Special Report

Screening for the Best

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 13, 2017 22 min read
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Hundreds of school technology scouts rush into the exhibit hall of the 1999 National Educational Computing Conference the minute it opens.

Some pause to pick up a free Microsoft Corp. T-shirt, but most are in too much of a hurry. More than 600 vendors have assembled to showcase their latest software, online products, and hardware for schools, and there are just 7Y.z hours left before the hall closes until tomorrow.

With its colorful banners and incessant public announcements, the annual NECC trade show held this summer at the Atlantic City Convention Center-has the kind of festive, competitive atmosphere you might find at a state fair. Everywhere you turn, vendors are giving away beach towels, candy, stuffed animals, online subscriptions, and more in hopes of attracting potential buyers.

“I guess you just have to jump in,” Terry Baker, a 4th grade teacher at Watkins Elementary School in Columbia, S.C., says hesitantly as she surveys the 99,000 square feet of exhibits.

She and her friend Lynn Connelly, a teacher of gifted and talented student at Watkins, have been sent by their district-Richland School District One-to find software titles or online content they might use in their own classes or recommend to other teachers.

Like many teachers at the conference, they’ve gotten a taste back home for spicing up their lessons with interesting digital content, and they’re hungry for more.

First, they visit the booths of companies they recognize-such as The Learning Company, one of the largest sellers of school software-and jot down the names of a couple of promising titles.

But about an hour later, the women start to 10 steam.

“I feel kind of overwhelmed,” Connelly says. “There’s so much. I don’t know what I should stop and look at.”

In Search of the Good Stuff

Interest in digital content for schools has never been higher. From 1996 to 1998, annual sales of software and online materials specifically designed for instruction increased by 21 percent, from $473 million to $571 million, according to Simba Information, a business -information publisher in Stamford, Conn.

The reason is simple: After investing billions of dollars over the past few years to make sure schools have enough computers, educators are now turning their focus to what kind of content to put on them.

“There’s been the realization that the computer i not what engages the child. It never was,” says Judi Mathis Johnson, the software-review editor for the Eugene, Ore.-based International Society for Technology in Education. “It’s the software, whether that be an instructional piece, the Internet, or a tool.”

In short, “technology is no good without the content,” adds Sue Kamp, the director of the education market division for the Software & Information Industry Association in Washington.

But the quality of the digital content currently available to schools has some expert concerned.

“The depth, the appropriateness, the correctness of the content that is being provided-that’s where there are some people who are saying the software we have today doesn’t go far enough,” says Linda G. Roberts, the director of the office of technology for the U.S. Department of Education. “If all we end up with is material that is as good as the material in textbooks contentwise, we will have missed an important set of new opportunities.”

Others warn that truly exceptional products can get lost in the shuffle. With so many software titles and Web sites to choose from, it can be difficult and time-consuming to find the good stuff, as teachers like Baker and Connelly have discovered.

“There’s a lot out there that is junk,” says Evelyn J. Woldman, the education coordinator at the technology center of the Massachusetts Elementary School Principals’ Association in Marlborough, Mass. “You have to be adept at siphoning through the very rote, the very boring stuff, to get to a few quality pieces.”

“I don’t think the average teacher knows what’s out there,” adds Nancy Varian, the principal of Magnolia (Ohio) Elementary School. “You go to Sam’s Club, and you see all that software on the shelves, and you’re just overwhelmed.”

Data collected from 1,407 teachers who responded to an Education Week survey on digital content support these sentiments.

Most of the teachers are generally satisfied with the quality of the educational software titles they currently have available in their own classrooms, with seven in 10 giving it an overall grade of A or B. However, when asked about software in general, more than one-third of teachers describe its overall quality as a “big” or “moderate” problem.

Teachers with more than 20 years of experience are especially critical of such software; 44 percent say overall quality is a “big” or “moderate” problem, compared with 29 percent of teachers with five years of experience or fewer.

Teachers seem particularly frustrated by the process of searching for software. More than half of teachers who search for software to use for instruction say it is “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to find the kind’ of product they want to fill their specific classroom needs.

Teachers in grades 9 to 12 have the hardest time finding software, with 69 percent describing it as “very” or “somewhat” difficult, compared with 43 percent of pre-K- 2 teachers.

Numerous factors probably contribute to this sense of frustration, including the fact that many teacher don’t know where to turn to find reliable evaluations of digital content. But the relatively low numb r of excellent products also likely plays a role.

Classroom teachers who reviewed a total of 1,123 pieces of educational software for the California Instructional Technology Clearinghouse over the past three years rated only 15 percent of them as “exemplary.”

“That is a strong statement that there is a limited number of high-quality educational products,” says Bridget R. Foster, the director of the clearinghouse, which is operated by the Stanislaus County Office of Education in Modesto, Calif.

Open-Ended vs. Drill-and-Practice

Exactly what quality looks like depends on whom you ask.

Some educators first want to know whether a particular product matches their state or district curricula. Other key indicators range from how easily it can be installed or downloaded to how well it represents members of minority groups. (See sidebar, Page 20.)

One of the most important distinctions in evaluating digital content is whether a product emphasizes open-ended exploration or drill-and-practice.

Many experts, particularly those who support a “constructivist” approach to teaching, strongly prefer the former.

“The best stuff is the stuff that’s experiential, exploratory ... promoting inquiry-based learning,” says Woldman of Massachusetts, who also gives courses in software evaluation and integration to teachers at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass.

Gerry Solomon, an educational consultant who coordinates software reviews for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, agrees. “The best software takes more problem-solving, more thinking skills for the activities,” she says. “The students become engaged with doing something with the information presented.”

But software that includes plenty of practice for the student can also be high-quality, argues Patrick Suppes, who co-founded Computer Curriculum Corp. in 1967 and served as the company’s chief executive officer from 1967 to 1990. The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based CCC specializes in a comprehensive package of software-generally known as an integrated-learning system-that not only teaches foundational kills but assesses and tracks student progress.

“People who don’t recognize the need for practice are only romantic’ out of touch with the real world,” says Suppes, now a professor of philosophy emeritus at Stanford University. “Can you imagine learning how to play basketball by only listening to a lecture and participating in discussions with critical thinking? I would consider it an example of poor quality to offer a student software in mathematics and no opportunity for practice.”

Many classroom teachers prefer software that is “cut and dried,” rather than open-ended, notes Foster of the California clearinghouse, which uses teachers a evaluators. “Classroom teachers tend to look for a package, something that will fill a need in their curriculum,” she says. “They’re looking for concept presentation, practice, and assessment.”

Unfortunately, there’s been very little research to help educators identify high-quality software. “The literature has not been very deep or sustained or scientifically sophisticated;' Suppes says.

Market Forces Play Pivotal Role

High quality, regardless of one’s definition, doesn’t mean a product will make it into the classroom.

Indeed, educator and industry analysts agree that the market for digital content plays an enormous role in determining which title are used in schools.

“Nothing definitely sells just because it’s good,” says Donna Stanger, a pioneer in educational software development who until June was the general manager of Edmark Corp., a software publisher in Redmond, Wash. “It takes good marketing, good communication about what’s in it.”

At the same time, the long run of classic software titles, such as Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, a geography program published in 1985 by Broderbund Software, shows that educators recognize quality, she says.

“If you look at the products that have sold well for five to seven years, most of those do have quality in them. The others are fads. They come and go,” Stanger says.

Marjorie J. Cappo, who developed titles for Sunburst Communications for years and is now establishing her own software company (Learning in Motion), takes a more pessimistic view.

“Earlier on in this industry, in the 1980s and early 1990s, quality had more to do with what ended up in the classroom,” she says. “I think marketing is taking over.”

That’s bad news for university researchers, who have developed some of the most innovative software titles.

Occasionally, one of their products will succeed commercially. The Little Planet reading series, for example, which was developed by researchers at Vanderbilt University, was bought this year by Boston-based textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin. But this is the exception to the rule.

Elliot Soloway, an electrical engineering and computer science professor at the University of Michigan who has been trying with little success to market a software tool he developed called Model-It, knows this only too well.

“We have good models of people developing provocative software through National Science Foundation support. We do not have good models of their taking it commercial,” Soloway says. “I spend 70 percent of my time trying to bridge that gap. I meet with walls at every turn because I’m a professor. I’m not a businessman.”

The Big Keep Getting Bigger

One of the most important recent trends in the digital-content market is the consolidation of education technology companies.

Among transactions in the past three years: Edmark was acquired by IBM Corp., based in Armonk, N.Y.; the Watertown, Mass.-based Tom Snyder Production was bought by Torstar Corp. in Toronto; Broderbund software and Mindscape were bought by The Learning Company, headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., which in turn was bought by toymaker MatteI, based in El Segundo, Calif.; and the Pleasantville, N.Y.-based Sunburst Communications, a longtime holdout, was acquired by Houghton Mifflin this past spring after operating on its own since 1972.

Some observers lament this trend, saying it discourages innovation.

“Consolidation has not produced the very best products ever,” comments Stanger, the former general manager of Edmark. “It’s not a time when you look at a product and say, ‘Look at that, I wish we’d produced that.’ That’s typical of consolidation.”

“What we’ve seen in the last few years is software companies sticking with a few line of software because they find they are selling the best the JumpStart series or the Blaster series,” says Susan G. McLester, the executive editor and a software reviewer for Technology and Learning magazine. “Although these do fill a need, you’re giving kids well-done drill-and-practice with a progress tracker. The software doesn’t go out on a limb to be creative.”

The larger companies disagree.

“To say there’s a lack of innovation is the exact opposite of what we’ve found,” counters Martha Connellan, the vice president of school products for Knowledge Adventure, which sells the JumpStart and Blaster series and has purchased several software-publishing companies. “We can bring the resource of a larger company to bear on the smaller research and development teams so they can implement their Ideas.”

English Express, which Connell an describes as the first robust multimedia package to teach English as a second language, was developed by Knowledge Adventure, she notes. So was Kid Works, the first “talking” word processor for children. And the company’s Real World titles emphasize a nontraditional way of learning for math and other subject areas, she adds.

Kathleen M. Hurley, the senior vice president of education marketing for The Learning Company, which has acquired more than a dozen education technology companies over the past three years, agrees with Connell an. “You have to have money to develop products,” Hurley says. “The Learning Company is going to spend about $10 million this year on new-product development.”

‘Safe’ Subject Areas for Software

As in any market, the supply of educational software title is driven by demand. That’s a major reason why there are so many more-and usually better-products for students in elementary school than in high school.

While every 3rd grader has to take basic math, for example, fewer students will ever take Advanced Placement calculus. It’s no surprise, then, where software developers concentrate their efforts.

For similar reasons, math, reading, and science titles outnumber products for most other subjects.

“There’s a bunch of math and reading software because those are safe target ,” says David B. Palumbo, the vice president of the learning technologies division of Human Code, a software developer in Austin, Texas. “The markets are defined. Schools spend their money on math, and there’s a general understanding that computers help people with math. With reading, there’s this global demand for literacy.”

On the other hand, he says, “There’s not a lot of poetry software out there.”

The home market for educational software, which exploded about eight year’ ago and remains strong, also helps explain the glut of software for preschool and elementary school children.

“Parents will buy the early learning products,” says Hurley of The Learning Company, which makes most of its money from the home market. “Once kids get past the 4th or 5th grade, they’re into buying their own products. They don’t always see the need for software.”

Hurley adds that there are simply more students in elementary school than in high school. “In the next few years, there will be more kids in high school, so companies will be developing more products for the high school,” she says.

But in the meantime, several software buyers interviewed for this story complain that they can’t always find the products they need. For example, there’s a dearth of reasonably priced software for high school students who are performing far below their grade level, say’ Arline L. Liegel, a technology facilitator for the Indian Hill school district in Cincinnati.

“If you have high school students who can’t read, they will be offended to go to an elementary package,” Liegel says. “They’re not going to put up with bears bouncing across the screen.”

Most of the software designed for this purpose are the relatively expensive comprehensive packages, Hurley agrees. “There’s not much in the $49.95 category.”

But even the comprehensive technology packages aren’t up to par in helping students with low skills, says Ted Hasselbring, a professor of special education and the co-director of the Learning Technology Center at Vanderbilt University.

“If you’re talking about intervention software, that’s where we’ve got to do a better job in emulating good teaching. That’s one big frontier. The integrated-learning systems have tried it. I don’t think they’ve been successful.”

In addition, some educators say it’s difficult to find software to teach young children about foreign languages and students of any age about literature.

Growth of the Web

For the time being, sales of educational CD-ROMS far outnumber those of online materials. Schools spent a mere $13 million on online subscriptions in 1998, compared with $340 million on stand-alone or modular software and $218 million for comprehensive courseware, which is usually delivered on CD-ROM, according to Simba Information.

But people within the industry say the focus on CD-ROMs is likely to be short-lived.

“I’m not sure CD-ROMS are going to be around long. Things are moving very, very fast to the Internet,” Hurley of The Learning Company says. “When you get to the meat of what people are learning, you can do that with the Internet and all these productivity tools.”

A growing number of teachers, particularly in the higher grades, are using productivity tools such as image processors, spreadsheets, and multimedia-presentation packages in their classrooms, even though the tools weren’t specifically designed for education. (See sidebar, Page 24.)

Web sites, meanwhile, have the advantages of being interactive, almost limitless in number, and-usually-free. In addition, they can be updated far more frequently than CD-ROMS.

“It’s not software I’m using. It’s Web sites-many Web sites,” says Janet Meehan, who teaches 7th and 8th grade math at Candlewood Middle School in Dix Hills, N.Y.

Her students have searched the Internet for examples of polyhedrons and applied their math skills in an online simulation about the stock market. Meehan says she’s sure her district has math software available, but she hasn’t used it because she thinks it’s easier to find good Web sites.

But some teachers don’t find the Web so convenient. Lana Koontz, a math teacher at Tri-West High School in Lizton, Ind., says she hasn’t yet used many Web sites because it takes so much time to for them, preview them, and develop materials to bring them into lessons.

“A lot of us are interested in using the Internet but the time [it takes] is holding us back,” she says.

From a content point of view, Web sites are unprecedented in education because they bring into the classroom countless primary sources and multiple perspectives, says Cornelia Brunner, the associate director of the Center for Children and Technology in New York City.

But this also raises new challenges for schools, she says.

“The problem is that most teachers have not had the opportunity to prepare themselves to use these resources,” she says. For starters, she says, they need to learn how to determine whether the information on a site is valid, and teach their students to do the same.

Schools are also struggling with how to let students explore the Web without encountering pornography or other inappropriate material. Many have installed software designed to filter out such sites and established acceptable-use policies for the Internet.

Another major problem with the Web is its technical limitations.

Everyone expects that all content now on educational CD-ROMs will eventually be delivered over the Internet. But as of yet, and probably for at least a few more years, schools don’t have enough bandwidth to receive the same quality of video and sound over the Internet as on a CD-ROM.

Eileen Lurker, an art teacher at Tri-West High School who was part of a team of teachers from her school searching for digital content at NECC, says that while she uses Web sites for art-appreciation lessons, the time it takes for the sites to download is a hindrance.

“I t takes so long to load all the pictures-the kids get frustrated,” Lurker says.

Some teachers complain that Web designers often try to load their sites with the latest technical advances. In fact, teachers say, they don’t need all the bells and whistles.

“This may be the Nintendo generation, but it isn’t the fancy videos that students are interested in,” says Ann Savage, a technology resource teacher in the Fairfax County, Va., schools. “They don’t need the flashy stuff”

Finally, Web site addresses change so often that they can be difficult to keep track of, many educators say.

Looking Ahead

One reason schools have been slow to shell out money for online content is that they’re accustomed to getting it for free.

The New York City-based Scholastic, for example, one of the first companies to sell subscriptions to online materials, recently stopped charging schools for access to its educational Web site, called Scholastic Network, because it wasn’t making any money on the deal. Instead, beginning this fall, the company will offer the site for free and support it through advertising.

Some companies are trying to make the case that their Web products are so well-done or unique that schools should pay for them.

CIassroom Connect in El Segundo, Calif., for example, sells a subscription in which students can follow a team of expert via the Internet to exotic places such as Asia” Silk Road to learn about the people and wildlife there. The Irish company Riverdeep Interactive Learning Ltd. sell . a subscription to an online library of math and science simulation that was developed by Logal Educational Software & Systems Ltd. in Cambridge, Mass.

It’s still unclear, though, how lucrative this approach will be in the long run.

“Revenues are increasing [for Web ventures], but they’re not turning profits,” says AI Branch Jr., the head of the education group for Simba Information. “The numbers of subscribers aren’t that big yet. Not only do schools have to be wired, but they need a lot more computers to take advantage of the Internet.”

Other models of Web content are emerging as well. Some companies, mindful of schools’ limited bandwidth but anxious to move more of their products to the Internet, are devising Web/CD-ROM “hybrids” that represent an intermediate step between the two technologies.

Tom Snyder Productions, for example, this year released a simulation game about world diplomacy, called The Other Side. Students use a CD-ROM to watch video clips and read about a fictitious situation that could unite or estrange two countries, then use a special “Other Side Web site” to set up a time to communicate in real time over the Internet with students at another location on how to handle the situation.

Many software and textbook publishers, meanwhile, are enhancing their products with links to activities or supplementary information on carefully selected Web sites. Science textbook publishers have formed a partnership with the National Science Teachers Association in which they’ll insert codes in their books that can be used by teachers or students to pull up Web links through a Web site run by the NSTA.

Companies are also devising products that make it easier for teachers and students to use the Web. Webivore Knowledge Systems LLC, for example, ells a product called Classroom Webivore that organizes Web sites for 4th through 12th grade teachers according to subject and grade level. The company employs content experts who evaluate the accuracy and educational value of the information on Web site before they are added to the pool of resources.

‘Shooting in the Dark’

So far, educators have not organized themselves in any formal ways to communicate to developers what kinds of digital content they want.

“People moan and groan a lot [about quality], but it doesn’t go much beyond that,” says Doug Green, an elementary school principal and a software-review coordinator for the 6,000·student Binghamton, N.Y., school district.

Palumbo, the Human Code executive, agree.

“I don’t think that school have been using their whip enough to tell people like us, ‘This is what we want and what we need,’ ” he says. “Companies like ours and publishers are left shooting in the dark—guessing at what school want or need.”

Kamp, of the Software & Information Industry Association, says she wouldn’t go that far, noting that almost all developer’ involve individual teacher. in creating and testing products. But she agree that educators have not pooled their opinion to try to et an agenda for the industry as a whole.

“There’s not an easy mechanism in place for educator to go out to publisher and say, ‘Hey, we really want this,’ ” she says.

State education departments haven’t taken on this responsibility “simply because we don’t have the time,” adds Solomon, the coordinator of software review for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, “If producers ask the status [of their software], and they ask why we didn’t recommend it, we will explain to them our concerns. We don’t do it on a large scale.”

Instead, most state departments are communicating their digital-content needs indirectly, through their academic standards.

“A state comes up with current standards, and developers will develop to those standards,” says Cheryl S. Williams, the director of education technology programs for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. “That’s the current relationship.”

But others say educators should do more to influence the development of digital content.

“I think we could help build better communication between the schools, with their purchasing power, and the marketplace,” says Robert of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of technology.

One way, Robert says, is for someone to develop a matrix that would show software developers where digital content now matches academic standards and where it has not been created to cover the curriculum.

Cheryl L. Lemke, the executive director of the Milken Exchange on Education Technology, which is underwriting Technology Counts ‘99, says some states have taken the first steps to influence digital content by taking bids and making purchases on a statewide level. Getting input from educators on what to buy and then negotiating discounts with companies for groups of educators “is a great way to go,” she says.

A survey of states by Education Week shows that 23 states have a group-purchasing program for instructional software in which all school can participate; four states have such program for online content.

Lemke also suggests that educators work through their professional organizations on a state level to create a “short list” of curriculum areas where technology could have the most impact. This might entail states communicating to companies where content is needed or developing the content themselves.

“Don’t just say, ‘Technology belongs everywhere,’ ” Lemke says.

But as the situation stands now, most educators are merely reacting to what the private sector offers, rather than working with publishers to improve their choices, says Peter Lenkway, the administrator of Florida’s office of educational technology.

“Educators need to have more of a voice and more of a say in what’s being provided,” Lenkway says. “Educators tend to vote with their dollars. Voting with dollars is after the fact.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 1999 edition of Education Week


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