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Choosing Software

If I could only return some of the software applications which I've purchased over the years and simply don't use, I'd have a cash windfall that would easily buy me a week in London, Paris, and Madrid! This nagging revelation is a source of never-ending frustration whenever I happen to glance at diskettes or CD-ROMs which hold applications I no longer have placed on my system. At my cost, I've had to learn how to evaluate my software needs much more carefully.

All software is perceived to have a notoriously short shelf life- if not a fact, then surely a creditable assumption!-and so be it; it's how we get great new programs which offer exciting new possibilities. That said, learning how to assess software for your needs can be a very expensive lesson and the architect of a very healthy respect for doing so in future.

A method for assessing software applications for your district, school, grade, class, or for home use is a worthwhile consideration and one which, presumably, the majority of the aforementioned have in place as you read this and, almost certainly, districts and schools do. In these situations, it is critical that the educator in the classroom plays a role in the selection of what she or he will be using with the primary users...the students. Following this thread, teachers in the classroom will find it incumbent on them not only to master the software involved, but also to advance rapidly to the stage where they are comfortable teaching its uses to the users. Easy to say, very time-consuming and difficult to do if the software has not been fully or properly evaluated in the first instance. Home users face a more perplexing task for they do not necessarily have access to a school district's resources or experts and are perhaps more likely to rely on friends or people whom they believe are knowledgeable. In this article, the needs of the classroom teacher and the home user will be addressed.

Identifying Needs

Before you have software, you have to have a need for it. Software manufacturers would prefer that you view their product from their perspective, i.e.. look at the possibilities we offer. Fair enough. The opposite-defining the need accurately enough to define the software solution-would seem to be a more appropriate choice for educators. Defining the need for software requires the teacher to assess the entire program of lessons which are used in the classroom during a typical academic year. These lessons need to be examined for situations or areas where a technological approach might prove to be worthwhile within the aims of the overall context of the lesson. The home user should perform the same assessment, noting the things which they believe they can do more appropriately and beneficially using technology.

"Shall we gather at the river?"

Software purchased independently for use in an educational setting is often an invitation to problems which can lead to frustration and eventual cessation of interest and use. In order to maximize the effectiveness of implementing new software, a gathering of ideas, interests and, most importantly, defined needs must occur. Feedback and interactivity are great buzz words for the essential act of pooling knowledge resources in order to reach the best possible conclusion, and teachers (and home users!) should avail themselves of the resources which are available to them. Teachers need to talk with each other about their ideas for implementing a technological element into their curriculum and gather the support and enthusiasm which a team approach can bring. The home user can take advantage of a wide variety of critical resources in computer magazines and e-zines, as well as information offered on the web at the software manufacturer's site.

"Leggo my demo!"

The best way to discover if a particular software application serves your classroom or home user needs appropriately is to try a demo of the application for 30 days. The best software manufacturers all make demos available for download, usually with a critical feature or two (printing, saving...) disabled. Testing a demo should not necessarily be a one or two person job. I suggest that you consider taking the demo into the classroom and letting the "users" assist in the evaluation. Not only is this good for the self-esteem of your student evaluators but it presents a wonderful opportunity for a one month project, with students divided into assessment teams: Interface; Integration; and Interest. Home users get the same great deal on demos, so download what you would like to try and try it!

"I took the path less travelled..."

Current thinking says that the entire computer industry experiences a regeneration every eighteen months. Software manufacturers have much in common with the automobile industry in that sales cachet is generated out of the "brand new, must have" virus which so many of us cannot resist. As with the used car market, there is the perception that not to have the latest model is akin to lost status; an ignoble and false perception and one certainly meaningless to schools with tight budgets. The home user is easier pickin's, unless forearmed with a software evaluation process designed to exclude what might just be a bug fix with a price tag. Again, there are excellent critical resources on line and in print which carefully rate and rank upgrades to help with your decision. Evaluating upgrades, in school and at home, is easier when you are familiar with the product already...you know what new features you would like and if they're not offered, the likelihood is that you'll wait till the next upgrade. To the software industry, this is called The Consumer Speaks! and that's good too.

Networks and software

If you're running software installed on a network, your technical wizard(s) will be very keen to know what software you want to use in your classroom. Listening to the wizard's advice is a given if you want to avoid problems. Of course, software can be installed locally on a hard drive but, if your software evaluation method is what it should be, you'll have discovered early on whether the application should be on the network or not. Individual teachers should always take advantage of particular programs which suit their grade levels or curriculum and allow great learning experiences outside the network. Home users on a network (office, school, etc.) quickly become used to keeping home applications separate from networked ones and, unless your on-line time is free, are usually not likely to run network software from home.

"Getting friendly..."

Getting to know software is like any personal relationship...you're responsible for your half of the proceedings. You have to bring interest, enthusiasm, perception, and time to the software which, in turn, works hard to give you what you want, even when you don't know that you want it. New software opens to a user who is, emotionally, anywhere between terrified and hyper-elated and it is here that the human user interface begins. Teachers devote hours and hours to learning software for use in the classroom, thanks to incentive programs, professional development, and laudable devotion to duty, but depending on the grade level of their students, they are also learning software at very different levels. Software needs range from pictographic reading development software in preschool through high-end programs used to create a CD-ROM version of a high school yearbook. At each and every one of these levels, every teacher's competency finally depends on acumen and motivation. This being so, the classroom teacher (and the home user) are entitled to software which works seamlessly, invisibly, and reliably; applications which help solve problems and don't create them. Holding software applications (and their manufacturers) accountable to these standards is correct and apolitical.

"Feed the machine..."

Software manufacturers, generally, go to great lengths to solve problems affecting their products and they are open to user feedback. Little do we realize the power which a user has to make a suggestion which could well be incorporated into an upgrade. The best companies maintain fulsome, helpful websites; have Usenet newsgroups officially or unofficially; offer Listserv information; and use direct feedback e-mail for problems. Software programmers have been seen trolling in related newsgroups for user feedback and new ideas, so a great idea evolving out of your classroom doesn't have to go begging. The home user may wish to see his or her place in the great software suffusion as a quasi-Power-to-the-User configuration and act accordingly. On the other hand, it was reported recently that as much as 50% of all suggestions and requests for new features " made to one rather humungous software manufacturer " were for features already available in the software. This may say something about the users but I think it says more about the software. Living with technology requires technology to be fit to live with...doesn't it? Select yours with both eyes open and your hands on your wallet. If you invite it to home or school, make sure it arrives as a demo. The relationship will grow if you like each other...

Written by:

David Boyd (High School English Teacher and Children's Author)
Appleby College
Oakville, Canada