The problem with educational software

Paul Romani

By Paul Romani
There are a fair number of companies out there devoted to producing educational software. They’re exploiting the desperation of schools to jump on the technological bandwagon.
While I’m not an expert on educational software, I am an expert educator and computer engineer. As a result, it’s a rare occurrence to see educational software to be of any use in a classroom.
In my experience, I see the following problems:
1) Teachers rarely have sufficient technical expertise to use computer hardware or software well. Almost always their students will be far superior to them.
I’ve seen numerous university professors that can’t even work a multimedia projector or a dvd player confidently! When you see their awful PowerPoint presentations, that just about sums things up.
So many teachers are using technology because of expectations (from students, parents, schools, and/or themselves), not because they’re using it in a way that truly enhances their teaching ability.
Instead of being an educational tool, technology ends up being an obstacle or a farce.
2) Computer software is too focused on the geek and not on the educator.
I’ve tried out different types of software, both as a student and an educator, and such software has lacked any educational value or intuitiveness. Whether the software is pretty or ugly, it has amounted to the same result – “What’s the point of this?” It’s a gimmick that schools use to entertain kids into thinking that school’s fun.
Software is focused on exclusive subject areas (which I’m no fan of), and attempts to teach the same subject in as many different fun and creative ways possible – but to no avail.
Another issue is that educators have little control over the software. Sure they might be able to tweak some things here and there, but those things a mostly gimmicks. Ultimately, it’s the software designer that dictates what is taught or not taught – and how it’s taught. This makes the teacher feel powerless.
Now don’t get me wrong, I feel just the same way about most textbooks. As a teacher, it pains me to even look at a textbook, because I feel that authors have lost sight of what it’s like to be in classroom trying to implement such garbage! Often I wonder if the writer(s) is even an educator themselves, or is one of those academic theorists that’s never actually implemented their own ideas.
Nevertheless, I pride myself on being able to spot ideas buried on a page and whip them up organically into a great class. No, I don’t believe in lesson plans! I learned long ago that the best lessons are ones that we feel passionately about, and passion is rarely derived from Unit 1 of some boring textbook.
Anyway, my point is that unless educational software is made less constructed (and gimmicky) to allow more organic control by teachers, then its value can only be found through self-study at home, not in a classroom.
While some teachers might say that software is useful, I would argue that their own teaching would provide more value, because it’s geared up for the individual needs and personalities of the students in that classroom – something that a software designer cannot account for.
Even with a more organic technological system, teachers will require tremendous amounts of training to understand and fully utilize such software (especially PowerPoint!).
Furthermore, to see the potential in any computer technology requires a keen imagination and strong critical thinking skills. While I believe that my combined career backgrounds afford me this ability, I have yet to find many others that are equally able to do this – nor would I expect them to be so.
Technology is a tool that can be used to great or lesser extents to assist in teaching – not to replace it. The Internet, PowerPoint, etc. are tools.
Educational software is someone else’s constructed lesson plan. It’s not our lesson plan, and it’s not really a tool either.