Educational Software Flawed, Study Concludes

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New York--In one of the first major studies of the quality of educational software completed to date, a researcher at Columbia University's Teachers College says that the major programs currently available on the market do not make full use of the learning potential of classroom microcomputers.

Methods and Results

The study, by Vicki L. Blum, outlines the methods and results of a joint project launched in October 1981 by the Education Products Information Exchange (epie)--a New York-based consumer group that evaluates curriculum materials--and the Microcomputer Resource Center at Teachers College. The study's findings were presented here last week at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (aera).

The major problem, according to Ms. Blum, with the young software industry is developmental; it is at a stage, she said, in which "programs of questionable educational value flood the market."

"At present," Ms. Blum said, "there is no systematic procedure for the evaluation and revision of educational software programs."

The reseacher examined six of the "larger curriculum packages produced by publishers," which represented, she said, "a high percentage of the total population available" as of the spring of 1981.

The purposes of the study were to examine the merits and flaws of the programs and to devise criteria and an objective procedure for evaluating all educational software.

Among her conlusions:

Few of the existing programs teach "concepts," and the only one in her study that attempts to do so does not use any systematic method based upon research for the teaching of concepts.

Most of the programs' objectives do not include "higher-order skills'' such as comprehension, application, synthesis, and evaluation.

Graphics are rarely an integral part of the instructional content.

Most of the programs on the market use "drill-and-practice" techniques.

Ninety-five percent of the large, computer-managed packages are mathematics programs.

Few packages are available for use in high schools.

The major emphasis in the programs is on the recall of previously learned facts.

Program Analyzed

The evaluation method she worked with, Ms. Blum said, was adapted from a curriculum-review procedure epie has been using for several years. Over a period of several months, computer-science experts and specialists in the subject areas of the programs worked alone and in teams to analyze how the programs worked and what skills they aimed to develop.

The researchers did not study teachers and children actually using computers--a fact for which the study was criticized during a discussion at the aera meeting.

"In this study we were concentrating on design of the software," Ms. Blum responded. "The next logical step is to go into the classrooms and get actual user information."

"An important question to ask is, 'What are the kids getting out of it and what is the impact on the learner?"' she added.

The study contains points for software producers to consider in the future, among them:

The great demand for programs that teach critical-thinking skills, problem-solving techniques, and higher-order skills such as application and synthesis of concepts. Thus far, the study says, very few programs attempt to teach such skills.

The need for programs for use in secondary schools.

The need for programs that use more sophisticated "interaction techniques" than drill and practice. ("The whole concept of student in-teraction must be further explored," the study says.)

The need for programs in areas other than arithmetic.

More sophisticated use of computer graphics.

More research on how microcomputers will be integrated into the curriculum. Researchers should ask whether microcomputer programs will become supplements to text series or self-contained curriculum packages, Ms. Blum suggested.

Further Details

For further details on the study, "Evaluating Instructional Software for the Microcomputer," contact the author at: 333 West 84th St. Apt. 3F, New York, N.Y. 10024. Copies are available for $10.

A booklet resulting from another major study of educational software evaluation is available from the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland, Ore. Called the "Evaluator's Guide for Microcomputer-Based Instructional Packages," it may be obtained for $3 from the International Council for Computers in Education, c/o the Department of Computer and Information Sciences, University of Oregon, Eugene, Ore. 97403. The manual is also in the eric system (ed 206 330).

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