July 1997 // Vision
Critical Elements in Selecting Curricular Software
by Jerry Dawson
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Jerry Dawson "Critical Elements in Selecting Curricular Software" The Technology Source, July 1997. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The key to educational technology is software and what the students and teachers do with it. Judging the appropriateness, effectiveness, and capability of technology in the classroom is difficult. New classroom tools mean new opportunities for learning and teaching. Simple-to-use multimedia authoring applications, digital media collections, the Internet, and new, educationally-valid curriculum-based software are all making the learning-centered classroom a reality.

The Quaker saying, "Begin small and start promptly," is the best advice for dealing with the rapid-fire change in technology. Just consider the following: Animators who used to spend months and even years hand painting cells for cartoons are being replaced by computers that can do the work in a tenth of the time. The U.S. Postal Service delivered a record 180 billion pieces of mail last year; however, there were over one trillion e-mail messages sent. The electronic numerical integrator and computer (ENIAC), the first all-electronic computer, built in 1946, had 19,000 vacuum tubes, weighed 30 tons, took up 1800 square feet of space, and ran only 5 days without the need for repair. Efficiency of information technology (a $30 scientific calculator has more power than ENIAC) has since jumped by 32 orders of magnitude--one hundred octillion times--the greatest improvement in productivity in human history. In 1972 there were only 150,000 computers in the world. By 1999 one company alone expects to ship 100 million computers. Fiber optics now allow us to deliver 1,000 billion bits per second--that's every issue of the Wall Street Journal ever printed--delivered in one second. Virtual reality is nearly as real as reality. Commercial pilots used to fly empty planes for practice; now they train exclusively in simulators. The first time they ever fly their actual plane, it is filled with passengers. There are now 30 million home pages on the Internet, with a new one added every four seconds. Some sites on the Internet are visited over 12 million times a day!

We need to stay current, and software is the key. How do we know which software is best?

To be effective, software must have these four key characteristics: presentability, accountability, customizability, and extensibility, or PACE, as they are collectively called.

Presentability is the software's overall appeal to the user. Black and white, two-dimensional flip screen workbooks cannot possibly compete with the exciting, full-color media that students and teachers are exposed to daily. Rich, three-dimensional graphics, enhanced stereo sound, captivating animation and video, and interactive devices that students can control and manipulate are all necessary elements of successful software.

Engaging elements of successful software must not be at the expense, however, of educational validity. The software must engage, but it also must reach educational objectives and be based on recognized national standards. Edutainment software sets out to entertain first and educate eventually, which is unacceptable. The software used in teaching should not be held to a different or more lenient standard than a textbook or other classroom aid. Software that does not meet the standards of your state, district, or school has no place in the curriculum. Software should also have varied presentation modes so it can be used the three ways people teach and learn: as a whole-class discussion to introduce ideas and concepts; with several users to support cooperative learning groups; and as individualized instruction, adapting to the needs and level of each user.

Accountability is the second component of PACE and is essential. Evaluation of student work and progress is what allows teachers to provide individual assistance and encouragement. Without evaluation and objective accountability, educational software is meaningless. Integrated databases, question templates, and curriculum-based challenges are helping teachers monitor real progress and provide students with needed feedback on their efforts. There can be little verification of understanding without such accountability. Accountability integrated into software can take several forms, following a traditional testing format, a real-world application challenge, or a student-generated portfolio. Some educational theorists are too anxious to abandon evaluation because of inherent subjectivity, giving up the ability to verify student accomplishment. Verification is an important part of life, and, despite one's view on grading theory, students need to have their work and progress evaluated.

Customizability is the third essential element of sound educational software. Programs should never be canned. One of the advantages of computers is adaptability. Technology should be malleable in the hands of the teacher to be individually suited for the student. Only by allowing user customization does the program adapt to students and the curriculum. Easy-to-use teacher controls and preference settings as well as topic editors allow for customized lessons in what is taught, how it is taught, and how students are evaluated and rewarded. Teachers need to be able to control and configure the software they use. The ability to turn narration on or off, set levels of success, enable or disable certain lessons, and have timed or untimed activities are just some examples of how teachers should be able to change the software to meet the specific needs of their classroom.

Extensibility is the final component of the PACE essentials for sound educational software. Software that is extensible is easy to augment, easy to take beyond its own environment, and supportive of the creation of new things. An example of software easy to augment would be the option for teacher or student projects to be integrated into the program. If a geography program focuses on the teaching of map reading, it should be not only possible but also easy to integrate a local map in the lesson. To go beyond that environment, the local map lesson should also be able to be shared with students from all over the world, say via the Internet, through a simple conversion process that both students and teachers could use. Finally, extensible software should allow for the creation of a totally new thing, such as a complete interactive project on the local city, with color pictures and video, interviews with local officials, an on-line guide to major attractions, and more. Students really do learn by doing. This project should be easily distributed with a player or via the Internet so it can be shared with others. Software that is not extensible has little value in today's classroom.

Recent surveys with business conclude that the most desirable traits in new employees are effective communication, ability to work with others, leadership, flexibility and maturity, resourcefulness, inquisitiveness, and the ability to learn. Software with the PACE characteristics supports the development of these very traits.

John Stuart Mill said, "One person with a belief is equal to a force of 99 who only have interest." When evaluating software and technology for the classroom, be certain you believe in what you are doing; interest is simply not enough. Then, act promptly.

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