Computer Software for De-Schoolers


Anybody educating their children at home and reading this will be aware of the potential of the computer as a learning tool.

However, much of the software available for both children and adults is not by nature educational. Computer retailers will tell you that the majority of computers sold to families will be used primarily for playing computer games. While I have no particular objection to computers being used for playing games, I worry when parents believe that their children, or they themselves, are learning something meaningful in playing a ‘shoot ‘em up’ game. I think they are somewhat misled if that is the case.

Software is also expensive ... in all probability you will spend more on software than on hardware over your lifetime. So it pays to choose the right software and to know how to make best use of it.

This is the first in a series of articles I plan to write on Computer Software for De-Schoolers. This article is an introduction to the whole topic, and later articles will deal with applying computer software in different subject areas. If you find the article useful then please email me. I would also be interested in your own experiences with computer software in a homeschooling situation.

I have not set out to provide reviews of good educational software in this series of articles. A number of other sites have this specific focus (see the link to a particularly good collection of reviews later in this article). Any references to particular educational software is simply for illustrative purposes - you are advised to read the reviews, read what’s written on the box, and ask your friends for their opinion before you set out and spend good money on a piece of software mentioned in this series of articles!

Why use educational software?

There are a number of very good reasons to use educational software in your homeschooling programme. I have found that software is useful as:

* a motivating tool
* entertainment
* a way of freeing children from drudgery
* it is incredibly patient and doesn’t mind repetition!
* a storehouse of information in a readily digestable format

Categories of educational software

There are a large number of different types of educational software. For example:

* Drill & practice (e.g. spelling software)
* Generic tools (e.g. word processor, database, spreadsheet, drawing, painting software)
* Story book or hypertext software (e.g. ‘Living Books’ from Broderbund)
* Interactive fiction (e.g.'Where in the World is Carmen San Diego')
* Resource (eg. encyclopedias, atlases, bible software)
* Programming (e.g. logo / lego technic)
* All of these different types of educational software have their uses.

Software as a launching pad not a dead-end

I firmly believe that educational software should be a launching pad and not a dead-end. By this I mean that kids should be excited by their learning experience and this should be able to be picked up by parents and this excitement channeled into other activities that are related to the themes being explored in the educational software. Children are most able to learn at what educationalists call “the teachable moment”. This is simply when the child has a raised motivation to learn. If children are stimulated by an idea or a topic, this can lead into an exploration of related areas of learning.

For example, if your child is following through on a storybook (such as Bears - see below) and is exploring the sounds that various musical instruments make then this can lead to all sorts of other learning opportunites. What about digging out some recordings and getting your child to identify the instruments being used? What about getting out all the musical instruments you have in the house and experimenting - even make up a tune? What about helping your child to make a simple musical instrument - like a drum, shaker or bamboo flute?

For this reason I don’t believe that software should be used as an entertainment device so parents can get on with. Too many good learning opportunities will be lost. However, I have to say that even I have been guilty of this at times when I need time out!

Open-ended or Closed Software?

Educational software is basically either “open-ended” in its approach or “closed”. I would choose to select softare that is “open-ended” in its approach over software that is “closed” any time.

What am I talking about? “Open” software leaves room for the child to put their ‘stamp’ on the software. Children will be presented with choices to make, they will be able to customise the learning to their interests, there is scope to produce a different outcome each time. Closed software is ‘lock-step’ there are a few or no choices and everything is predictable.

Examples of good “open-ended” software:

* All tool-type software such as wordprocessors, databases, etc.
* Microsoft Creative Writer
* Interactive fiction (like the classic but ageing Where in the World is Carmen SanDiego?)

Examples of “closed” software:

* drill and practice software (eg. some spelling programs)
* some “story book” type software that merely resemble traditional books

There are, however, various degrees of “openness”. For example, “Bears” an excellent New Zealand piece of children’s software is a “story book” style program. This software has far greater educational value than many of its competitors in the “story book” market (c.f. Broderbund’s “Living Books” series) because of the degree to which it is “open” to the child, and the degree to which the things that can be “clicked on” with the mouse are related to the themes in the story.

Using the software you already have

You probably already have access to some good educational software right on your own computer without even realising it! Common computer software tools such as word processors, spreadsheets, database software, web browsers, email clients, graphics software, multi-media encyclopedias and the like can be used very successfully with children.

In using adult computer software with kids, there are a number of simple techniques that can be applied to make the software more accessible. Here’s a few ideas:

* enlarge the font
* choose a font which is familiar to the child (keep it simple - children find it easier to identify with a san serif font)
* remove unnecessary toolbars and screen clutter
* create some custom buttons to do common activities - if you are really smart you can write macros to do things like saving the file with the child’s own name.

These adult tools can be used in all sorts of different ways. Here’s some ideas to get you thinking....

Bright Ideas for using a spreadsheet in mathematics

* It is very easy to make up multiplication tables
* Have your child fill in the missing squares in patterns
* The basics of addition and subtraction are easily mastered by even young children in a spreadsheet
* Try working out the answer to 2-3. This is an easy way of introducing the concept of a negative number.
* Excellent for introducing children to graphs
* Excellent for basic statistics: averages, modes, medians, etc.

Bright Idea for a child’s own database

* Get your child to keep a list of their toys, dolls, etc

Bright Ideas for an email program

* Introduce your child to an electronic penpal - there are sites which match children up!
* Sign your child up to a children’s email discussion group

Selecting Software

Probably the hardest thing of all for a parent is selecting good software from the hundreds of titles in the store. There are generally few opportunities to preview software before pulling out the credit card... so it can be very much a process of trial and error - and an expensive mistake is easily made.

Think seriously about other options to buying - like borrowing CDROMs from friends and other homeschoolers, checking out software available from public libraries, and looking out for secondhand software outlets. Our local homeschooling association runs a software library - maybe yours does too? If not, what about suggesting this as an idea to your local support group?

If you are looking to buy new software then look around for reviews of educational software. Computer magazines often review children’s software (although they may not be looking for the same things as a homeschooler would). An excellent website with a huge number of software reviews can be found at Learningware Reviews. Juline Lambert is a homeschooler, mother of three, and special education teacher so you can have some faith in her reviews. While there are a number of free reviews on her site, which will whet your appetite, the majority of reviews are only available if you join up and pay the small fee. Since one piece of inappropriate software may cost you up to four times the cost of becoming a learningware member, the joining fee is a small price to pay.

If you are a member of a homeschooling association or an email list then you can always ask others for suggestions about where to get a bargain, and what software has worked for them.

Posted by Mike Woods on February 11, 2002