Fall 1998 - Volume I, Issue 3
programs are teachers, providing social construction with the lesson. How do we
evaluate them? This is an excerpt from a Qualifying Paper Research at the
Harvard Graduate School of Education, which included graphics screen images and
detailed descriptions of narratives from mathematics software. This paper is
available through the Monroe Gutman Library at Harvard University.
Designers of software programs provide their narratives,
perspectives, and points of view through the software programs they develop,
consciously and explicitly or not. As the providers of these narratives, the
software designers are considered the authors of this medium. These authors'
narratives contribute to the social construction of the users of the software as
they gain cognitive instruction and entertainment. This is especially important
to consider when it comes to educational software used by children in the
classroom and in the home. The traditional process for the examination of
narrative and content in a medium is a review. Narratives in software should be
examined as other media, such as books, film, and music, are examined for their
narratives -- but they are not. Assessments of current software review
publications find their reviews of narrative incomplete or non-existent. Reviews
of narratives are crucial in understanding the social construction children
possibly could absorb from that software. Educators and parents are encouraged
to design and use their own review criteria in selecting educational software
for their classroom and children.
The concept that the narrative of the author
is present in a medium has long been an accepted understanding. The narrative of
media provides the audience with an indication of the social norms, rules, and
understandings that together build a social construction. The audience
experiences the information, learning, and entertainment of the media, and the
social construction that is bonded to the information is also learned. We
experience this phenomenon when we read books, listen to music, and view film.
When reading Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, we are aware that the author Tennessee
Williams is male, and if we read the jacket cover or the novelist's brief
biography in the book, we learn he is from the American South, lived in the
period of the early 20th century, and other profile information. This knowledge
of the author provides some understanding of his perspective and background,
which can provide clarity to the story and to the reasons why the characters and
story line follow a particular path. When listening to Mozart, we are aware of
the culture, period, and musical influences that together provide a profile and
perspective of this composer and the impact they had on his music. In the case
of film, the director is considered the author or auteur (1) of the film although
a team or crew of cinematographers, editors, and other film professionals have
creative input. For example, Woody Allen is the author of his films despite the
editors and other writers involved. His background as a New Yorker, Jew, and a
neurotic is a self-acknowledged and well-documented point of view of his films;
the audience is aware of the impact his profile has on his films.
is an author in software programs, too. Authorship, commonly considered an issue
of ownership, is defined in this discussion as "[T]he occupation or career of
writing books, articles, etc. ... origin of work, esp. with reference to an
author, creator, producer, etc." (Random House College Dictionary, 1984, p. 91).
The authors of computer programs are software designers, developers, and
engineers, and as authors they have narratives.
The entire software program is within the
context of the author's narrative; i.e., the author's points of reference and
ideas of what should appear on the screen, actions that are allowed by the
program and the user of the program, characterizations that appear in the
program, and the logic of the program, are at the design discretion of the
software designer. These and many other components of the author's narrative
together provide a social construction that is available to the user of the
program along with the cognitive instruction. In his study of children who play(2)
Nintendo, Provenzo (1991) found that children begin to identify with the
interpretations and reasonings of the storylines in the games as they played the
game. In addition, if the game is engaging enough, the children will overlook
interpretations of the story and characters so that they can continue to play
the game. Once that connection is made, the child is in relationship with the
software and, if the software remains engaging, the social construction provided
will be accepte software program (Malone in Provenzo, 1991), the most common
being characterizations of the agents(3), and the logic and decisions allowed in
These engagement strategies are successful. Children react
strongly to character representations with whom they can identify and the
actions they are allowed to take in software. In his study of children who play
Nintendo video games, Provenzo found that children identify closely with the
characters provided in the video games, and began to act out e software program
(Malone in Provenzo, 1991), the most common being characterizations of the
agents(3), and the logic and decisions allowed in the software.
engagement strategies are successful. Children react strongly to character
representations with whom they can identify and the actions they are allowed to
take in software. In his study of children who play Nintendo video games,
Provenzo found that children identify closely with the characters provided in
the video games, and began to act out those characterizations.
three major design features that are affected by the software's authors and very
important in the engagement of the children to that software: characterizations
by gender (Provenzo, 1991), ethnicity (Mander, 1991), and circumscription of the
logic (Matthis, 1996) in the software. These design features are defined here as
Gender is defined as male, female, or neither which would
describe a character whose appearance seems gender-neutral, e.g., an animal or
Ethnicity is any feature that suggests a cultural or
racial background. Ethnicity is identified by skin color, speech accent,
language spoken, and cultural name. An additional design feature that is
included in this category is second language facility, where an additional
language is provided in which to use the software, suggesting a cultural or
ethnic provisional narrative.
Circumscription of logic is a narrative
indicator created as a result of this research, and is defined as a design
feature that makes a decision of logic in the software that could be left to
interpretation. An example of circumscription of logic narrative is illustrated
in a decision designed in the software program SimCity, a city development
simulation game, where the child creates and develops a city. The child is
guided in making decisions by the software's "rules for city development,"(4)
which provides detailed reasoning for what the child, as city developer, can and
cannot do, presumably imitating real-life. The experience of a real city
development simulation is misleading for, when paying for taxes, the algorithm
or basis for calculation for the tax bill is not provided.(5) Taxes are a primary
concern in capitalist development but the software author did not provide this
information. What is the narrative provided here? How was it decided that this
lesson of city development is not provided? Is this a case of software
designers' oversight? Did the software designers deem the information not
necessary to know? How would this narrative differ if the software designers
were H & R Block, Nintendo, or Scholastic?(6)
Regardless of the
reason, the narrative result is: You don't need to understand, or be able to
question, the tax calculations even after paying the tax -- pay the tax or you
can't continue to play the software. This omission is significant in terms of
narrative because the game's social construction is narrowed and, in this case,
negatively circumscribed by the author, the software designer, by the
withholding of important rules that provide learning and understanding of city
development -- which is the purpose of the game. The player must adhere to the
limits of the software, assume the narratives as provided by the software, and
absolutely follow the rules of the software -- or the child can't play.
Circumscription of logic is a manifestation of narrative that is not expected
to be evaluated by review publications for three reasons. First, it is a new
concept developed, in this research, out of the necessity to define a narrative
structure embedded in the design and logic of the software. Second, the review
publications examined to date, if they evaluate the design of the software,
discuss these designs as features or options available for use. For example, the
Design Features category of the review publication Children's Software Revue
defines this category as "How 'smart' is this program?", and includes
sub-categories such as "The program has speech capacity", and " A child's ideas
can be incorporated into the program design in some way". Although these
definitions are important to narrative in other ways, which is discussed in more
detail later, they do not represent an evaluation of the design logic or
decisions that can be made in the software. Third, circumscription of logic
should not only be explicitly defined but have a method with which to identify
its occurrence. This is very difficult to do since there are many types of logic
that can occur in a software program, and such a method has not been found.
However, the SimCity (illustration does provide a skeletal framework with which
to circumscription of logic identification method was developed by this
researcher, referred to as COLIM.)
A diverse range of publications offer reviews
of children's educational, entertainment, and edutainment(7) software, which
include and are not limited to news weeklies, newspapers, software
manufacturers, software magazines, digizines(8), and periodicals. From these,
review publications were selected that were not organizationally related to, or
take advertising dollars from, software publishers, and whose sole purpose was
the review of children's educational software. Based on these criteria, the
review publications selected that examine educational software were Children's
Software Revue (CSR), The Computer Museum's Guide to the Best Software for Kids
(CMG), and the International Society for Technology in Education's Educational
Software Preview Guide (ESPG).(9) Moreover, the publications's primary purpose
must be the review of educational software for children.(10)
Software Revue, edited by Warren Buckleitner, Ellen Wolock, and Ann Orr, is
published six times a year, available by subscription ($24) and website, and
provides a mission statement in their publication: "Children's Software Revue
helps teachers and parents better use computers with children by providing
timely, accurate, objective information about the children's software market"
The Computer Museum Guide to the Best Software for Kids, edited
by Cathy Miranker and Alison Elliott, is a book last published in 1995 ($14),
and states: "[It] was conceived to fill a need at The Computer Museum. After a
day of exploration, more and more families would end their visit to the museum
with a question: What software should we get for our children?" (p. ix).
The ISTE Educational Software Preview Guide is published each year after the
meeting of the Annual Software Evaluation Forum, and available in hardcopy or
disk from the participating institutions ($10). "[It] lists favorably reviewed
technology resources for instructional use in preschool through grade twelve. It
is NOT a buying guide. It has been developed solely as an aid to educators in
locating programs they may want to preview. The Consortium's participants
recommend that all resources be previewed by educators to determine its
suitability for their instructional programs and students" (p. vi).
review publication varies in purpose, structure, review criteria, the depth of
the criteria, and the testers(12) used.(13) Children's Software Revue and
Educational Software Preview Guide are published bi-monthly and annually,
respectively, however the Computer Museum Guide is a one-time published book and
doesn't indicate if follow-up publications will be available. The one
consistency across these publications is the audience: parents and educators.
These review publications also represent a broad range of availability, via
subscription and web, bookstores, and educational institutions, respectively.
Mathematics was the educational software category chosen to be examined
because it's considered an important skill for children to learn both by parents
and teachers. Educational Resources (is an educational software and technology
distribution house with 34% of the school market.(14) Each year they publish their
Top Ten selling software by subject and genre(15). ER's 1996 list of the "Top Ten"
mathematic software sold to schools (Appendix A) was selected as the titles
reviewed. These titles would represent the mathematic educational software most
likely used by teachers and parents to teach mathematical concepts and skills in
ER's market, and may infer the titles used in the remaining portion of the
Of the three review publications selected for
examination, Children's Software Revue (CSR) , The Computer Museum Guide to the
Best Software for Kids (CMG), and the ISTE Educational Software Preview Guide
(ESPG), only CRS and CMG provided review criteria. It is the only selected
review publication with criteria that explicitly address any the three selected
manifestations of narrative: gender, ethnicity, and circumscription of logic.
CSR has six major review categories: Ease of Use, Childproof,
Educational, Entertaining, Design Features, and Value. The "Educational"
category is described as "What can a child learn from this program?", and
provides thirteen evaluation sub-categories. Two of those sub-categories are
"Content is free from gender bias" and "Content is free from ethnic bias". There
are no criteria that in some way addresses circumscription of logic. Each
sub-category is rated, and the range includes A= Always, S.E. = Some Extent, N =
Never, and n.a. = Not Applicable. A CSR software program review lists the
average score for each of the six categories, and a total average score of the
six categories' ratings. As a result, it is not possible to know the rating
given for sub-categories such as "Content is free from gender bias" and "Content
is free from ethnic bias", and determine how gender and ethnicity narratives
appear in that software program.
ESPG did not publish the review
criteria used by its Annual Software Evaluation Forum, stating only that "The
products listed in [the] guide have been favorably reviewed at participating
sites by knowledgeable computer-using educators. Placement of a title on a list
and into specific subjects, grade levels, and instructional modes reflects the
best judgment of the Consortium's participants . . . The Consortium's
participants recommend that all resources be previewed by educators to determine
their suitability for their instructional programs and students". Although its
review criteria are not explicitly stated, there are several implied criteria:
Criteria: Respectively: The software titles must be reviewed
by a predetermined quorum of the Consortium's participants. The software must be
readily available for review - defining what is meant by "readily available",
e.g., on the market or a copy was purchased or made available to the Consortium.
There are criteria with which to judge software as favorable or unfavorable
(addressed in #1 above). There are specified categories into the software must
Implications: There is a consensus that must
occur to recommend a software title. Software must be available for review (the
meaning is not provided). If a software title is reviewed unfavorably, it could
be for any reason including narrative. Software may not be reviewed, perhaps
because its category is not educational or instructional such as games or
entertainment, or doesn't fit into one of the specified categories.
uses an evaluation "checklist" and "constantly asked questions about the
qualities [they] considered essential" (p. xii). This checklist has three
categories: learning, looks, and longevity. In examining these publications'
review for manifestations of narrative, three concerns developed:
If there is to be an awareness of narrative in educational software, there
must be criteria used for the recognition of narrative. The necessity of an
awareness of narrative examined in books, music, and film is supported and
maintained by teachers and parents (Delpit, 1995; Slade and Kelly and Oberg,
1997; Postman, 1993; Mander, 1991; Garrison, 1997; Ayers and Ford, 1996). It is
curious that narrative examination in media has not crossed-over into software
programs. Reflection on the development of review criteria for its media
predecessors suggests several explanations for the absence of narrative review
First, software programs are a new medium, and their use in
schools as an educational tool is a very recent development. The review of
software programs has not yet matured to the stage where narrative is reviewed
as an important and required criterion, as in the other media. CSR is the first
of the selected review publications to explicitly evaluate for narrative, as
determined by this research.
Second, the creation of software review
publications is a very recent occurrence. The software market is extremely
lucrative and the opportunity to provide purchase recommendations is good for
for-profit publications and the manufacturer. With the advent of software that
teaches, a concern for the selection of appropriate software for children has
resulted in the development of non-profit software review periodicals; one of
the earliest being CSR in 1991.
Third, narrative in digitized media is a
very new concept. The challenge to understand how modern media affect our
perceptions of ourselves and social construction continues, and this issue is
still debated in discussions on the impact of television and film (Cosby, 1994;
Davies, 1996; Szulc, 1997). As each new digitized medium is created, the
narratives continue to exist in its content, but remain unaddressed until we
learn to adapt to the new medium itself. Fourth, only recently were software
programs considered as a technology containing a narrative or point of view
(Matthis, 1997; Friedman and Nissenbaum, 1997). It was previously considered a
tool or object that contained information but not necessarily a social
The absence of the review of narrative in educational
software is especially noteworthy since narrative is a key component used by
software publishers to engage the learner in the program. Without an intriguing,
attention-getting character, action, or fun purpose, the software is not
expected to succeed (Blank and Berlin, 1991; Burton in Baker, Clay, and Fox,
1996; Davies, 1996; Provenzo, 1991). But are those narratives helpful or hurtful
as they are absorbed by the learner? And how would teachers and parents know
this if the criteria for checking narratives are included in the software review
The challenge for parents and educators is
to find not only the most appropriate software for their children, but the most
appropriate software review publication on which to base their selections. Just
as parents and educators are learning how to purchase software, and to know the
criteria on which to base that purchase, they must also learn how to select a
review publication that will guide them in that purchase.
Based on this
research's theory that gender, ethnicity, and circumscription of logic are the
major software design features important in the engagement of children,
Children's Software Revue and the Educational Software Preview Guide are
recommended review publications for parents and educators to guide them in their
purchase of educational software. Children's Software Revue checks for the
author's narrative by rating the gender and ethnicity content bias in software
titles; however, the actual content bias ratings are obscured by the rolling of
these ratings into the review's overall rating, and as a result they can't be
known to the reader. For this reason, CRS receives a provisional recommendation.
If CSR corrects this obscurity by publishing the actual gender and
ethnicity content ratings, it will take a tremendous step forward in providing
more pertinent review data to parents and educators. The Education Software
Preview Guide is an expansive list of educational software titles with
unparalleled categorizations by genres, subjects, instructional modes, grade
levels, and operating systems. ESPG does not publish any selection criteria
because it states it not a buying guide, although there is a selection process
for the list. For this reason, ESPG receives a provisional recommendation. If
ESPG published its criteria, including narrative for educators and parents, it
will become an unprecedented review publication -- providing reviews of
importance and depth for a large number of titles. The Computer Museum's Guide
to the Best Software for Kids is not recommended, as it does not check for
narrative; and because it is a book, its opportunity to develop and publish new
criteria with new software titles is eclipsed by the frequency of publication by
CSR and ESPG.
There are presently great efforts being made in school
reform, involving the assessment and standardization of teaching methods and
measurement tools, which may not be enough. There must be understanding and
concerted effort made by educators to evaluate software for narratives, as they
would for literature, film, and television programs.
educational software in the future partially lies in the technology. Video games
enjoyed high success because of its fast rate of animation, which is now
possible in computer software. The demand to illustrate more complex imagery and
faster action, and therefore narrative, fuels the need for faster technologies.
We must all keep watch to make certain that the need for speed doesn't eclipse
the need to check for narrative.
and Ford, Patricia, City kids, city teachers: reports from the front row. The
New Press, New York, 1996.
Baker, Dave, Clary, John, and Fox, Carol,
Challenging ways of knowing: In English, math and science. Falmer Press, London,
Blank, Marion, and Berline, Laura, The parent's guide to educational
software. Microsoft Press, Redmond, Washington, 1991.
Wolock, Ellen, and Orr, Ann, Eds. Children's Software Revue. Ypsilanti, Mi.
Cosby, Camille O., Television's imageable influences: the self-perceptions of
young African-Americans. University Press of America,, Lanham, MD, 1994.
Davies, John, Educating students in a media-saturated culture, Technomic
Publishing, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1996.
Delpit, Lisa, Other people's
children: cultural conflict in the classroom. The New Press, New York, 1995.
Educational Software Preview Guide, International Society for Technology in
Education, University of Oregon, 1997.
Friedman, Batya (Ed.) and
Nissenbaum, Helen. Content Bias in Computer Programs. Human Values and the
Design of Computer Technology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Garrison, Jim. Dewey and Eros: wisdom and desire in the art of teaching.
Teachers College Press, New York, 1997.
Kracauer, Siegfried, Theory of
film: the redemption of physical reality. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK,
Mander, Jerry., In the absence of the sacred: the failure of
technology & the survival of the Indian Nations. Sierra Books, San
Matthis, Brenda G., Interview with Tenth Planet,
unpublished paper, Half Moon Bay, CA, 1997. Maxis, Inc., SimCity, Orinda,
Miranker, Cathy and Elliott, Alison, Eds. The Computer Museum
Guide to the Best Software for Kids, HarperPerennial, New York, 1995.
Postman, Neil. Technopoly: the surrender of culture to technology. 1st ed. New
York: Knopf, 1993.
Provenzo, Eugene F., The educators brief guide to
computers in the schools. Eye on education, Princeton, NJ, 1996.
Eugene F. Video kids: making sense of Nintendo. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1991.
Slade, Barbara J., Kelly, Cynthia, and Oberg,
Mary, Creating culturally responsive classrooms. American Psychological
Association, Washington, D.C., 1997.
Szulc, Paula, Doctoral Candidate, HDP
research on children and television, in discussion, 1997.
(1) Auteur is the present theory of authorship in filmmaking (Kracauer,
(2) The word play is commonly used to describe the use of the
(3) Agents are characters in the software through with the child
takes action or gets direction for the software's use.
(4) This description
is from the SimCity box.
(5) This example may not be seen in the updated
SimCity 2000 program.
(6) H&R Block, Nintendo, and Scholastic
representing home productivity software, game software, and child education
software developers, respectively.
(7) Edutainment is a market term for
software considered (usually by the manufacturer) both educational and
entertainment. It is mentioned here because it is well known but it not
considered by this research as a measurable term, and the term is not used by
(8) Digizines are magazines on cd-rom.
publications' lack of review bias based on a relationship with the manufacturers
did not eliminate other problems that impacted the review of the software, such
as the lack of robust evaluation criteria and biases toward high level
production values.9 Selecting out review publications based on their
relationship with software manufacturers was maintained, however, to control for
this bias and observe other biases more clearly, as discussed later.
Each publication was read fully for it's content and stated purpose.
(12) CSR also uses "children, and their parents and
friends"; CMG "..consulted educational specialists, multimedia experts,
developers of both software and hardware. And they've worked closely with
children and parents"; ESPG states that "Compilation of the ..[guide]..was the
major purpose of the Software Evaluation Forum, held at Lesley College,
Cambridge, MA, on April 18-21, 1996.".
(13) This is true even for review
publications not chosen.
(14) Based on information from Educational Resources
(15) Software genres include, and are not limited to:
Authoring System, Computer Programming, Presentation, Drill and Practice,
Education Game, Entertainment, Exploration, Internet, Problem Solving,
Reference, Simulation, Tool, and Tutorial (ESPG).Return to the Journal of Pedagogy,
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Fall 1998 Issue Main Page
Editorial - Luke Baldwin in Memoriam
Luke Baldwin and Linda Brion-Meisels - Fostering Gumption
Jim Cummins - Rossell and Baker: The Effectiveness of Bilingual Education
Brenda Matthis - Stories From The Other Side of the Screen
Wade A. Carpenter - The Grand Bazaar
Sarah Nieves-Squires - Cultural Identity and Bilingualism in the Puerto Rican Reality
Mary Ann Johnson - The Ebonics Debate
Angela María Pérez-Mejía - His-panics and Mine
Donna Cole - English as a Second Language
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