do teach it because it’s important that it never happens again?’'

Rather than avoid such topics, argues Ms. Fields of Dade County, software developers should make every effort to insure that computer simulations continue to play an important role in the multicultural classroom.

“To me, this is the medium of the day and it’s important that we be a part of it,’' she says.

A version of this article appeared in the March 24, 1993 edition of Education Week as Reaction to Software on Slavery Raises Issues Surrounding New Types of Media