“Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it, and the bloom is gone.”Oscar Wilde
Educational software has to be fun. If a kid doesn’t spend the time using a piece of software, it’s irrelevant how much educational content it has. Anything that engages a kid—that he thinks about a lot and to which he dedicates his time and energy—can be turned to educational advantage.
You mean like girls?
In children’s software, educational and entertaining are two sides of the same coin.
Teaching is hard. It requires patience, understanding, empathy, and compassion. And it requires deep insight into both how children learn and how to make the process engaging. Thus great teachers are rare and the demand for them is high. To solve our urgent education needs, technology is being used to compensate for perceived educational inadequacies and to augment the offerings of existing institutions.
When used well, we believe computers can help children learn in an effective and enjoyable way. But it’s not the hardware that’s going to do that. It’s a combination of the quality of the people who create and present the instructional materials and the manner these materials are integrated into the classroom. It’s the content—not the machine. And like all educational content, a computer program can either disappoint with boring drudgery, or it can inspire a thirst for knowledge and fulfill the promise of technology which makes learning interesting and accessible.
There’s nothing magical about computers. They don’t transform poor content. And there’s a lot of educational computer programs that aren’t well suited for their medium—we’ve seen many programs that would really make better books or video documentaries. There are benefits to presenting content on computers. Primarily, computers allow the material to be adapted to a particular user. They allow the content to be easily updated. And they can allow the user to do something—to be active, to use tools, to communicate with others. However, if the user’s interaction is reduced to the electronic equivalent of turning pages or answering multiple choice questions, then why bother presenting it on the computer to begin with? It’d be cheaper, easier to use, and probably more satisfying as a book, a video, or a board game.
“Study depends on the goodwill of the student, a quality that cannot be secured by compulsion.”
Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, 85 A.D.
There has been a lot of research done in the areas of human cognition and learning acquisition. Great strides have been made in understanding how people learn and how they solve problems. But very little of this hard-won knowledge has been applied to the design and creation of multimedia educational products. Papers are written and theories are advanced and tested, but somehow these ideas don’t make it beyond academia.
One curriculum-based software program after another is released without any innovative thought being given to effective teaching using computer-based materials. The animations may be cuter, or a new face might be grafted onto a standard “drill and practice” model, but the underlying assumptions about cognitive processes remain unchallenged, even when they’ve been proven ineffective in educational research.
We work hard to understand and advance the latest research in these fields. And we directly apply theory and empirical studies to the development both of the human/computer interfaces and the educational materials we produce.
While there are many cognitive and psychological principles that we embrace, there are a few that have become the pillars of our work in this area. These are:
- Learning should be fun. It should invoke a sense of joy and wonder and make people happy while they’re learning. To be effective, it must be engaging.
- Learning should be authentic. An Authentic Activity has an external meaning that students can understand and embrace. If an activity has no purpose other than to get a passing grade, what is learned will be quickly forgotten.
- All people perceive and learn things differently. These differences should be recognized and supported, especially in computer software which can accommodate and adapt to them.
- Learners should be given as much freedom and control over what they’re learning as reasonably possible. The ability to make a discovery and construct personal meaning is empowering. It makes the subject matter relevant and it encourages studying, developing a life-long thirst for knowledge.
- Educational projects should be constructed so that they support novice learners and allow them to act beyond their current level of ability. As novices become experts, the “scaffolds” should gracefully fall away and not interfere with students’ growing expertise.
All the projects that we have developed have relied heavily on these five principles.