What sort of software should we use in school? (1997)

If you ask why children should use computers in schools you can get a lot of answers. They say it's to develop IT capability or it's to enhance other subjects. They say it'll help them at work or because IT is important. They say lots of things.

It's like those other questions that generate lots of no-right answers: what is education for, what's the best way to teach, or what's the meaning of MSDOS.

But with computers, an answer is important. It helps us to choose our tools from the range of school and office software.

When you're looking for handling software, there is Microsoft Access, Filemaker Pro and others - which can store, process and retrieve information and are much used in business. So if the idea is to prepare students for work, these are the ones to run with.

But handling data in a school subject, is a different need. It might be to draw a graph, or find a pattern or whatever a 9 year old must do. And while the same business program might do fine, it has to pass these new tests.

Take for example the data handling program Counting Pictures. It draws pictograms, bar charts, and sorts a list so easily it's ideal for infant maths and science. Pupils who can't even do numbers can be doing with this. They quickly grow onto Counter and use it to record results and choose the graph to represent them. Later still they might use Counter Plus which lets them handle more data sets, and more graphs at once.

What makes these excellent isn't just the seamless progress pupils make from one to the other, or that they're part of one package, or that they develop skills found in more muscular software, it's that they fulfil a curriculum need.

This software isn't the work of any industry giant matching industry tools to education, it's the work of Welsh software house, BlackCat. Director Simon Barrett, a former advisory teacher feels that success demands focus on education, "You have to look at what children need to be able to. People try to hone a piece of industry software down to the classroom, when it really needs to be designed from classroom up."

Acorn users are no strangers to this idea as so much of their software is embedded in education. Even Simon Barret, who targets Windows PC's and the lowly Nimbus PC186, can find time to laud the progression through Longman's Pinpoint range.

When you're choosing word processing programs, the need for text editing, formatting and added graphics is easily meet. But packages like Writer's Toolkit from the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, which helps pupils develop their writing, are easily missed. With this they choose whether they will write a story, a letter or a science report, and are hand-held as they think through the purpose of their work. They'll find aids to writing dialogues, developing characters, and putting flesh on their ideas in a 'plot maker'. Writer's Toolkit offers the youngest writers, and those who are keyboard-struck in front of a blank screen, a secure structure to work from. It's been SCET's major success.

No one confirms the rumour that a US outlet sent a copy to Joan Collins, but apocryphal or not, it hints of a tool to help writing and meet school needs.

Looking at conventional word processors, it's interesting to put BlackCat's First Word beside Microsoft Word, the 85% of the market giant and last word on the subject. There's little Microsoft's offering cannot do, it marks misspelled words as fast as you type them, has a fluorescent highlighter, and more buttons than an aeroplane cockpit.

First Word looks similar if spartan beside it, but there are extras. There's a notepad for jotting off-page ideas and unusually, a spelling checker which not only makes sense of 'wot' and 'woz' but will store the problem word in a handy word book. There's a writing planner, where pupils type in headings and subheadings, and drag them into order.

Teachers will find a section which measures how children use it, while young writers will find the easiest, sweetest dialogue boxes which use sliders to change the type size. And by allowing you to use it at different levels, switching on its harder dialogue boxes, First Word has progression written all over it.

Unusually, cd-rom software divides between home and school rather than office and school. From the thousands of titles that you might disc jockey through, only handfuls are produced expressly for school. Some will find a place in the library, some including Hampshire's Exploring Nature are targeted at the tiny market niche of the classroom.

Exploring Nature put you in a study with reference books to browse, a computer to write with and a phone to 'call' for help. You can pop into the garden or go to the wood and like the field trip that this is excellent preparation for, you can take photographs, measurements and creatures back to the classroom. With a price of 100, (now much less) without movie, sound, or designer-looks no parent would buy this. But in school it fulfils a vacuum of models pupils can explore.

With resources like these, there's no space for a right answer to that impossible question, we'd miss too much of what's good. As Simon Barrett concludes, "For years there's been this Mantra that children should use industry standard software, when what children need is software they can use creatively, that leads them on to that". Maybe that's something of a compromise

Where are they now?

Strange days were the early days of computers in school. You had a computer with school made programs on the one hand, and office software on the other. When people cried for industry standard software, they meant they wanted quality.

This sort of background set brains storming. LEAs opted for Research Machines or Acorn and they and others set about writing educational software. They made some compelling classroom software, offering benefits which didn't come any other way. It's only natural, evolution even that these ideas lived longer than others.

Developing Tray was much praised in the first software wave. It's a word processor which would take something you typed, like a poem, and pepper it with gaps which the pupils had to puzzle out. They could guess at '-h-' but soon had to look for clues from the context. If anything focused minds on a piece of text this did, and it was a treat to see the teamwork this invited, goaded by a chance of a high score.

Along with a following of language teachers, other subject teachers discovered the 'Tray' program. They used text about the planets, and the water cycle, and saw pupils engaged in a way unlike simple 'fill in the gaps' exercises. Teachers even used it as a way to introduce the computer, but however much their aims differed no subject could claim it as theirs.

Another program, 'Sorting Game, was better known as the animal game, an idea as old as the computer. The computer asked you to think of an animal, and then tried to guess it by asking questions like 'does it live in the sea', or 'does it fly'. It might guess right, but if not it would ask you to think of a question to distinguish your animal some other or if you were sorting fruits, a grape from a melon (does it grow on the ground?).

Unlike a game, it set children observing and classifying in much the way of scientists. And like 'Tray' this was a generic icon, such that even advanced students could use it gainfully, classifying anything from chemicals to armadillos.

There were others. Eureka taught about graphs using a 'man' in a bath. You pressed T to turn on a tap, P to put the plug and as you played with the buttons, you could watch a graph of the water level in the bath. While 'Moving Molecules', taught pupils about kinetic theory as they played with a screen-full of molecules, heating, cooling and watching a model that's still the bedrock of science.

If evolution were at work, these programs would be part of today's educational software. But many never made it onto today's computers. The soul of the idea survived, but its floppy disc will be buried with that BBC.

There's no need to mourn, or cherish the days when we'd ask "Does it run on a Nimbus". More there's a need for software designers to reflect on what worked, as well as what's needed.

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