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Evaluating educational software for children with LD: What parents need to know

Learn how to be a wise consumer of educational software advertised as being effective for kids with learning disabilities.

By Kyle Higgins, Ph.D. , Randall Boone, Ph.D.

How Educational Software is Developed: What the Research Shows

Although many software developers know it is important to consult with educational experts, much software still is developed without consideration of key educational factors that may have an impact on learning1. Here are some examples of what researchers have discovered on the topic:

  • 1986 A. Ager found that fewer than 20% of the software programs he reviewed were rated as satisfactory by educators after the software was used with students with learning disabilities.
  • 1991 D. Neuman found that rigorous and systematic study of the interactions of students with learning disabilities and their teachers with commercial software was virtually nonexistent. She also identified problems that occurred when students with learning disabilities interacted with the commercial software.
  • 1992 T. Zane and C. G. Frazer found that software developers had no data to validate their claims as to the value of their educational software for student learning. Of 34 software producers contacted, only 15 responded to their inquiries:
    • 9 sent more documentation literature concerning the software;
    • 6 admitted that they had no data.
  • 1995 Specific to students with learning disabilities, S. Larsen found that a theoretical framework was missing in the design of most educational software for, and in use of the software with, students with learning disabilities.
  • 1999 K. Higgins, R. Boone, and D. Williams replicated the work of Zane and Frazer (1992) and contacted 33 educational software publishers.
    • 11 of the publishers were willing to provide information as to the development of their software.
      • 5 of them admitted that they had not conducted an evaluation of their software prior to publishing it.
      • 6 of the publishers were willing to provide information, but not concerning any software evaluation conducted with students with learning disabilities.
    • 22 software publishers were unwilling to provide any information.

Because of the lack of information from education software publishers about how their software is produced, parents are basically on their own when selecting commercial educational software for children with learning disabilities. Often parents find that software they have purchased is not adaptable, does not teach what it says it teaches, or does not support learning that is occurring in the classroom.2 As a result of these many concerns and issues, it is unclear to what extent educational software is meeting the needs of parents, teachers, and students today.3

Basic Software Components You Should Think About

When you evaluate educational software for your child with LD, several components must be taken into consideration:

  • The intended use of the software and whether the software is appropriate to meet your child's learning needs
  • The content of the software and whether or not the software directly supplements what your child is learning in school
  • The instructional presentation of the software and whether or not the software meets the learning characteristics of your child, for example, reading level, multiple forms of engagement, multiple representations of the content
  • Ease of use by your child, for example, can your child read the information, does your child get lost in the software?
  • Documentation and support should be provided
  • The technical adequacy of the software, for example, can your child easily figure out basic software functions such as starting up and closing down the program?

This is not an easy task for parents, who continually are faced with less and less time in which to do more and more.

Factors to Consider in Evaluating Educational Software

Just because a piece of software is reliable and easy to use does not necessarily indicate that it is of high educational value or that it meets the learning needs of a child with a learning disability. Many educators agree that while software has become more technically mature and active, it is seriously lacking in educational relevance.4

There are more tens of thousands of educational titles available, with hundreds being added yearly. With more than a thousand programs available for a single subject area, it is nearly impossible for parents to sort through to see if a particular piece of software has been evaluated.

Software reviews and software evaluations have been around since computers were first introduced into schools. While many journals or education-oriented magazines publish software reviews, there can be problems with the rigor and consistency of the content. Commercial magazines are supported by advertising from the very companies that publish the software under review. This may produce a conflict of interest that creates a hesitancy to view the products under review with a critical eye.

Often a software review is an opinion article - it is one person's view of the software. Typically a reviewer has never used the software with a targeted user group - for example, students with learning disabilities - nor is the reviewer even familiar with the learning characteristics of the targeted group.

Things to Consider When You Purchase Educational Software

So how do parents cope with the need to integrate computer-based learning materials into their child's learning tasks at home, while also recognizing the limitations of current software? You will want to consider the following important features when assessing a piece of educational software:

  • The software should consider the characteristics of a child's learning disability. For example, it should communicate relevant features of the task to be completed.
  • The software should provide options for the parent to select according to the type of learning disability of the child. For example, the reading level of the software should be adjustable.
  • The software should provide instructional options that can be tailored to a child's learning disability. For example, the software should provide adequate prompts for learning and responding.
  • The screen design of the software should take into consideration the learning characteristics of students with learning disabilities. For example, all text on the screen should be double-spaced and include color-cueing.
  • The instructional options built into the software should take into consideration the learning characteristics of students with learning disabilities. For example, the software should have built-in learning guidance for errorless learning and provide for "over learning."
  • The sound included in the software should be relevant and not interfere with learning. The software should include an option to turn off the sound.
  • All feedback included in the software should be consistent, obvious, and overt. A child should not be left wondering if he responded correctly.
  • The software should provide the ability to support assistive devices, such as text-to-speech technology.

Only your efforts as evaluators, as well as consumers, can help you avoid purchasing or using-software that is either ineffective with your child, does not teach what it says it teaches, or does not support what is occurring in your child's classroom. Through your evaluation efforts, you may also become a more determined advocate for high-quality software for students with learning disabilities.

References

  1. P. G. Geisert & M. K. Futrell, 1995
  2. D. Williams, R. Boone & K. Kinglsey, in press
  3. R. Forcier, 1999
  4. J. L. Flake, E. McClintock & S. Turner, 1990

Reviewed February 2010

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