Article

UniServe Science News Volume 7 July 1997




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Anne Fernandez
Educational Technologist, UniServe Science

Prior to joining UniServe Science Anne was consulting to schools on the integrated use of computers in the curriculum, whilst she completed her Master of Education (Computers in Education) at The University of Sydney.

Evaluation of Computer Based Learning Materials

Anne Fernandez
PhySciCH@mail.usyd.edu.au

Introduction

With the ever increasing use of computers in education, the selection of quality software is becoming more important. However, the huge volume of software packages available makes choosing a suitable, cost-effective solution a daunting task. Prior to joining UniServe Science I spent several years advising schools, both primary and secondary, on the integration of computers into the curriculum. Evaluation of computer based learning materials was an integral component of the assistance given. Much of the knowledge gained from this experience is equally applicable in a tertiary environment.

What is effective educational software?

Ultimately the selection of software depends on the needs of the students in a particular situation and the preferences and style of the teacher. However, much current research into learning suggests that for a learning experience to be effective: the student needs to engage in higher order thinking to consolidate the knowledge; the exercise must integrate well with the curriculum; the environment should be non-threatening; student success should be reinforced; activities should be student-centred; material should be presented in a variety of ways to cater for differences in style and prior experience; and the learner must take an active role. In addition, software to be considered should: be appropriate for the target audience; be flexible in the ways in which it can be used; offer the possibility of customisation; and have the potential to be used with significant numbers of students.

What should you look for when evaluating software?

Broadly speaking there are four main areas to address in evaluation:

  • content - subject matter, aims and objectives, bias, concepts introduced, relevance, flexibility, teaching style;

  • usage - preparation required by the students and teachers, prerequisite knowledge, operation in the lecture theatre/laboratory, technical details, followup activities;

  • features - operation of the software, input of data, presentation of material, program structure, level of customisation available; and

  • support materials - technical and user manuals, availability and quality of teacher and student materials (lesson plans, work sheets, etc.), packaging.

Some common problems of evaluation

  • The more interactive the program the greater the variability in the sequence and presentation of content. In fact, the user may actually present material in an order never intended by the author.

  • As mentioned above learning occurs when the student takes an active role so it is important to evaluate it from a student's point of view. Formative feedback to student responses is very important in the learning process. Since many evaluations do not involve students the evaluator must try to imagine as many student responses as possible, or at least the most common. If time permits it would be a good idea to try it out on students.

  • The interactive nature of many educational computer programs is such that different paths are followed and there may be parts of the program never visited by the student. In simulations different choices cause different outcomes. Where the package contains exercises, only some exercises may be well-designed and relevant. Thus to carry out a thorough evaluation will often require a great deal of time.

Ideally an evaluator of educational software needs to be an expert in the teaching of the subject area covered by the package and have a good understanding of the computer as a teaching tool.

Suggested procedures for software evaluation

  1. Skim the documentation accompanying the package noting important points - platform, subject/topic areas, target audience, title, price, date/version, copyright, required hardware, type of software (ie. tutorial, simulation, investigation etc), method of use.

  2. Work through the package as if you are a successful student. This will give you an overall feel for its structure and operation. If from this testing you determine that the package is less than satisfactory there is no need to do any more evaluation (go to step 4). However, if you decide that more testing is required then you need to develop a plan for further evaluation to check all parts of the program.

  3. Work through the package making deliberate mistakes to test error handling and feedback to incorrect answers. If error handling is poor, the level of frustration becomes a problem.

  4. Summarise your evaluation, including a recommendation (excellent package, good package, fair, not useful) and publish it so that others may refer to it.

UniServe Science software reviews

UniServe Science now has over 3000 products listed in the science tertiary teaching resources database and is constantly on the look out for new product announcements. Some of the products have been reviewed. A major activity for the remainder of 1997 is to solicit reviews of all software being widely used (or considered) in tertiary science teaching in Australia. These reviews will then be made available to all interested teaching academics via our web site.

Reference

N.S.W. Department of Education. (1985). An evaluator's guide to educational software and related material. Sydney: NSW Department of Education.


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UniServe Science News Volume 7 July 1997

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