Educational software for the language arts should serve as a conduit to foster language development and should be evaluated as such for each of its instructional claims. Because software is marketed to accommodate a particular instructional strategy or model--collaborative writing, cooperative learning, creative problem solving--does not warrant de facto high marks. Similarly, criteria for language development features and software evaluation must be based on findings of sound empirical and theoretical research on how we acquire and develop language as native (or second language) speakers, readers, and writers. Software, like textbooks and all other educational material, must be based not on the structure and analysis of the linguistic system (how we study language in formal ways) but on how we learn language in context.
As a linguist, as a teacher of English as a first and second language,
as an instructor of technical/corporate communications, and as
a professional writer who uses software, I am intrigued by--but
often wary of--technological advances that are not put to the
test of linguistic appropriateness for a learning environment.
Interactive capabilities, intuitive "navigation skills,"
a friendly interface, or useful management features that do not
incorporate an understanding of how we learn and develop language
functionally remain at best interesting and novel technological
features. Teachers, curriculum directors, and all others new
to computers and writing must consider not only the dynamic capabilities
of computers and instructional strategies but also the linguistic
foundations upon which they should rest. The guidelines that
follow represent criteria from such a language learning perspective
as a first cut in the evaluation process.
The Functional Context: All language learning (writing,
reading, etc.) should be presented in functional context of a
situation. Language learning is not subservient to the technology
but fostered by it. Language should be presented in an on-going
verbal and situational interaction. Software recognizes that
learning language is not a mechanical skill, but a cognitive and
Transparent Technology: Language learning rather than
technology learning should be the major focus and reality of the
software. Learners should not be distracted by the technology,
nor should they be required to spend an inordinate amount of time
learning the technology to do language arts.
Keeping Teachers and Students Primary: Software should
promote the a priori goals and objectives of a curriculum rather
than legislating them and should allow teachers to adapt instruction
to student needs and other learning contingencies. Software should
not place teachers or students on the learning or instructional
periphery, but should allow teachers to orchestrate the instructional
environment. Software should not interfere with learners' problem-solving
and composition strategies but complement and enhance these processes.
Appropriateness: Software design and content should be
appropriate for target users. Software examples and illustrations
should be suitable for learners' educational level and appropriate
for their reading levels. Branching for remediation or acceleration
should be provided.
Do You Really Need the Software? Software should be appropriate
for the content taught or reinforced. The software should give
students a learning experience that cannot be presented as effectively--or
more effectively--in another media. Do students need an elaborate
graphics package for what can be accomplished with a ruler and
a pencil? Is a computer-simulated human voice the best medium
for English phonetics in an English as a second language (ESL)
The preceding guidelines represent generic considerations for evaluating software in the language arts and are by no means exhaustive. From each guideline, teachers and curriculum directors can create more specific rules or ask critical questions of the software under scrutiny: "Are instructions clear?" "Is the presentation logical and well-organized?" "Is the content such that it encourages creative problem solving, the appropriate writing process given the genre studied?" Finally, as teachers and curriculum directors wade through the morass of available instructional software from persuasive marketeers on the one hand and the proliferation of evaluation guides on the other, they must critically assess, from their own professional perspectives, what role technology is currently playing in the "big picture" of schools and what role technology should and could play.
Technology should encourage teachers to express themselves as
thinkers, researchers, and activists--while it encourages the
profession to rethink the role of computers and all computational
media in education. If individual software packages do not encourage
or at least speak implicitly to this issue, they should seriously
be reconsidered for any other overriding value they may have before
they are adopted as part of a program's curriculum.
Mary Ann Eiler is Document Specialist with the
American Medical Association in Chicago.