Nick Austin, of Teachers Evaluating Educational Multimedia, offers some tips on choosing classroom software
eachers are being encouraged to use software to help deliver different elements of the national curriculum to a greater extent than ever before. But what should teachers look for when buying a piece of software?
The first thing to be done is to spend some time with the materials, preferably with a colleague. With some products, a glance will tell you what you need to know. Is it aimed at schools or is it a piece of home-based software? Does the program load easily? Once installed, does it cause any conflicts with other programs? Will children be able to run it quickly and easily or will they need adult supervision? Can children log on and save their work using their own names?
You will also need to know whether you can monitor the progress they have made, as well as how well they have done and how much they have achieved. If you don't know these details, how can you assess the value of the activity?
When you evaluate the program, ask: "Will my pupils be able to use this independently?" If the answer is no, then it will give you more problems than solutions. Also ask: "Does this program offer pupils opportunities that they can't get through other sources?" Chck if the language is appropriate to your pupils' ages and abilities. Pay special attention to "hidden" language in drop-down menus. If it's a maths program for Year 1, check if they will be able to read and understand words, such as "addition" and "subtraction". If not, then no matter how well thought-out the exercises are, children will not be able to access them independently.
How old is the program? Can you trust the information presented? Is it up to date? Has it any obvious bias? It may have been produced to propagate a particular set of beliefs or viewpoint. If so, are these compatible with your school's ethos?
Many programs offer links to the Internet. If you can go online in your classroom, look at where these links take you. Are you going to a website with interesting and appropriate materials, or are you being linked to the publisher's home page, which might be a waste of time for pupils?
You may have children with special needs in your class who will benefit from the software. Does it have spoken words to back up what is written on screen? And you must ask, as with all resources, does it offer differentiated activities?
TEEM provides evaluations and case studies of 250 multimedia materials for key stages 1 and 2 online. Visit www.teem.org.uk