Total Recall

A software program that simulates slavery is pulled from the market after drawing fire from parents

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In a cluttered office at the American Steelworkers Union Hall in East Chicago, Ind., a small group of African-American parents is meeting with representatives of the Minnesota Educational Computing Corp., a prominent software developer. “Slavery was not a game in our history,” says Paulette Davis, whose children attend school in the nearby Merrillville Community School Corp. Across the table, Dean Kephart, MECC’s manager of corporate communications and product advocacy, listens and then nods his head in agreement.

The anger and dismay expressed by Davis and roughly a dozen other parents at the meeting—called by the local NAACP chapter—were sparked earlier this year, when teachers at a Merrillville elementary school allowed students to try a MECC software program called Freedom! The program seeks to simulate the experiences of slaves trying to escape from bondage via the Underground Railroad in the 1830s. Successful users are rewarded with “freedom,” while those who fail are penalized with “whippings,” “return to bondage,” or even “death.”

Although shipped without incident to a third of the nation’s 14,600 school districts, the software program touched a raw nerve among African-American parents in Merrillville, a 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 African-American history.

As a result of the complaints, MECC pulled the product from the market and asked customers to return or destroy their copies. MECC officials say the recall was unprecedented in the company’s history, and experts believe the move, if not unique, was highly unusual in the educational-software industry.

And although the controversy in Merrillville 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.

To be sure, sensitive issues such as slavery are particularly difficult to discuss objectively in any educational context, says Dorothy Jenkins Fields, a social studies specialist and black-history archivist for the Dade County, Fla., public schools. 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 responses to such material vary widely and do not divide neatly along racial lines.

In support of the program’s historical accuracy—which parents in Merrillville do not contest—Kephart notes that Kamau Kambui, an African-American researcher who takes older children on field trips to reenact the experience of traveling on the Underground Railroad, was a consultant in the software’s development process. Kambui attended the meeting in East Chicago 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.

Experts also note that roleplaying, while often an effective instructional strategy, can personalize a sensitive issue such as 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.

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 encourages children to take on the roles of children who have been the victims of racial prejudice as well as those who have made racist remarks. While stressing that the museum experience is, overall, very different from that of the classroom, she points out that interactive media, whether computer software or laserdiscs, create unique learning environments for children. “Because it’s a medium that kids get involved with,” she says, “it is very immediate. It’s not like reading a book. This feeds your imagination in a different sense. Kids take it more seriously.”

Similar considerations contributed to a decision by Tom Snyder, an acclaimed developer of educational software in Massachusetts, to abandon the traditional simulation format for his company’s 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.”

Snyder also argues that simulations can confuse students and that the graphics available on most school computers, often aging Apple II models, tend to reduce serious subjects to a cartoonish level.

In place of traditional simulations, 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 a 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, developer of 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. “As they go through [the program], the tension continues to build,” he says. “You cZan do all of the ‘right things,’ whatever they may be, but not always get the positive consequences.”

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 in East Chicago, 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 Corp. whose children attend elementary schools in Merrillville. “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.

Some fear that incidents such as 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, instructional supervisor for technology with the Dade County schools. “Or we do teach it because it’s important that it never happens again?”

Vol. 04, Issue 08, Pages 15-17

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