What interests me in educational software 2/18/07
I've had versions of this post rattling around in my head for a while because I couldn't come up with the perfect situation to articulate them. I can't keep doing that-- perfect times for things are too rare, and too dependent upon multitudes of imperfect attempts that let you see the right time to move. Cats become good hunters and pouncers by pouncing off the edges of tables when they are kittens. Anyway.
I think that a lot of "educational software" as it stands now is pedagogically moribund, intellectually misguided, or worse. This state of the field means that schools often don't see using software in school as worth it-- they'll have to invest significant time in learning the software, adapting their curricula to it, and arranging the class schedule to accomodate it, only to have it do what the teacher is already doing. Most software out there is supplemental, good for reinforcing what the school is doing or, on occasion, creating interest in something the student could learn more about. More often, it earns the (often derogatory) term edutainment.
Despite the very sound reasons that this state has developed, I don't think that this has to be the case, at all. Much of the software out there that is considered educational is delivering what someone has deemed sufficiently educational content. It's teaching the student phonics, or greek history, or what it is like to live in Sri Lanka today. While those are good things in the right time and place, they're not what computers are best at, according to Steven Johnson (and many, many others).
What computers are good at is process. Computers take input, do things to it, and produce output. As the user varies the input and runs it through the computer, the user learns a lot about the process the computer is putting the data through. As a spreadsheet user gets frustrated with Microsoft Excel and tries different things to get their spreadsheet to turn out as intended, they learn how Excel is manipulating their input. As a gamer tries to ride a horse over hills in Shadow of the Colossus or get from city to city in World of Warcraft, they're learning how SotC or WoW restricts their movement, allows some inputs (actions) and not others. They're learning how to use the rules of the world to accomplish what they want.
Truly educational software, whether or not it's intended or labeled as educational, teaches its user about its processes. Learning those processes and analyzing them looks a lot like what educators call "critical thinking" and laud as a primary goal of enlightened curricula. Kids learn unasked from games, but then are bored by what they're asked to learn in school. Software could be bridging the gap, by giving students rich situations to playfully practice what they're told in school. It's rare to use software in schools in that way, though, and this is one thing that interests me about educational software.
Examples of how that might happen form the core of my interests in educational software. I'm interested in:
- games that communicate concepts rather than facts or situations
- games that are sandboxes, space for simulations and safe practice of challenging processes to learn
- tools that facilitate better writing, reading, thinking, and presentation
- tools that facilitate or augment what teachers are already doing
I'm going to be writing about many topics related to this in textuality.org since it's the core of my passion. Sorry if I didn't explain and defend each of the assertions in this post, as many clauses here clamor for comment. I think this will be one of those posts that I end up using to spin off many future posts, a clause-as-link at a time.