Mind that child

Marshal Anderson explains what you need to know about educational software.

Micro User, October ‘87

IT'S been a long time since any of us believed manufacturers who claimed that we could run our central heating off their latest 16k micro or that we couldn't run normal household accounts without the aid of twin floppies and a printer. All the time people are joining rapidly less exclusive computer club for more rational reasons. One of most popular reasons goes right to the heart with advertisers pushing the seemingly logical: “If you don't buy our machine your child will spend its life sweeping floors or worse." Now, with the central heating and household accounts myth you had little to lose. The overdraft will eventually be cleared and the electricity board will forgive you for fusing the entire street. But if the hardware and software manufacturers' claims for educational computing are as wrong then the damage will be harder to spot and more far reaching.

I am not suggesting for a moment that the computer has no place in education and the government has many different reasons for funding micros in schools. At least one of them contains educational considerations and when they spend money like that there's got to be something in it.Although a majority of schools use computers in their curriculum they are by no means agreed on exactly how this should be done. In fact many have little if any computer policy. There's nothing particularly horrific about that - education is continually experimenting with new methods. The fruits of this experimentation are beginning to appear in the form of training for teachers and resource centres but there's still a long way to go. Along with all this work on the use of computers in school there has been a noticeable absence of advice to parents on how children should use them at home and I hope this article will go some way to correcting that.

One thing everyone agrees is that wrong help is worse than no help at all. Many children waste a lot of time in school unlearning the 'wrong stuff' before they can start to learn the 'right stuff. The first rule to home education is: 'Just 'cos they say it don't mean its true". Frankly, we are still seeing education software in which the facts and/or processes being taught are at least shaky if not completely wrong. Some of this is easy to spot: The programs that accept the wrong answer as right, contain incorrect formula or out of date information - especially true of geography programs. But some contain more subtle faults and conceptual blunders that are harder to spot and make the software worse than useless.

Before you can discover these problems you will probably have to buy the software and, as they won't take it back because you don't like it, let's start with a few basic precautions. First, you need to find out whether it is going to be any use to your child. For instance multiplication tables testing for 10 year-olds is probably a waste of time in most cases as they'll quickly become bored, no matter how it is packaged. Most seven year olds will find the greater part of division tables a complete mystery. Your child's teacher may well be able to help you as to areas for reinforcement. Second, be very clear as to whether the software you are buying is trying to teach or reinforce. So, if you have a child taking O'level Biology a program entitled Biology Quiz may seem ideal, but is it likely to contain the right sort of questions at the right level? Finally, remember that children are very quick to see through the most imaginative packaging of any subject. A child who finds maths difficult or boring will also find maths disguised as space-invaders difficult or boring.

Having run through this check list and bought your software there are now a series of other questions to be asked. First, try it out yourself. Is the program self explanatory'? If the child needs help will the program give it? Are the instructions within the child's reading capability? What exactly is it trying to teach or reinforce? How can you test to see if it is working? There can be little doubt, with most educational software, that you will need to guide your child through it at least once.

Once it is in use, the main and most subtle danger is that the child will be learning the program instead of the content. This will often happen with multiple choice questions where a child can score a high mark through sheer luck and pay absolutely no attention to the actual questions. In this kind of program the worst case can be that the child simply learns a series of response letters in the correct order to get to the end, learning absolutely nothing about the content. You can easily test this yourself by asking your child questions out of context of the machine, you may be surprised. The theory that children can learn from computers is still under investigation but it has often been noticed that children have difficulty in transferring knowledge and skills from the best educational software to other situations.

Another point to look for is the visual reward part of the program. A child is naturally going to try to coax on to the screen the most interesting graphics and this is the carrot to computer aided learning. Unfortunately, many of these programs produce the most interesting graphics when the child fails. Just watch a group of children playing computer hangman and see which ending they like best. What we actually have here is a reward for wrong answers and to prevent this becoming a worse than useless program you will have to counteract with some sort of external reward for high correct scores.

Another series of problems arises in the teaching of mathematical processes and will need careful checking. For instance there are still some programs which ask children to enter answers to sums from left to right. This is not the way the child will normally work and can cause a great deal of confusion. It is also worth noting that subtraction is taught in two different ways these days (decomposition and equal addition) and it is very important that you present your child with the one he or she is used to - the school should be able to guide you here.

So in our search for good educational software we need to find a program that children can understand, teaching the right processes and knowledge at the right time in the right way. Frankly, there's not going to be much of this sort of thing about when we look at it in terms of the needs of an individual child.

Certainly there are a reasonable amount of practice programs in basic arithmetic and some good spelling programs, especially those with large, changeable databases that have words grouped by spelling rules. But the area of programs that actually teach a child something new is still very dodgy and presently to be approached with caution.

The ideal situation is one where you are able to use the same software that is used in your child's school. If you ask nicely they may even let you try it before you go out and buy.