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Children as software reviewers.

Teachers, librarians and parents are familiar with the rich conversations that can result from sharing literature with children. Most of us can remember, with some fondness, episodes from our childhood when adults read to us; or from our adult lives, when we discussed books with our own children or the children we taught. I recall from my days as a librarian the connections I felt with children who had read the same books I had read, especially when they took the time to talk to me about their own reactions to these books. I believe these conversations were particularly meaningful to me and to the students because they felt authentic to us. It was talk that occurred outside the normal classroom environment, and we seemed to connect to each other in a more companionable way, not just in the context of the student-teacher relationship.

As a teacher educator in the area of educational technology, my job now entails using computer software as much as, or even more than, the printed word. Some days I miss books and talking to colleagues and students about literature. One way that I can restore some of this kind of conversation is to talk to children about educational software. Children like to answer such questions as, "What's your favorite thing about Math Munchers?" Once again, I am asking authentic questions. And I like to hear their perspective, which sometimes is very different from my own, not to mention always entertaining and enlightening. Children's descriptions and evaluations of software are important ways of learning about how computers can be used in the learning process.

Because I enjoy talking about software with children, I believe others would enjoy it as well. I suggested to one of my colleagues that she and her 5-year-old son, Aaron, should present a program at a regional educational technology conference in which they would demonstrate three CD-ROM programs that deal with dinosaurs. We chose the dinosaur theme because Aaron is a dinosaur addict. (Recently, for a school assignment in which he was to demonstrate his understanding of the number 100, he drew 100 separate dinosaurs on a large banner!) Aaron is also a long-time CD-ROM user.

Diana, my colleague, prepared the following chart (p. 252), titled "Dinosaur Software Reviews," as a handout at her presentation. I find a comparison of Diana's and Aaron's evaluative comments fascinating. Aaron's knowledge of dinosaur anatomy and terminology is apparent, as is his infectious enthusiasm for fun and action. I particularly like the ways they express the same sentiments: Diana says, "High frustration level, which is distracting." Aaron says, "Hunting the dinosaurs makes me tired."

Talking to children about software and observing them use it are informal ways of "child-testing" educational software.

The most effective way to judge whether software is appropriate or not is to observe students as they interact with the program.... As a general rule, if there is no way to preview software with your own students - avoid that software. (Komoski, 1995)

Another way to find out what students think about software is to have them respond in more formal, structured ways, such as completing written evaluation forms. Several publications, both print and electronic, rely on children as well as parents and teachers to examine and evaluate software programs according to a number of criteria, such as ease of use, ability to educate and design features.

One of the most respected publications to take this approach is Children's Software Revue, a bi-monthly, ad-free newsletter dedicated to "helping teachers and parents find software." The review process begins when a software program is submitted to one or two test families and/or schools, as well as to a staff reviewer. The software evaluation form, an index to all software reviewed in the publication since its inception in 1993, and 18 examples of full-length reviews of software titles are available at the Revue's excellent Web site located at / childrenssoftware / default.html. The reviews are interesting and lively to read, and are often frank (especially the children's comments) and full of common sense. The print newsletter can be ordered online for an annual subscription fee of $24.00.

A second Web site that elicits and posts software reviews by children, parents and teachers is "SuperKids Educational Software Review: The Parent's and Teacher's Guide to Software" []. While the database of reviews is not large, the evaluations themselves are very readable and useful. The three different evaluation forms used by parents, teachers and children are posted at the Web site. A typical evaluation, covering The Way Things Work (DK Multimedia), states, "One of our 13-year-old reviewers noted that he thought it would be a useful reference source for writing reports, but that it was 'like reading an encyclopedia.' We didn't find it anywhere near that dry - but then, we're not 13 anymore."

A third Web site, a project initiated by graduate students at the University of Connecticut, features children's comments about educational software programs and is appropriately called "Way Cool Software Reviews." I think this site is way cool because it highlights the observations and remarks of children more than the other sites do. A particularly engaging review of How Many Bugs in a Box? (Simon and Schuster Interactives) features the comments of 3 1/2-year old identical twins, with parenthetical remarks by their mother:

What is the coolest thing about the software? 'The bugs, my favorite are the long necked bugs, Jessica likes the noodle bugs best.' (I think the coolest thing about the program is how music, rhyming and repetition are incorporated throughout....)

One of the most striking phenomena that we observe when we take the time to pay attention is how the software and hardware appear completely transparent to children. One researcher who observed 1st-graders using a multimedia science program reports:

When describing their use of the multimedia, the children used language related almost exclusively to the content of the activity: 'I looked under a rock and I found some ants!,"I heard a bird in the tree and I found it - it was an owl!,' etc. Listening to their descriptions, it was impossible to tell that they had not actually gone to a forest and performed the activity they were describing. (Strommen, 1994)

Aaron exhibited the same behavior when he remarked, "I love the way the dinosaur smiles at me!"

The message I am trying to convey is that children should be allowed to select and use software, but with guidance. As Haugland and Shade (1994) point out, "The research suggests that children are not discriminating in the computer programs that they will play with and enjoy; it is up to teachers to select software that fosters children's development...." I do think we can both inform our own practice in the use of technology and enhance our enjoyment of this process by observing children use software, and creating situations for sharing these experiences.

Software Cited

3-D Dinosaur Adventure

Knowledge Adventure [ System requirements: Windows 95/Windows 3.1 or 3.11, 486SX25 MHz PC or higher, double-speed CD-ROM drive, 8 MB RAM, 5 MB available on hard drive, SVGA 256-color graphics adapter, MPC-compatible sound card, mouse; or Macintosh 68040 or Power PC processor, double-speed CD-ROM drive, 8 MB RAM, MB available on hard drive, 256-color graphics capability, 13in. or larger color monitor, Macintosh System 7.1 or higher. $19.95.

Dinosaur Hunter

DK Multimedia []. System requirements: Windows: 486DX/33MHz or faster personal computer with 8 MB RAM, 8- or 16bit sound card, double-speed CDROM drive, SVGA (256-color) 640 x 480 pixel display, loudspeakers or headphones, modem required for Internet connection, Windows 3.1 or later. Macintosh: 68040 / 25MHz or faster with 8 MB RAM, doublespeed CD-ROM drive, 8-bit (256color) 640 x 480 pixel display, modem required for Internet connection, System 7. $29.95.

Magic School Bus: Age of Dinosaurs

Microsoft [ products/]. System requirements: 486SX (33 MHz) or higher microprocessor, Memory 8MB of RAM, hard disk space 6 MB, CD-ROM drive double speed or faster, SVGA 256 color monitor, Windows 95 operating system and Windows NT Workstation 3.5 or later, sound board and headphones or speakers 8 bit required; 16 bit recommended, mouse. $34.95.


Haugland, S. W., & Shade, D. D. (1994). Software evaluation for young children. In J. L. Wright & D. D. Shade (Eds.), Young children: Active learners in a technological age (pp. 63-76). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Komoski, K. (1995). Seven steps to responsible software selection: ERIC digest. Syracuse, NY: ERIC Clearinghouse on Information and Technology.

Strommen, E. (1994). Formative evaluation of a first-grade multimedia forest environment. In Recreating the revolution. Proceedings of the Annual National Educational Computing Conference (Boston, MA, June 13-15, 1994).
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Author:Wilson, Linda J.
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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