The Good, The Bad & The Ugly of Educational Software

Published On: February 28th, 2018·By ·

I have been working in the K-12 technology space for the past 15 years. During this time I have seen overwhelming evidence that the use of computers has a measurable and positive impact on student achievement.

In particular, computers used to provide students with access to pedagogically sound educational software. I have used the term “pedagogically sound” in order to make the distinction between what is often referred to as “edutainment,” and educational software that has been specifically designed for use in a classroom environment.

Unfortunately, edutainment has given educational software a bad name. I think that the difference between the two can be summed up as follows:

Edutainment tends to be light on educational content and focuses heavily on animation and entertainment, whereas well-designed educational software includes a comprehensive curriculum presented in an engaging, yet concise format.

In case you haven’t guessed, I have a strong distaste for edutainment. I think it wastes valuable instructional time with cutesy animations, non-educational games, and an overall poor presentation of skills. Of course, as with everything, there’s a sliding scale when it comes to this type of software. At the bottom of the bucket you have programs that are nothing more than cartoons with next to no educational value. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the products that, although they rely heavily on animation and game-based activities, also include a reasonable amount of content that’s presented in a relatively coherent manner. The fact is that most of this software lies somewhere below the halfway mark, making it difficult to distinguish the good from the bad from the downright ugly.

For slightly different reasons, I consider the majority of free online “educational” activities and games to be part of this “edutainment” category as well. I recognize that there are some worthwhile free resources; however, for the most part, they are highly inconsistent in nature, and often of little benefit other than to reinforce a handful of concepts. That, of course, doesn’t take into account the time commitment required to identify half-decent free resources.

For example, let’s say a teacher is teaching short vowels in the classroom and they’re looking for computer-based activities to help reinforce the concept. Going the free route, they invest a minimum of an hour, but more likely two or three, researching the best free online resources and compiling a list of sites. At the end of this process, they have perhaps two or three sites that offer an inconsistent smattering of short, one-off activities to reinforce the skills they’re teaching. These activities typically present the content in a single format with little to no consideration given to the different learning modalities of their students. On the other hand, using a well-designed, pedagogically sound educational software program provides that same teacher with instant access to a comprehensive repository of activities that present that content using a logical progression and a variety of formats for different learning styles.

There’s always the exception to any rule and there are some half-decent sites offering free content, but they are few and very far between, and for the most part, they’re still plagued by a lack of content and variety. Not to mention annoying ads. These sites will continue to pop up given their obvious appeal, but at the end of the day, I believe that the adage of you get what you pay for is an accurate description when it comes to these offerings.

Another major downfall of both edutainment and free online resources is that they provide a serious lack of student data. The free online resources, of course, garner the lowest scores in this category. A well-designed educational software solution will provide educators with a wealth of student data that can be viewed in a variety of formats. This valuable data can then be used to identify areas of student difficulty and prescribe targeted intervention where it’s needed.

Taking all of the above into consideration, I strongly believe that every school should be incorporating well-designed educational software into their instructional model.

Here are my top five reasons for adding educational software to your school curriculum:

Student Engagement
Educational software provides immediate reward and reinforcement, creating a personal level of engagement not possible in a traditional group instruction environment. This translates into every student receiving continuous motivation to keep them focused and engaged in the instruction. Of course, students are also accustomed to working with technology. Whether smartphones, tablets, computers, or gaming consoles, kids today are immersed in technology. Using tech to provide some portion of their school instruction only makes sense, as technology is second nature for young people today.

Individualized Instruction
Today’s educational software is providing students with a more individualized learning experience than ever before. Often this involves a built-in assessment that will then tailor the curriculum to the individual needs of each student. Some programs even incorporate real-time adaptive technology that can vary the instruction based on ongoing student performance. Although the latter is only found in more expensive offerings, advancements in technology will help to bring the cost of these “smart” programs down, making them more available to the majority of schools. Another way in which educational software further individualizes instruction is that it can present concepts through a blend of auditory, visual, and tactile activities. Tactile presentation, which has traditionally been accomplished through the inclusion of typing activities, now has new potential using tablet devices.

Saves Time and Increases Instructional Efficiency
The ability to provide every student in their class with an individualized learning program without the need for one-on-one teacher and student interaction is a huge time saver for educators. Given the average class size, it simply is not realistic for teachers to be able to give every student the individual attention that they might need. Incorporating educational software into their daily or weekly instructional routine allows teachers more time for grading, lesson planning, and working with struggling students. Not only do educators gain time by being unburdened from the rote instruction of basic skills, but instructional efficiency is increased by providing each student with the one-on-one attention that they need to accelerate their acquisition of basic skills.

Automatic Student Data Collection
Apart from free online resources, most educational software offerings provide some level of student data tracking. This again is a huge time saver for educators, as they no longer need to administer and grade individual student assessments in order to gain a clear picture of the level at which each student is performing. The amount of data collected varies depending on the product, but most provide enough to help educators make timely and informed decisions about student instruction. Some programs will even generate reports highlighting particular areas of student difficulty. This type of data can be used to guide intervention strategies and prescribe highly targeted instruction to each student. The beauty is that all of this data is gathered automatically without the need for any teacher involvement.

Affordable, Sustainable, and Green
There are educational software offerings for every budget, from the exorbitantly overpriced to the more economical and affordable. Considering what many of these products offer, their value usually far outweighs that of print resources. Unlike traditionally published resources, software can be used over and over by countless students without the need to be replaced. Unquestionably one of the greatest advantages of digital media is that it helps schools reduce their carbon footprint by cutting down on products produced by the global pulp and paper industry.

I hope that you’ve found this article to be interesting and informative. Please feel free to contact me with any questions, and or comments. I wish you all the best!

About Our Sponsor

The author is Matt Brown of Essential Skills, a company that has been developing educational software for schools for over 20 years. Their programs are used in tens of thousands of schools and have engaged and motivated well over a million students, are developed by teachers, and utilize a balance of auditory, visual, and tactile activities for all learning modalities. They offer a wide variety of interactive learning programs for K-6 reading/ELA, math, science, geography, and English language learning. Their programs are ideal for K-6 students, RTI, special education, English learning, and older remedial students. Visit to sign up for a no-obligation 30-day free trial, and discover the Essential Skills difference.

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