Software for the Classroom
Choosing instructional software to use in your class
is an important decision that requires diligence, planning, and time. Don't let that deter you from integrating it into your curriculum though. There are a variety of simple steps you can take to help ensure that the product
will be an appropriate and effective choice for your class.
Check with Your District First
Some districts and states have software evaluation programs in which
a volunteer network of teachers evaluate software and make their evaluations
available. You may be able to read reviews of the product that have already been conducted. When resources such as these are not available, you will need
to review the software yourself.
Prior to getting into a full-scale program evaluation, several issues
should be considered. These include system requirements, intended grade
or age level, time requirements, and cost.
You can usually find this information printed on the software packaging itself. Some software products provide only minimal
information about the program: a one line description of system requirements,
a brief description of content, and the intended grade level. Others also provide useful information that will help you farther along in the process, such as instructional objectives, integration suggestions, related
online resources, and supplemental print materials.
Your first consideration will be whether your classroom is equipped
with adequate computing resources to handle the program. Use the table
below to decode the system requirements listed for the software.
If you are still uncertain, discuss the requirements with your technical
coordinator or support personnel.
You can learn information about your computer system
easily. In Windows, open the control panel and click "system"
or "system properties."
|The requirements say this
||They refer to this
|Windows 2000 or XP
||Operating System; an older system,
such as Windows 95 or 98 may cause problems
|Pentium 200 MMX
||Processor type and speed
|32 Mb RAM
||Random Access Memory (RAM): the
amount of memory available for running software and hardware
|180 Mb Hard Drive
||Hard drive disk space available,
different than RAM
|4 Mb accelerated SVGA Card
||Graphic card type and memory: this
affects graphic and multimedia performance
|Windows 2000 Compatible Sound Card
||Sound capabilities: This is installed
inside of your computer. It is usually compliant with the operating
system you are running.
||CD-ROM drive speed: This is often
printed on the CD disk drawer itself
Is it age appropriate for your students? The software maker will provide
an age or grade range; however, this is subjective and may not be entirely
accurate. You should check the software yourself to judge whether it will
work for your students.
If there is a self-contained and self-paced curriculum in the program,
how long does it take to complete on average? How much computer time is
available per student? Will there be adequate computer time for each of
your students to master the required skills and content?
Is this program affordable? Consider determining how many students
will use the program the first and second years and dividing the cost
by this number. This might help improve your chances of getting funding
for the purchase.
Once you have determined that the program meets your initial criteria,
you are ready to conduct a more in-depth evaluation. There are many points
on which a software program can be evaluated. The following criteria may
help you determine whether the software will meet your needs and ultimately
those of your students.
Naturally, you will want to determine whether the content is what
you are looking for.
- Are the objectives of
the program clearly defined?
- Does the program adequately cover the concepts
and skills required?
- Are there any assessment
tools either online or available for print? Can you modify them?
- Are there correlations
to state standards?
- Can you modify the scope
or sequence of the content?
Pedagogy and Instructional Design
The amount of content covered, the way it is presented and assessed
both visually and sequentially, the way it is accessed—all of these
elements converge in an instructional design picture that either permits
or inhibits learning.
As an instructor, you must make a determination regarding
the efficacy of the instructional program. Use the following questions
to guide your assessment of the software program.
- Can you adjust the level of difficulty in
the instruction? If so, are there any
preassessment tools that help define a student's level?
- How is the material reinforced? Are drill and
practice exercises appropriate?
- Is the material age appropriate?
- What kind of learning aids are provided:
a glossary of terms, links to advanced and/or related concepts, or printable
- How does the program accommodate multiple
modes of learning including visual and sound elements?
- Will it engage students? Is it dynamic enough
to capture and hold students' interests?
- Will it produce a report or certificate of mastery?
How do you track performance?
Interface and Multimedia Considerations
While the content drives the instruction, the presentation facilitates
the experience. Interface refers to the graphic layout of the page, primarily
the tools that are used to view content, navigate through the program
and find information. The interface greatly affects whether a program
feels "user friendly" or whether it seems difficult to use.
Consider the following criteria when judging the
suitability of the software product.
- Is the text readable?
- Are the navigation controls clear and easy to
- Is there a "Search" function to find
- Does the program progress at an appropriate pace?
- Do the graphics enhance the learning experience
or detract from it?
- If human characters are used, do they represent
an accurate cross-section of genders and ethnicities?
- Is the presentation engaging and appropriate for
the age level?
Not all educational programs are designed for use in the classroom. Consider
which aspects of the program can be used in classroom discussions, assignments,
or collaborative learning projects.
How well does the program work technically? Technical problems can undermine
learning. Be sure to consider them when conducting an evaluation.
- Does the program often freeze up your system?
- Is it easy to solve technical problems?
- Does the program run slowly or interrupt frequently?
Technical support and documentation
What type of technical support is available for the product? Software
providers typically offer one or more of the following types: printed
documentation and troubleshooting information, online support in the form
of a web site, or a help center phone number.
If the software is complicated to run or will be
used by a lot of students, be prepared to answer questions and troubleshoot
problems associated with it. Your best bet is to have adequate support
from the software provider.
Once you have completed your review, you are ready to either purchase the software or look elsewhere. When you have found a good product using a thorough and systematic review process, you have greatly increased your chances to succeed with it in the classroom. Don't forget to share your experiences, both positive and negative,
with colleagues in your district and state, if possible.