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Buying Software on a Budget? Make Educated Choices

November 09, 2000|SUSAN McLESTER | smclester@cmp.com

Most schools operate on a shoestring, with teachers often dipping into their own piggy banks to buy pencils and other classroom supplies. The portion of a school's technology budget dedicated to software or Web-delivered curriculum is often pretty slim, so it's critical to get the best return on any investment. Here are 10 questions to consider when choosing software or subscription-based Web products for the classroom or computer lab.

1. How engaging and motivating is it? Although school activities do not directly compete with television and other home entertainment, learning should be fun. Humor, appealing characters, high-quality graphics, music, a compelling story line and achievable challenges keep kids interested. A good example is the Putt-Putt series from Humongous Entertainment, which features rich, colorful environments, logical thinking activities and narratives that keep youngsters focused.

2. How much play does it offer? If an hour or two of play exhausts a software product, it's not a good value. The best software offers several levels of difficulty that build on kids' skills and provide them with fresh challenges. More narrowly focused programs such as Sunburst's "Vowels Short and Long" should find regular use year after year. Spreadsheets, such as Knowledge Adventure's "Cruncher," can be integrated into math, art, literature and social studies.

3. Is the documentation clear and helpful? Many software and Web-delivered products offer school versions that provide materials to help teachers integrate them into the curriculum. The best include detailed lesson plans that go beyond traditional drills to spark activities that challenge kids to analyze, strategize and apply the scientific method to research. Edmark and Tom Snyder Productions offer consistently strong materials that often include strategies for assessment and setting up study teams and lesson plans.

4. How educational is it? The market is flooded with basic math, science and language software for elementary school students. When checking these out, note how much time users are actually required to spend on learning tasks, as opposed to clicking around on gratuitous animations or navigating virtual reality environments in search of activities. Look for programs that connect state and national education standards to individual activities. Products that promote critical thinking such as the Learning Company's "Yoiks!" foster skills that can be applied to all subject areas.

5. Does it take advantage of the technology? Text-heavy programs with no search, highlighting or note-taking functions have no business being on a computer. Those with little or no user interaction might be better delivered on video. Traditional multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank work sheets should probably remain on paper. Electronic programs should harness the power of technology to use sound, animation, video, text and graphics to engage users and address a range of learning styles. "Cyber Grannies" from Kutoka Software uses text labels, audio, animation and interactive games to present the alphabet to young learners.

6. What kind of feedback do students get? A well-designed program should incorporate instructional responses to both right and wrong answers and offer clues or hints to guide users. Help features should be customized to individual activities. The ClueFinders series from the Learning Company offers rephrased directions when kids click on help more than once.

7. How are ethnic minorities, women and other groups represented? Be on the lookout for programs that reinforce stereotypes. Are certain groups portrayed only in subordinate roles? Is there a sensitivity to cultures with values and perspectives different from traditional Western attitudes? Be suspicious of "pink software" programs that claim to appeal to girls. They're often not as robust as competing products and sometimes treat important issues in a superficial manner.

8. How easy is it to use? While any classroom should always be supervised by a teacher, it is still important that students can use software without constant assistance. A well-designed program includes clear, straightforward directions, an effective help feature, intuitive navigation that lets kids move around without getting lost and a clear mission or purpose.

9. Is the program classroom-friendly? Classroom and home environments differ in significant ways, so options such as turning sound down or off, saving for numerous users and printable progress reports are important. Products flexible enough to be used with individuals or small or large groups are also good.

10. Are you getting the best deal? As with any product, comparison shopping for curriculum programs is essential. Read evaluative reviews and talk to peers, parents and other teachers. For Web-based products, see if updates and enhancements come free with the subscription. Find reviews online at the Technology & Learning Magazine Web site at http://www.techlearning.com, the Children's Software Revue at http://www.childrenssoftware.com and the California Instructional Technology Clearinghouse at http://www.clearinghouse.k12.ca.us.

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Susan McLester is editor of Technology & Learning magazine.

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