Kids' Stuff

Donna Stanger proves software can mix fun and learning.

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Sitting in a booth at a tony hotel café in Washington, D.C., Donna Stanger blends right in with the dozen or so suited professionals at nearby tables. Wearing a dark blazer and skirt, a laptop on the table before her, Stanger looks like a traveling business executive punching up a spreadsheet before a breakfast meeting. But the computer is not running Lotus. Instead, goofy jungle animals dance across its screen while bleeps, pings, and banjo twangs punctuate the staid hum of polite restaurant chatter.

The general manager of Edmark Corp., an educational software publisher, Stanger is jetting around the country on a promotional tour for the company's latest product. At 56, the one-time teacher is something of a legend in the field: She has turned out more than 60 titles in about 15 years, including the award-winning Millie's Math House and Bailey's Book House. Indeed, for those who track the business, Stanger's name is synonymous with quality. "She has a strong intuition about what will appeal to kids," says Judy Salpeter, editor-in-chief of Technology & Learning Magazine.

Adds Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children's Software Revue, "She has been a pioneer in many ways." What has made her successful, he says, is a core belief: "Powerful technology can empower kids."

A former teacher, Stanger sees software as a chance to empower kids and put them in charge of their learning.

Stanger first sensed the potential of computers in the late 1970s while working in Rochester, Minnesota. The veteran teacher-elementary, middle, and high school-would take her students to a bedroom-size mainframe at the University of Minnesota, which was connected to the rest of the technological world by a telephone cuppler that worked only when the wind wasn't blowing hard.

Two decades later, such a trip seems like something out of the Stone Age. K-12 schools are so stocked with technology that, on average, there's one computer for every six students. Almost 58 percent of classrooms are connected to the Internet, and sales of software have topped $550 million- double the figure of five years ago.

Computers have been a godsend for teachers as well as kids, says Linda Roberts, director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education and a former teacher. "I remember how incredibly lonely my job felt when I was teaching," says Roberts. "Teaching for so many years has been defined by the classroom. What I see traveling around the country now is teachers using technology to connect to the world and expand their own base of knowledge. They have a new set of tools in their toolbox."

Introduced to the machines during a graduate school course, Stanger quickly saw how they could help reach kids who coasted through class. These were students who wouldn't take risks, even when teachers created supportive environments where mistakes were accepted as part of learning.

"Kids got on the computer and it was very private-them and the computer," she explains. "There were no judgments. It was very consistent. If they needed a lesson 37 times-or one more, 38-there was no difference in the way it was delivered. No criticisms. It was really special, and I used it as much as possible."

At the time, however, educational software was limited. Much of it tended to "drag kids around by the nose," she says. "Here we had a chance to empower children, to put them in charge of their learning and to let them construct part of what they would understand. And it wasn't happening."

One day, when she was grumbling about this in the teachers' lounge, a colleague told her to quit complaining and do something. She took the advice to heart, staying up all night to put her ideas on paper. Eventually, she turned that work into a grant proposal and, in 1979, won three years of federal funding to study how computer software could help develop kids' thinking and problem- solving skills.

Stanger put teaching on hold for this work and inadvertently sowed the seeds for a new career. As part of her study, she designed several pieces of software, hiring high school students to do the programming while she focused on the learning-technology connection. (Several of these kids followed Stanger into the educational software business, including Scott Clough, Edmark's director of technology and planning, and Paul Elseth, Edmark's software architect.)

The programs that Stanger and her team developed caught the eye of Sunburst Communications, a New York City software publisher, and the company soon hired the teacher and her whiz kids and opened an office in Rochester for them.

In her first software designs, Stanger discovered key principles that have guided her since: that all children are able to learn; that children's performance is directly related to their willingness to persist at a task; and that a series of successes-no matter in what-gives kids the thirst and confidence to learn more. "There are all kinds of strengths, not just those we measure academically," she says. Ultimately, she adds, software designers should assume that children are capable and intelligent and treat them with respect.

That philosophy has helped Stanger's software stand out in the "edutainment" industry, which critics charge does nothing more than promote rote learning. "No one can accuse Donna of focusing too much on drill and practice," Salpeter says. "Donna's stuff is a good example of a good thinking tool that kids can play with."

In 1991, Stanger moved to Edmark in Redmond, Washington, to take advantage of what in computer lingo is called a "platform shift." Programmers were beginning to use digitized sound and animation graphics; the CD-ROM was on the horizon. Edmark, then largely a print company developing special- education instructional products, was eager to move into software development and tap this new technology.

Within a year of Stanger's arrival at the company, her design group had released its first two products-the groundbreaking Millie's Math House and Bailey's Book House- both of which had been in development with another kids' software pioneer, Joyce Hakansson, a consultant with Edmark at the time. A string of other landmark programs followed over the years-including Sammy's Science House, the Thinkin' Things collections, Mighty Math, and Thinkin' Science Zap!-all aimed at teaching children through games, activities, and virtual "trips" to foreign lands.

Stanger, to be sure, has not been the only one to see the potential in educational software. Other innovators include Jan Davidson of Davidson Associates; Tom Snyder of Tom Snyder Productions; and Leslie Grimm, who worked on the Reader Rabbit series and Playroom for the Learning Company. But only Stanger has stayed with it so long, weathering the industry's changes and rough periods, including a difficult internal transition at Edmark when IBM bought the company in 1996.

Now Stanger is facing a "platform shift" of her own. This past summer, she left Edmark. After nearly 20 years in the business, the pace was getting to her. At the hotel café, she looks tired after days on the road promoting the latest Thinkin' Things collection.

Stanger hasn't yet announced her next move, but it's clear she's ready for a change. "I spend two mornings a week on conference calls," she says. "I started thinking, What else could I be doing with that time? I could be teaching a kid to read."

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Pages 44-45

Published in Print: August 11, 1999, as Kids' Stuff
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