SAN FRANCISCO — Seven-year-old Ryan Ballas, a student at E. R. Taylor elementary school, patiently explained the "game" on his Apple II to a hopelessly dense visitor.
"See, you're supposed to pick out all the words with a 'U' in the middle," the second-grader said. "You let the other words drop into the trash can. Here, I'll show you."
Concentrating closely as words flashed onto his screen, Ryan let HAM and BEG go by but hit the space bar to select HUT, HUM, BUN, SUN and BUG. After five correct selections, Ryan reaped his reward: A rabbit materialized on the screen and danced a jig as the computer played a little ditty.
All around Ryan, children at computers squealed happily as Reader Rabbit hopped onto their screens. Barbara Langerman, the computer lab teacher at E. R. Taylor, was equally delighted. "If we tried the same lessons with flash cards, they'd be bored in two minutes," she said.
After a false start earlier this decade when they promised more than they could deliver, personal computers are making a strong surge in education. Cheaper, more powerful machines and a host of creative and instructionally sound programs from such software publishers as the Learning Co. (maker of Reader Rabbit), Davidson & Associates, Broderbund and Sunburst Communications are fueling the trend.
To be sure, the educational software category remains minuscule compared to the business software market. At least $20 is spent on business software for every dollar spent on educational programs, according to the Software Publishers Assn. in Washington. Still, "we can now say that education is no longer a stepchild of the software industry" said Pat Neu, a teacher and software consultant at the Montaloma School in Mountain View, Calif.
Simply put, good educational software appears to deliver. While computers will never replace teachers--or, for that matter, parents--in education, the debate these days is not whether children benefit from PCs, but what software is best and what kinds of children benefit the most.
"You have a very patient, nonjudgmental tutor in a computer," said Ariella Lehrer, a cognitive psychologist and member of the California Educational Technology Committee. According to Lehrer, computers have shown the best results when paired with intelligent students. "If kids are pretty competent to begin with, put them in front of a computer and watch them fly," she said.
But the machines have proven beneficial to slower learners, too. "When we started our computer labs four years ago, our school had really poor test scores," Neu said. "Today, they have shot up to the point where we are considered a distinguished school."
As that realization spreads, "the educational market, finally, is exploding," said Victor Alhadeff, president of Egghead Discount Software, a 90-store national chain. He estimates that the educational market is worth $100 million a year.
Still, reaching parents remains a major marketing challenge for purveyors of educational products. "Not too long ago, most parents were phobia-ridden when it came to computers," said Claudia Cohl, editor of Family & Home Office Computing magazine. "We actually had mothers saying, 'I don't even want to dust it.' "
Early on, Cohl added, "a lot of unsubstantiated claims were being made, and that hurt the entire educational software industry."
Even computer literate parents, most of whom used IBM or compatible personal computers at work, faced a dilemma when buying machines for their homes. Should they buy an IBM-type machine, allowing them to bring work home? Or should they buy an Apple II, for which 90% of educational software was written, or some other type of machine?
Meanwhile, most early educational programs were either too abstract for the average child or consisted of rote "drill and practice"--known by teachers as "drill and kill"--exercises. "Even today, I would estimate that 95% of educational software is junk," said Bonnie Bergum, San Francisco school district software coordinator.
But the problems are abating. The relentless march of PCs into the office has made more parents comfortable with the technology. And it is no longer so important to buy an Apple now that educational publishers are rushing out IBM versions of popular Apple programs.
Perhaps most important, the choice of educational software has become easier now that a handful of companies have won reputations for consistently issuing excellent products. Educators say the Learning Co., founded by nun-turned-entrepreneur Ann McCormick on a $130,000 National Science Foundation grant in 1980, is one of the best. The closely held company hopes to double its sales this fiscal year to nearly $10 million.