That's Edutainment!

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'Historians have taught us the importance of weighing the biases of textbook makers. We must now do the same with makers of software.'

My friend was accorded a good deal of respect and leeway. Such freedom was exciting for her, as she was a veteran of the political endorsement battles of the textbook world. At Microsoft, she was part of a young, creative team that earnestly wanted to make positive kids' products—positive being defined as both fun and educational. And, left to its own devices, her team probably could have collaborated with schools and teachers in successful ways, each side trying to understand the other's needs, limitations, and strengths.

Certain realities of the software industry, however, prevented such inspired collaboration. The product went through several incarnations—different age groups, different content, ever-changing number of volumes—and it was plagued by staff turnover as team members transferred to other, more prestigious or stable teams. The one volume that was completed now sells as the sorry equivalent of a remaindered first novel, going for $4.95 rather than the original price of $69.95.

Friends at other companies bemoan similar bureaucratic setbacks that slow and diminish the quality of work. And as the "Dilbert" comic strip so well illustrates, business at large is often beset by turmoil and inefficiency. But the software industry—staffed by young workers and trafficking in new, unpredictable forms of communications that industry analysts, much less users, don't entirely understand—is even more volatile. Often, as in the case of my friend's product, marketers pull strings too fast for a product to be completed. When her now-defunct $4.95 product began its life cycle, "neighborhoods" was deemed to be a hot theme. Six months later, however, it had fallen out of favor and "transportation" was king. Before my friend's team could regroup, yet another marketing report was under way. This might be the way sitcoms get made, but it does not bode well for teaching materials.

Like the television executives before them who aimed to make television "educational," producers of educational software can be derided for their lack of understanding, appreciation, and respect as to what content and formats would best serve children. Indeed, content has such little value in the industry that the rosters of most educational software companies are filled with technical and business types, not teachers. One edutainment company's Web site that I visited (via, by the way, the site of a California teachers' group that had given the company's products an award for excellence) boasted of its business roots. The company was created, according to its mission statement, "to take advantage of the continuing increase in . . . the desire of parents and children for engaging, 'stealth learning' products." Explanations of distribution patterns and the leveraging of intellectual property rights followed, along with biographies of the CEO and other top administrators. Although each had a background in either marketing or technology, not so much as an overture was made to education.

Historians like Howard Zinn have taught us the importance of taking into account the biases of textbook makers. We must now do the same with makers of software, Web sites, and other technology. Teachers are the experts about how children learn—a fact that the teachers I recruited to test Encarta forgot when they saw the pyrotechnics of the software—and they should turn a more critical eye to these products and who is actually creating them. As Ellen Ullman, a writer and software developer, has said, software is created in the image of its makers. In the case of many products, this does not mean educators but, more likely, young, technocentric people who strive only to do "cool" things with a computer.

I worked at Microsoft for three years. Soon after my disappointing experience with the Encarta teacher's guide, I transferred within the company to a baseball encyclopedia, counting myself as too soft to be mixing education and capitalism. Babe Ruth, I reasoned, was not cause for guilt.

The Microsoft line on my résumé has brought me several offers to create electronic materials for teachers and children. In most cases, these jobs have come from small companies or nonprofits that seem earnestly committed to finding the best way to use the medium for educational purposes. Although none of them has found the holy grail—the kind of truly interactive, open-ended learning that entails getting one's hands dirty in pursuit of knowledge—I've welcomed these projects. Unlike larger companies wed to focus groups and the brightest, newest gizmo, these companies encourage the important questioning that must happen if computers and schools are to be united successfully.

After more than five years of having a foot in the worlds of technology and education, I still see the gulf between them as wide, filled with misunderstandings and assumptions. And although both parties—for greatly different reasons—desire a successful partnership, the barriers still seem too great. Unfortunately, the world of education has more at stake. The money being sunk into technology for the classroom is precious; if it's squandered on worthless products, children will suffer and the public will become even more jaded about "school reform" than it already is.

Curious and in awe of the technology industry, educators must look behind the curtain to see just who is pulling the strings and what motivates them. And if the wizard looks anything like Bill Gates, teacher beware.

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