9(1), November 1992, pages 59-61

Perspectives on Software

Mary Ann Eiler

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 social skill.

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) environment?


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.