Educational software falls into several categories. These are: drill and practice, tutorial, simulation, problem solving, and utility programs. Although a particular software program may have components of more than one category, it is useful for the teacher to be able to understand generally which type of software is appropriate for a particular learning task.
The purpose of drill and practice software is to have the learner memorize information. It does not act as the teacher, but as a kind of automated flash card. The program presents a question to the learner, the learner responds, and the software then gives feedback as to whether the answer is correct or incorrect. Most drill and practice software will accept two incorrect answers, and then provide the correct answer so that the learner is not stuck on a particular item for a long period of time.
Drill and practice software is one of the earliest types of educational software, and many educators today believe it to have little value in the classroom, referring to it as "drill and kill" because it can lead to boredom through repetition. However , drill and practice software does have some benefits. It provides the student with individualized practice; the student must answer every question. In a classroom setting where each student is called on to answer one question in twenty or more, drill and practice software provides more time on task than a group lesson can. Learners using the software also report that they feel more comfortable because they can set their own pace (if the software allows), and their answers and feedback received are privat e. A computer, unlike a human, appears to have limitless patience.
The curricular applications for drill and practice software include any area where basic skill mastery is desired. Memorization of math facts, grammar practice, and foreign language vocabulary practice are examples of appropriate use of this software.
The purpose of tutorial software is to instruct the learner. This type of software may include some practice, but it is primarily used in a teaching capacity. Tutorial software usually assesses the learner's skill, then presents new instruction, gives practice, asks a question and, depending on the learner's response, either remediates by re-teaching, or moves on to the next level.
Tutorial software, like drill and practice, has value to the learner in that it allows the learner to answer every question, proceed at her/his own pace, and provides privacy of feedback. If the tutorial is branching rather than linear, it is more useful educationally. Linear tutorials allow the learner to take only one path, following it from beginning to end. Branching tutorials, on the other hand, allow the learner to decide which part of the software to use at a particular time. This means that if a student already knows some of the material, s/he can proceed to new, unfamiliar material. Critics of tutorial software feel that it is too much like an electronic page-turner, restricting meaningful exploration of a topic. They believe th at instruction is best done by the teacher, who can adjust more effectively than a machine to the needs of the students while presenting a lesson.
Curricular applications for tutorial software are broad. Tutorials can be used in language instruction, mathematics, and even writing. Most software programs come with built-in tutorials that help show the learner how to navigate through the program.
The purpose of simulation software is to provide an analogy of a real life situation. Simulations have historically been used in driver education, flight training, and medical diagnosis classes. This type of software presents a situation to the learne r, the learner makes a choice, and the software responds to that choice by taking one of several paths. It behaves similarly to the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books that children enjoy.
Simulation software provides learners with an opportunity to work cooperatively, solve problems, and speculate "what if". This type of software is time effective, cost effective, and safer than experiencing the situation first hand. For instance, a fi fth grade teacher, wanting students to gain an understanding of western migration, could use the program, Oregon Trail. In this case, traveling across the country by covered wagon would be too long, too expensive, and too dangerous to accomplish in real l ife. Critics of simulation software point out that student learning is restricted by the software; there are only a certain number of choices a student can make, and that may discourage meaningful exploration of the subject. Simulations also take a longer time to complete, and in classrooms where students have only a few minutes each day to use the computer, working through a simulation could become tedious or discouraging. Others believe simulations are too close to games to have any lasting educational benefit. It is true that learners may often neglect to read material presented on the screen in an effort to win, or complete the simulation.
Curricular applications for simulation software are extensive. They are often used in science, particularly for laboratory experiments. Social studies is another area in which simulations are applicable. Math students can simulate graphs and other fun ctions through use of simulations, and in graphic design, cars and houses can be constructed using computer simulation software.
The purpose of problem solving software is to present the learner with a problem, and to teach problem solving and decision making skills. Problem solving software is often used for cooperative group learning, although it can stimulate competition as well. The student is presented with a problem, s/he considers various approaches, makes a decision and acts, receives feedback, and either refines the attempt or succeeds in solving the problem.
Problem solving skills are valued by both educators and the general public (goals 200 etc. here). The difficulty with problem solving software is that it is not curriculum specific, although there are a few programs that are available for mathematics (King's Rule, How the West was 1+3*4). For this reason, educators are reluctant to spend classroom budget money for this type of software.
The purpose of utility software is to act as a kind of teacher's helper or secretary. Programs which allow the teacher to construct tests, make awards, publish a calendar, keep student grades, generate crossword puzzles, and make signs, banners, and c ards to use in the classroom are examples of utility software. This is often the most useful kind of software to introduce to novice computer users. Most utility programs are easy to use, and the results are rewarding to the user. One utility software pro gram can be used by many faculty members, making it a cost-effective purchase. When presenting a teacher inservice to beginning computer users, I always use utility software first. It is a real "hook" to draw hesitant people to using technology.
Several types of computer software have been discussed in this chapter. With the advent of CD-ROM and other interactive multimedia, to say nothing of telecommunications and the Internet, the developments in computer software are incredible. For example s of how educators are using software in their classrooms, visit one of the sites below.
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