CRASH Course

Roger Kean ponders upon the problems of educational software.

Educational software poses something of a problem, especially for a magazine like CRASH. We are supposed to be a lively games software review publication which means that the majority of readers for whom we cater are most likely to be those with a contempt for teaching software. The situation is even worse if a lot of the reviewed software is primarily aimed at infants. In talking to a well-versed games player of some 15 years, I asked him what he thought of ‘educational’ software. He said, ‘Rubbish’ very firmly, and added that it was probably okay for kids.

Perhaps the taint of school hangs too much around the term ‘educational software’ for a games addict to take it seriously at all. As long as this attitude persists it remains difficult for CRASH to deal sensibly with teaching software.

A similar problem, I suspect, faces the software companies themselves. There was a feeling abroad at the end of last year that 1984 was going to be the year for educational games and that we were facing a boom in sales. True enough, there has been a flood of product, with many of the established publishers like Heinemann, Longmans and Penguin rushing programs out. It might be thought that as the school standard, the BBC model B computer has been a favourite, but the Spectrum is probably better catered for. It remains to be seen, however, whether the enthusiasm of the publishers will be matched in sales by the public. As with a magazine which isn’t sure how to cope with the often opposed demands of its readers, so the software houses haven’t discovered how best to market educational software.

The managing director of a leading games software house once told me that it might be possible to ‘sell’ educational games to the school-age people it was intended for, on the angle that they could persuade their parents to buy a home computer because there would be lots of learning programs available. Then as soon as it was installed it would only be a matter of time before its young owner could switch to the far more important matters at hand — arcade games!

Of course, one way to get around this lack of appreciation from the intended market is to ensure that the learning end of the game is well sweetened. Quite a lot of Spectrum software turns out to contain really very good games, in some cases games well able to hold their own with their less learned arcade brethren. Heinemann’s Ballooning is a really tough and interesting simulation, Longman’s Robot Runner is a reasonably difficult arcade game and Sinclair Macmillan’s Magnets makes a fine and deceptively hard board game. I think any of these, and others besides, would actually sell quite well if they were to be repackaged and have the faint odour of school dinners flushed away by being turned into straightforward computer games.

Mind you, this begins to echo those older arguments that champions in the cause of computer games have put forward that any computer game is actually teaching the player any number of skills during play. They are just not always obvious, but they are there. So, turning the coin over, you are left wondering whether, in the search for sweetening learning with excitement, software houses have actually left much teaching value in the games.

Another factor that confuses the issue of educational software is the attitude of schools. When the computer first arrived in the classrooms it was largely used to perpetuate its own position: ie, it was used largely to teach people how to use computers and to understand the processes of programming. Today, and with the advent of much cheaper machines leading to more classroom availability, one would hope the computer is used as a tool for teaching all kinds of skills of which computer programming is only one. But do British schools or educational authorities have a coherent policy of software buying? I suspect not in general. In any case, there are serious indications that schools, who happily buy thousands of copies of a particular textbook, prefer to buy one or two copies of a piece of software and then make back-up copies for the classrooms. This situation is worsened by the self-evident fact that there is not a computer per pupil, and therefore hardly a need for thousands of units of a program.

Furthermore, the cost of educational computer software is very high. On the Spectrum it is certainly cheaper than say for the BBC, but still runs out at between £8 and £10. If this puts schools off, it must certainly put off parents too. As Spectrums are more commonly found in the home than in the school, software houses have had to tailor their products to suit parental guidance, especially with programs intended for infants. This is all very well, but for the parent who wants to purchase, for instance, all six of the Mr. T series from Good Housekeeping, it represents an outlay of almost £60, which seems quite a lot to pay for the privilege of offering parental guidance.

So what does it all add up to? A confused market, potentially a huge one, but one that falls between the needs and desires of children, parents and school teachers. It isn’t all gloomy of course — the very fact of the computer and the availability of excellent software will eventually establish some stability. There are already signs of this stability with some software houses reporting regular and substantial sales of their programs through schools within a local area authority. But nevertheless, it is likely to be a period of struggle for many companies who have entered the field, and I rather doubt whether the people who are supposed to be learning while they are playing will ever fully appreciate the programs as learning vehicles.

Meanwhile, we will continue to keep an eye on the situation and review educational games on a regular basis under the heading of CRASH COURSE.