Study Shows That Educational Software Doesn't Make The Grade

August 14, 1997

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- An evaluation of educational software designed for use by children during their first five years of school has given poor grades to software designers and vendors.

"Overall, I'd have to say that we're disappointed with the quality of educational software that's available for kids," said Todd Fennimore, senior research associate at the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse at Ohio State University and head of the evaluation project.

"On the whole, the 'good' software doesn't exist. It just isn't out there." A team of 20 elementary school teachers spent two weeks this summer evaluating more than 200 software packages intended for use in social studies and language arts instruction. A similar teacher team evaluated an equal amount of science and math software last summer. The 400-plus software packages were donated to the project by software vendors.

Based on the teachers' evaluations, most of the software lacks important content; it's entertaining but not instructional; and is poorly designed for helping children learn and think. Fennimore said that there were a few examples of software that were exceptionally good but most were of questionable value. Topping the list of problems with current software is the failure of software designers to include even the simplest feedback mechanisms into the programs so that children could assess their progress, Fennimore said.

Most packages follow the "transmission" model where facts are doled out in ways similar to that of formal lectures. Much of the more recent software, however, is rich in entertainment elements -- but most of that is irrelevant to the software's use as a teaching tool.

Fennimore said that some of the software programs were excellent at teaching certain skills, or at presenting entertaining characters and challenging story lines. But these assets alone did not meet the criteria for what the teachers deemed effective software.

Both teams of teachers used the same strict protocol in evaluating the software packages. To score high, Fennimore said, a software program had to include a specific set of design features that promoted problem-solving and inquiry. "We want computers to be used as tools in the classroom that support collaborative learning and critical-thinking skills," he said.

Some programs scored high for their ability to engage and hold the attention of the student but still fell short in promoting collaborative problem-solving. Surprisingly, some programs designed for use on older computers (such as the Apple IIe) were educationally better than the newer, flashier multimedia products being sold today, the study showed.

"We suspect that in most cases, software designers are not working closely enough with teachers," Fennimore said. "With some of the packages we reviewed, kids could use the software and completely avoid learning anything substantive." Preliminary results suggest that language arts software is better overall. "That's probably because there has been such a strong emphasis on reading in the elementary schools, so software vendors are pouring more resources into those titles."

Science programs seemed to run second in comparative quality, based on the study. Programs for teaching social studies -- many of them game-like simulations of historical events -- and math seemed equally lacking. "There aren't a lot of programs for K-4 students in social studies," Fennimore said, "and what's there has a rather impoverished idea about what social studies really is."

The biggest weakness of the math-related programs is that they lack strong elements of problem-solving. Most promote only computational skills and avoid dealing with broader concepts.

Fennimore admitted the project's evaluations weren't perfect since the programs weren't tested on children in the classroom. So the teachers' conclusions might not apply in some cases.

"We'd like to push the software industry into being more responsive to teachers and educators by designing programs that challenge students," Fennimore said. "That's why we chose to evaluate the software in the first place.

Educational software is big business. An industry study showed that more than $565 million was spent by schools alone on such programs. Parents are believed to spend equally large sums on educational software for home computers.

The software evaluation project was funded by Ohio SchoolNet Plus, a statewide program intended to improve the quality of computer resources in public schools. The Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education provides free, specialized information services for K-12 teachers. Funded through the U.S. Department of Education, the ENC helps teachers access curriculum materials and other resources that support national goals to improve teaching and learning in mathematics and science.


Contact: Todd Fennimore, 614-688-5742;
Written by Earle Holland, 614-292-8384;

Editor's Note: The ENC SchoolNet Software Review Project (SSRP)has a WWW page for further information at the following URL:

Ohio State University

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