Computer Software, Educational

views updated


Educational computer software inherited from television the hope for revolutionizing educational practice. In addition to the audiovisual qualities found in educational television, computers offered learners interactivity, immediacy of feedback about responses, and control over learning experiences. Academic subjects such as mathematics, science, history, and reading could be taught to children in an efficient manner. Nonetheless, not all computer applications are alike in the educational opportunities that they afford children.

Basic Applications

In his book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Seymour Papert (1980) advanced the idea that computers can teach children by serving as a tutor, a tool, or a tutee. As a tutor, the computer became an extension of teaching machines in which children learn by drill and practice. The computer tutors the child until the child masters that content. Lessons can be tailored to the knowledge bases of individual learners, and interactive contingent feedback allows children immediate knowledge about the accuracy of their responses. The research literature on computer-assisted instruction (CAI) demonstrates that drill and practice applications are effective in teaching children basic knowledge and even cognitive skills.

As a tool, computers can be used by children in their search for, and in their communication of, knowledge. Word processing packages are tools that children can use to meet their learning goals and objectives. Writing can be edited quickly and efficiently. Spell checkers automatically highlight words that are spelled incorrectly. Functions such as cut and paste, activities that were once done by hand with real scissors and tape, are now done electronically by computers. Children also use the computer as a tool for collaborating with others, particularly over the Internet.

Papert (1980) argued that the most powerful educational computer application, which is the least used option by children, is when the computer is a tutee. As part of this application, children tell the computer what to do. More specifically, children actively control the computer with their own programs, thereby mastering its codes and inner workings by engaging in cognitive activities such as logical thought, debugging, and planning. Research conducted by Yasmin Kafai (1995) demonstrated that child programmers use abstract cognitive skills when constructing logical flow charts to make fraction programs. Even so, other researchers, such as Diane Poulin-Dubois and her colleagues (1989) have found that learning a computer program designed to teach children geometry yielded specific skills but not general cognitive effects.

One way to foster children's involvement with computers is to embed the content in intrinsically interesting learning environments. In such applications, children become involved with the interactive software and master learning activities, such as reading along with a videodisc or a CD-ROM story-book or learning to read and write words within interesting computer simulations. Research by Carol Chomsky (1990) suggests that children are sometimes more motivated to learn in these interesting computer environments than when the same lesson is taught by a live teacher. More important, the research summarized by Sandra Calvert (1999a) shows that children learn and retain more of the educational material, recognizing new words or understanding complex concepts about how the brain works. These applications work for most children, including those with developmental difficulties such as autism.

Software Production Feature

Attractive formal production features from television can also be adapted to create intrinsically interesting computer environments. Formal features are audiovisual production features, such as action, sound effects, and language, that structure and represent the content that is to be learned. Formal features can be used to motivate, to focus attention selectively on important content, to provide visual and verbal modes to represent content, and to reward children for correct responses.

Moderate action has been a particularly useful feature for teaching children. According to research summarized by Calvert (1999b), when objects on a computer screen move rather than simply appear in still frame, children are more likely to select those objects, produce those object names, and remember those objects. Beneficial effects of action are most pronounced for young children and for those who have reading difficulties. These findings suggest that action is a developmentally appropriate mode that young or developmentally delayed children can use to represent content.

Production features, however, can also distract children from the learning task. For example, in one study summarized by Aletha Huston and John Wright (1998), first-grade boys became so interested in attractive CD-ROM production features that they rushed through an interactive story, later recalling less of the story material than children who saw the story without interactive capability.

Multimedia Teaching Methods

Anchored instruction is another method for creating intrinsically interesting learning environments for children. In anchored instruction, educational concepts are linked, or anchored, to entertaining, real-life material. For example, film situations such as Indiana Jones using his bullwhip to swing across a pit in Raiders of the Lost Ark are used to teach children math concepts. In addition to using the height of Indiana Jones and the length of the bullwhip to figure out how far he had to jump, the children can also apply this problem-solving approach to real-life problems that they encounter. According to research by Robert Sherwood and his associates (1987), such applications make learning fun while teaching children useful problem-solving strategies. Most of the research on anchored instruction was done with videodiscs, a device that has now been replaced by CD-ROMs.

The Internet provides academically oriented sites, including places to help children with their homework, to practice basic competency skills, and to explore areas that are of interest to them. Children collaborate online with other children throughout the world, including multinational efforts such as writing a joint newspaper.

Multimedia environments are emerging as a preferred method for teaching children. Voyage of the Mimi, a series developed by Bank Street College, was one of the first multimedia applications in which books, television, and computer software were used to teach science lessons. Such lessons were initially embedded within stories presented through books and television programs. The lessons could then be mastered by interacting with complementary computer software. These kinds of multimedia environments will become the norm as technologies converge, with the Internet delivering educational software applications and video content online to children in their schools and in their homes.

See also:Children's Creativity and Television Use; Computer Literacy; Computer Software; Educational Media Producers; Internet and the World Wide Web; Television, Educational.


Calvert, Sandra L. (1999a). Children's Journeys Through the Information Age. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Calvert, Sandra L. (1999b). "The Form of Thought."In Theoretical Perspectives in the Concept of Representation, ed. Irving Sigel. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Chomsky, Carol. (1990). "Books on Videodisc: Computers, Video, and Reading Aloud." In Cognition, Education, and Multimedia: Exploring Ideas in High Technology, eds. Don Nix and Rand Shapiro. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Huston, Aletha, and Wright, John. (1998). "Mass Media and Children's Development." In Handbook of Child Psychology, Vol. 4: Child Psychology in Practice, 5th ed., eds. William Damon, Irving Sigel, and K. Ann Renninger. New York: Wiley.

Kafai, Yasmin. (1995). Minds in Play: Computer Game Design As a Context for Children's Learning. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Malone, Thomas W. (1981). "Toward a Theory of Intrinsically Motivating Instruction." Cognitive Science 4:333-369.

Papert, Seymour. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. New York: Basic Books.

Poulin-Dubois, Diane; McGilly, Catherine A.; and Shultz, Thomas R. (1989). "Psychology of Computer Use: Effect of Learning LOGO on Children's Problem-Solving Skills." Psychological Reports 64(3):1327-1337.

Sherwood, Robert D.; Kinzer, Charles K.; Bransford, John D.; and Franks, Jeffrey J. (1987). "Some Benefits of Creating Macro-Contexts for Science Instruction: Initial Findings." Journal of Research in Science Teaching 24(5):417-435.

Sandra L. Calvert

More From

About this article

Computer Software, Educational

Updated About content Print Article


Computer Software, Educational