This article discusses K–12 educational software in the United States. Educational software began in the 1940s as a military tool, but soon it was adopted by colleges and universities before finding its way into the K–12 market. Beginning in the 1980s, educational software such as typing tutors and reading programs was introduced into K–12 schools along with inexpensive Apple or IBM computer hardware. Most school districts believed that educational software would give teachers and students new pedagogical tools that, when used in conjunction with traditional classroom instruction, would improve student test scores and better equip them for what was becoming an increasingly computer-dominated workplace. With the advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, educational software began to evolve beyond the floppy disk and the CD-ROM. Now in the twenty-first century, some experts argue that educational software is evolving yet again as it makes use of the ascendant social software paradigm and concepts used in video games. Meanwhile, debate about the impact of educational software on student achievement continues, with some critics urging schools to move away from what they perceive as "edutainment" products and refocus on more tried-and-tested methods of instruction.
Keywords CD-ROM; Educational Software; Edutainment; Floppy Disk; Pedagogical Tools; Social Software; Typing Tutor; Worldwide Web
Educational software has gone through three distinct phases, starting with the mainframe phase. Beginning in the 1940s, the US government used analog computers to power flight simulators to train American pilots during World War II, while the British initially developed digital (vacuum tube-based) computers like Colossus to help break German codes (Copeland, 2006).
These massive computers—or mainframes—were used primarily by governments and higher education through the early 1970s. Programs resided on these massive computers, and users in government and colleges and universities could access them through terminals. Colleges and universities, later the early adopters of computer and Internet technology, were also pioneers in educational software. The first recognizable computer-assisted learning tool was PLATO III, the brainchild of University of Illinois physicist Chalmers Sherwin and his lab assistant, Donald Bitzer. PLATO I was launched as a pilot project in 1960, and by the time PLATO III (the third-generation of the technology) was launched in 1969, the system allowed instructors to program their own lesson modules. PLATO III was accessed by students at the university through custom-built terminals. Similar examples were found across other colleges and universities in the United States in the 1970s.
The second phase for educational software was the personal computer phase. In January 1975, Popular Electronics magazine advertised a kit that would enable readers to build their own personal computer, the Altair 8800. The response was overwhelming, with thousands of orders flooding in for the new computing machine. In Boston, Harvard students Bill Gates and Paul Allen saw an opportunity to write an operating system for the new machines, and they talked the creators of the Altair 8800 into shipping the computers with something Gates and Allen called Altair BASIC. Soon Gates and Allen formed a new company around their software and called it Micro-soft (later changed to Microsoft). Two years later, in 1977, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak's new company, Apple, introduced the Apple II personal computer, which featured cutting-edge color graphics. It became the symbol of the personal computer revolution.
With the growing user base for the Apple II, as well as the introduction of increasingly powerful PCs running increasingly powerful incarnations of Microsoft's operating system, software developers began to see myriad business opportunities in three different markets: business, home, and education.
As the business world adopted the personal computer on a grand scale, education leaders began to advocate for its use in schools. Their logic was simple: students should learn computer skills in schools so that they won't be left behind when they enter the job market. When the competitive dust had settled, Apple was the most successful in getting its more beginner-friendly computers (complete with a graphical user interface) into elementary schools with other PC manufacturers such as IBM captured the majority of the high school market. As late as 1995, five years after the Apple II was discontinued, it still accounted for nearly 38 percent of all school computers (Flynn, 1995).
Beginning in earnest in the early 1980s, a wide variety of educational software became available for home and school use. Reading and math software was especially prominent in elementary schools, while typing tutors and office applications (such as word processors and spreadsheets) were fixtures in middle and high school computer labs. The accepted wisdom was that educational software was helping both to modernize the American educational system and to make quality education more widely accessible. As a 2007 study by the US Department of Education and reported by ABC News noted, "Almost every school district in the country has bought computer software that's supposed to help kids do better in math or reading" (ABC News, 2007).
Still, despite the advances made by computer technology in the 1980s, there were inherent limitations to the educational software of that time. The content of the computer-based lessons was limited because it was run from floppy disks or, later, CD-ROMs running on one computer or on one server in a school. Even client-server computing, which made it possible for students sitting at terminals in different classrooms to go through the same software lessons, was only able to network students at that particular school.
The World Wide Web
In the early 1990s, the Internet began to transform the educational software industry, making it web-based rather than simply computer-based. This ushered in the third phase of educational software: the World Wide Web phase. Using the Internet, students were able to tap into a global community of teachers and learners to expand their educational horizons. And teachers began to join together across the globe to share resources and advice.
While educational software in CD-ROM form didn't disappear, it was supplemented by a bounty of free, quality educational content available to anyone with an Internet connection. As a result, the market for traditional, media-based educational software softened. The New York Times reported the situation as of 2005:
Educational software makers in the consumer market are not alone in their struggles. Those making software for schools have suffered too, executives and analysts said, from cutbacks in school budgets. Overall spending on software by K–12 schools was $2.3 billion in 2004, up 2 percent from a year earlier but down from $3.4 billion in 2001, according to ThinkEquity Partners (Richtel, 2005).
The reach of the World Wide Web quickly expanded—some would say exploded—across the educational landscape: while only 35 percent of public schools were wired in 1994, the number climbed to nearly 100 percent by 2009 (Wells & Lewis, 2006, p. 4) with 97 percent of teachers reporting having one or more computers in their classroom every day, and Internet access available for 93 percent of those computers (US Department of Education, 2010, p. 3). Wireless connections to the Internet are becoming the norm due to faster speeds, more flexibility in network configurations, ease of expansion, and lower costs (Walery, 2004). In addition, a NCES 2009 survey found that the ratio of students to instructional computers with Internet access has increased from s dropped to 3.8 students per computer in 2005 (Wells & Lewis, 2006) to 5.3 students per computer (US Department of Education 2010). The first time NCES measured this ratio was in 1998, and at that time there were 12.1 students per computer. Fast broadband connections provided quicker access to web-based information. A 2012 report by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), however, reported that nearly 80 percent of schools surveyed reported that their current broadband connection was unable to meet their needs, and the same percentage of teachers who used online videos in their classrooms reported problems with and disruptions with streaming (Scott, 2012).
Private schools and home schooling families were also taking advantage of the Internet beginning in the 1990s. By 1998, 67 percent of all private schools had Internet access, and among Catholic schools, the number rose to 83 percent (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000, p. 2).
According to overall numbers published by the US Census Bureau, the percentage of American homes with Internet access also kept pace. Access increased from 26.2 percent of homes in 1998 to 54.6 percent in 2003 (the latest year when statistics were available), but in homes with children aged 6–17, the 2003 number was 67 percent (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007). By 2013, According to the Child Trends Data Bank (2013), about 80 percent of all children ages three through seventeen lived in a home with at least one computer, and about 70 percent had access to the Internet. A number of major US cities, including Boston and San Francisco, are bringing free or low-cost wireless Internet access to all their residents.
These trends form a backdrop for the advent of Web-enhanced educational software in the later 1990s. As fast, reasonably priced, and accessible Internet access became available to more and more K–12 students both inside and outside of school, many in the education community began to conceive of ways to use it to improve the state of education in America. Web-based education was one of the ideas discussed during the national conversation about education reform and outcome-based education culminating in the passage of the historic No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Today's new teachers are not considered "fully qualified" unless their teacher training includes at least one course in computer-assisted learning (Herring, Notar & Wilson, 2005).
Now in the twenty-first century, some experts...
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