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     December 2003

Education Up Close

Evaluating 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.

Initial Considerations
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.

System Requirements
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.
8x CD-ROM CD-ROM drive speed: This is often printed on the CD disk drawer itself

Age Level
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.

Time Requirements
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.

Primary Considerations
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 materials?
  • 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 use?
  • Is there a "Search" function to find information?
  • 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?

Classroom Applications
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.

Technical Considerations
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.

Following Up
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.

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