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Educational Software

What is meant by educational or instructional software? In short, it is software that helps teach, using the computer to assist the instructional process. With the growing use and power of computer technology in schools, such software comes in a growing variety of forms, with much promise. Advocates point to increasing power to evaluate in less interruptive ways, record frequent data on student progress, create prescriptions that automatically choose the next activity, provide intense motivation using a wide variety of instructional activity using many forms of media, communicate that data to teams of educators and parents quickly, and individualize learning activities. The need for computer managed instruction comes at an opportune time in education. Classrooms have a large and growing number of new teachers in need of guidance, facing highly diverse classrooms that include special needs students and an increasing number of students not yet fluent in English. Yet educational software's promise raises a question about reaching our overarching goal. End game is still a graduated student participating as a knowledgeable voting citizen and interested community problem solver in a political system labeled democracy (Dewey, 1944). Can students be developed by a system with strong teacher and computer managed design and simultaneously become knowledgeable individuals who are strong at self-regulating and self-managing? That is, can and will we teach a system of self-management that empowers learners to take increasing charge of their systems of computer management? How will we address the problem of control? To develop answers to such a question, educators must know what educational software is capable of and what self-management requires.

The outline of this article has direct links to its elements:

Computer Assisted Instruction

The phrase "computer assisted instruction" is an official descriptor in the ERIC database of educational literature, used in pointing to over 20,000 related articles. ERIC uses it help find articles about computer software which presents and monitors instructional activities, matching the next activity with individual learner needs. Better game board for math playingeducational software adjusts to fit the difficulty level and topic needs of the user. It means software that comes with content goals and knowledge built in, unlike tool oriented applications such as a word processor that begins with a blank page.

Though some software for children and adolescents is very dry work-sheet oriented, unauthentic digital material, increasingly the category of game is the dominant motif in the digital environment that ties together many educational software genres. In the problem processing model at the top of this page, such software is most often part of the Look phase of problem solving which builds the experience and skills necessary for the learner to later compose solutions of their own to the problems that they encounter.

Perhaps there is a more valuable question for the learner and teacher. What is intended by such software? There are many motivations, including practice, the introduction of new information, infinite patience, exploration of ideas and systems at the edge of the physical ability and skill of the user, and the exercise of higher order thinking and detailed recording keeping with analysis of educational progress. Underlying these educational goals is the concern for sustaining the activity until educational goals are achieved. Consequently, educational games are often a major element of such software in order to build motivation for continuing to play so that a wider range of instructional goals can be met. As an example, the Math Arcade graphic above is hyperlinked to the web site from which it was taken. There is always a point in the learning process where activities need to repeated over and over in a variety of different ways. Such intellectual activity is needed to move ideas and skills from short term memory to long term memory as well as to enable increasingly complex skills to be rehearsed in a place of less risk and a place of constant feedback and advice. Selecting software with the right balance between learning and entertainment goals is a critical factor in its selection.

This page focuses on the concept of educational software, resources for finding and obtaining computer assisted instruction or instructional software and tracks reviews of this kind of software. Such software addresses many different instructional roles with a specific content focus: presentation, demonstration, tutorial, drill and practice, simulation, games, etc. Many terms are related to the topic of computer assisted instruction: computer based instruction; computer managed instruction, multiplayer, integrated learning systems and video game addiction (AMA, 2007). Search information databases for these terms to find more information. General search systems for finding all types of computer software are also provided.

Educational (instructional or CAI) software teaches specific skills and knowledge, often narrowed to a specific content area and grade range. This type of software is in contrast to tool software that can be used in general to help students through problem processing at any grade level and in any content area, such as: word processors, newsletter programs, spreadsheets, databases, audio-video editors, or presentation programs. Finding instructional software that fits just one of the categories below is often difficult because one or more or categories are commonly integrated into a single instructional software program or learning system. This set of instructional software categories is taken from Instructional Media, and Technologies for Learning (Smaldino, Molenda, Russell, & Heinich, 2004).

Types of Educational Software for Curriculum Integration


Drill and practice assumes that the skills have previously been presented and that further practice is necessary for mastery. See a review of SAT/ACT/PSAT Platinum as one example of such software.


Tutorial activity includes both the presentation of information and its extension into different forms of work, including drill and practice, games and simulation. See the Math Trek 1,2,3 description for an example and cost.


Game software often creates a contest to achieve the highest score and either beat others or beat the computer. See the Logical Journey of the Zoombinis description for a good example. An example of contrasting entertainment software is the critically acclaimed Super Mario 64. However, this educational versus entertainment perspective fails to take into account the required higher order thinking skills needed for success in the Super Mario program and the positive character traits it promotes such as capacity for exploration, planning and execution and fostering quick thinking in complex settings.


Simulation software can provide an approximation of reality that does not require the expense of real life or its risks. Flying a digital airplane can be highly realistic but without cost and physical risk. See the Digital Frog description or SimCity description , review or web site or their web site expanding the concept to SimCity Societies.

Simulation software also refers to the mathematical modelling of many natural systems that push the limits of computer capacity in the sciences and the humanities. These include a 1 billion-atom simulation of the strength of a material (2002), the 2.64 million atom simulation of a ribosome which makes proteins in all organisms (2005), the Blue Brain project to simulate the entire molecular workings of the human brain (2005), and fluid dynamics simulations that creates numerous special effects in Hollywood movies with water, gases and fire (2008). As computing power grows, student's access to similar academic simulations will grow as well.


Discovery software provides a large database of information specific to a course or content area and challenges the learner to analyze, compare, infer and evaluate based on their explorations of the data. See the Geodynamics Multimedia Database description at their web site for an example and cost.

Problem Solving

Problem Solving software teaches specific problem solving skills and strategies. See The Manor House Mystery: Problem Solving in Geometry for an example.

Gaming and Education

As all of these instructional software categories are frequently mixed together, one of these categories, gaming, deserves further consideration because of its frequent and central use in educational software. Gaming is too often seen as a problem by educators, as activity that unless tightly restricted, is ultimately distracting and even harmful to sound learning practices. Consequently, software and other titles that clearly indicate a game format or include game formats are somewhat suspect and purchase sometimes avoided. This perception is reinforced by problems with gaming addiction among a small percentage of players.

Two generalizations emerge about the positive features of gaming from more recent research. First, it is the content of the game that is critical. Successful game programs, whether video games or other formats, build content and activities into high levels of motivation and interest. As motivation dies, so learning dies and the extrinsic desire to continue stops (Gee, 2004). Consequently, where teaching content is challenging, gaming is useful in reinforcing a wide variety of learning values.

Second, the methods and design of games have much to teach educators and curriculum developers (Gee, 2003). Dr. James Gee at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Education has given special attention to the value of games for learning:

First, good games create what I call the “cycle of expertise,” a type of learning that humans actually enjoy.
  • Learners are confronted with problems designed to make them form good generalizations about what will work later.
  • Learners must solve related but varied problems until they attain a routinized mastery.
  • A new problem is thrown at them, requiring both those routinized skills and new ones. This re-opens the routinized tool kit for integration with new skills.
  • Repetition in confronting the new problems creates a new, higher-level set of routinized skills.
  • The cycle is repeated again and again.

This is how expertise is formed in any area, including learning to read. In a game, it means that learning and playing become synonymous for the duration of the game.

Second, humans are most motivated to learn and keep learning (and playing) when the game operates at the outer edge of their competence; that is, it feels doable, but challenging, giving rise to a constant sense of pleasurable frustration. Good games allow players to customize to their own levels of competence and styles of learning. Good games allow multiple solutions to problems, differential rewards for different levels of play, and regular feedback about the player's progress. Some games even manage to get harder for those doing too well and easier for those faring poorly.

Third, in their tutorials and early levels, good games do a masterful job of presenting the basic elements in such a way that the player sees how the game works as a whole system, not as discrete, unrelated units. Basic skills are always practiced, not in isolation, but in sets that go together to form strategies for accomplishing goals and carrying out activities. This allows learners always to see how these basic skills fit into the game as a whole system and how different skills are integrated.

In school, on the other hand, children often are exposed to basic skills one by one, step by step. In early reading instruction, for example, they are taught first awareness of the sounds that compose words, then the decoding of letters, then reading aloud to attain more fluent decoding, then comprehension skills. Then and only then do they get to the real “game” – reading for meaning and to carry out their own purposes. (Gee, 2004)

Computer based gaming is already playing a significant role in 21st century culture. In 2007, more computer games were sold than game examplesHollywood movies and music (Klepek, 2008). In addition to countless hours that can be spent with commercial titles, there are also major online gaming sites that include: Funbrain for -K8 Kids ; Addicting Games; Mini Games; Kongregate; Pogo; MSN Games; Yahoo Games; AOL Games; RealArcade; Shockwave and Big Fish Games. Educators will need to sort through such choices carefully for those with educational applications. As in the examples on the left, each web site contains some games that will have interesting classroom application.

create game processIn an important development in 2008, major digital game designers moved from allowing players to sometimes modify the content of installed games on personal computers to providing the tools for everyone to create their own games, both games that are installed on computers and those that are played online. These companies include: The by Electronic Arts; and Xbox Live Community Games. The former requires no programming skills, while the latter does. Each will enable teachers and students to create games of all types, including educational topics of their choice. However, the major game designers are merely following a well established trend in the digital environment. A Google Search for "create games" in Februrary of 2008 provided over 24 million hits for the topic. That is, even a quick peak shows numerous web sites that provide tools for game composition.

The capacity to create a game on a topic is also an interesting measure of ones knowledge of the concept. That is, not only is it useful to play games to acquire knowledge and skill, but the development of a game requires that the game author acquire sufficient knowledge around a theme in order to make the game interesting. Though game design and development is its own specialized career, numerous web sites provide hobbyists and those interested in such design with tools for making games, games that can be inserted into any web site.

Whether in evaluating games or simply planning lessons and units of instruction, the principles of gaming have broad application to many educational activities. However, though gaming has wide application, sustaining a company that is producing instructional software requires sales. To justify the cost of major software development, the high number of sales needed drives developers to build educational software that focuses on a few areas with greatest market potential. For educational software, this most often means literacy and numeracy issues.

As many educational objectives get less attention than others, many instructional objectives in a state's standard course of study do not have instructional software that addresses them. This is not to say that useful computer software is missing, but that it does not plug into the computer managed instruction model. Instead this software requires the independent creativity of the learner. Open-ended tool software from word processors to video editors are used to help learners design, compose and problem solve from scratch. Composition tools are available for every form of composition that has been created for human creativity, both on the personal computer and on the web itself.

Cost vs Effectiveness

Given the limited nature of educational budgeting, managing cost is a critical issue in using educational software. Measuring the educational impact of such software may be even more challenging.

Fortunately, the web provides increasing access to free educational activities, and to the different types of educational software, games and game creation tools. If a classroom has a digital projector for its computer, one computer provides excellent access for an entire class or group. But just as much of the best of the web is behind a password, much of the best of educational software requires paying an annual fee for continued access, or a one-time payment for the rights to install the software on one or more computers in a network.

The problem of software cost is compounded by the continually changing nature of computer systems themselves and the cost of computer maintenance. A new or updated version of an operating system may no longer run the previously bought software, requiring another purchase or the payment of a lesser "update" price. That may be possible if the company is still in existence and has chosen to upgrade the software program to run on the new operating system. Cost goes up significantly if the application needs to run or be able to run on every computer in the school. On the other hand, educational effectiveness drops significantly if school districts cannot manage the maintenance of the equipment and networking systems that it has.

Family purchasing has indicated a declining interest in the value of such software. The graph on the right of millions of dollars in purchases shows that overall sales of individual educational software titles that teach reading, mathematics and reference works have dropped heavily (Richtel, 2005). This occurred over a time period in which sales of gaming software titles have increased steadily.

A more recent study released by the U.S. Department of Education reported "no difference in academic achievement between students who used educational software programs for math and reading and those who did not" (Hu, 2007) and selected school districts and state agencies reported similar results causing them to abandon laptop computer initiatives. Other administrators simply see this as inadequate progress to date and a need for more teacher training and greater patience in getting needed results (Hu, 2007). It should be noted that many years after businesses and corporations adopted information technology (IT) on a broad scale, researchers reported increased productivity and consumer value yet results that were still not visible in business profits. Further, increased value and unchanged profit was consistent with economic theory (Hitt & Brynjolfsson, 1994). Since that time, numerous companies have come into existence that would not exist without current information technology and consequently their profit is totally dependent on IT. This comparison with business and educational practices might indicate that unless an educational organization totally reinvents itself to be totally enmeshed in the new tools and their new perspectives, their real impact will be very difficult to see.

Problems with the cost of initial acquisition, measuring the overall effectiveness of educational software, the cost of ongoing maintenance, and the problem of affording a wide variety of educational software titles, have led to companies bundling together a large number of computer titles and applications and sharing them over school networks or over the Internet. Such licensing is much more expensive than buying a few software titles, yet much less expensive than buying individual licenses for a large number of computers. As many school districts are managing thousands of personal computers, costs can climb rapidly. This has drawn considerable attention to management system software that take a broader view of educational software. This will be discussed in a later section on Computer Managed Instruction.

Selecting Educational Software

As with any purchase, experience with the product is essential in making good choices. Asking colleagues what they like, what is already available and what works is an easy first step. Many educational software companies provide a time limited download to allow teachers to get familiar enough with the program to a make decision about its usefulness to a teaching situation. Taking this step requires finding the software in the first place.

Educational Software Awards

Selecting award winning software is a good beginning point in building classroom and school software collections.

Codie Awards. Established in 1986, the Codie Awards award achievement in the software, digital information and education technology industries. Through the use of journalist and peer review, the Codie Awards recognize 68 categories of outstanding products and services, 18 of which are in education. The Software & Information Industry Association is the principal trade association for the software and digital content industry.

Winners: 2005; 2006; 2007; 2008 coming in March. Highlight the title of a winning software application on these pages and paste it into a Google search to find its company web site.

BESSIES. Best Educational Software Awards (winter), web site and software programs. Winners: 2003; 2004; 2005; 2006; 2007; 2008

EDDIES Educational Software Review Awards (summer) web site and software programs. Winners: 2003; 2004; 2005; 2006; 2007

Selected Software Search Systems


Downloading Procedures

  1. How to download software (short version)
  2. How to download software (more detailed; by R. Schwiebert) ; Educational Shareware ; ; ; shareware directory

General Commercial Educational Software Collections

KudzuKat's Software Search ; ;

Instructional Software Collections, Indexes and Archives

Directory of Educational Software

Selected list of Educational Software Companies

CAI Reviews

Using Computers in the Management of Instruction

A significant portion of teacher training is focused on how teachers can best manage the instructional process in their classroom. The explosion of computer capacity, World Wide Web content and Internet infrastructure bring two additional perspectives into view: learner managed instruction and computer managed instruction. What technologies and concepts currently address these latter two choices? Who should control the learning sequence and to what degree in the age of fingertip control of global digital knowledge? At what age and to what degree does control by the learner, teacher, organization or state create the best learning?

Computer Managed Instruction

The language for describing management, tracking and prescribing of learning by computer continues to evolve. CAI was followed by the phrase computer managed instruction (CMI) (Baker, 1978). The ERIC database of educational literature still uses this phrase as one of its official thesaurus keywords. ERIC defines CMI as "the use of a computer to maintain and analyze data on learner performance and instructional progress as an aid to teachers in selecting learning activities". As the power of computers and computer networking has grown, so has this concept taken on new features and roles. Increasingly learning activities are stored within a school building, or district or the Internet system for quick, convenient and cost effective access.

As learning activities expanded to include tracking student progress and managing access to numerous instructional activities and software titles on networked computers, the phrase integrated learning systems (ILS) was used, another official ERIC thesaurus descriptor pointing to over two hundred related educational articles. Recording and reporting data on student progress and finding and selecting instructional activities are among the most time consuming aspects of an educator's work day. Having computers assist with these major activities frees up teachers to spend more direct time with students. In order to do so, school districts and/or learners pay for the use and management of such systems.

An integrated learning system is designed to run more or less independently or as an assistant to a teacher. This contrasts with course management systems that manage the ongoing instruction of a course by an instructor. This is also referred to as a virtual learning environment. The CMS (VLE) includes access to instructional resources, communication among class members using email, text chat, and audio and video conferencing, and assessment tools for testing. This includes asynchronous applications such as Blackboard, Moodle , Sakai and other titles. Such software is used extensively within high school, higher education, corporate and government settings. Related titles for synchronous live online instruction include Elluminate, WebEx and Adobe Connect.

More recently, the phrase learning management systems (LMS) has emerged which include course management systems along with educational software applications and their learning tracking and assessment systems.

Selected Integrated Learning System Companies

Pearson Digital Learning
A maker of computer managed instruction software in a wide range of curriculum areas.
A producer of computer managed instruction software.
Houghton Mifflin RiverDeep
This collection of companies provides a wide range of educational material for online, print and personal computer use. Destination Success is their CMI product that covers literacy, mathematics and music learning.

Learner Managed Instruction

Teacher managed learning remains the primary schema for classroom direction. To this point, you've learned that certain computer applications have created high motivation for use, but one alternative, educational software has not yet reached this peak, and in fact has struggled to deliver on its promise to add value to what teachers already do without computers. New efforts are underway with integrated learning systems to repackage educational software concepts with computer management tools for assessment, tracking and prescription knowledge. As the computer driven approach appears to be work through some challenges, it is useful to compare this approach with another alternative to top-down teacher management, what will be called here "learner managed instruction". Instead of companies offering products, this approach is encouraged by education specialists. Pyschologists call this self-regulated learning, while the ERIC database defines it as self-management, a thesarus descriptor that points to hundreds of ERIC articles. What the learner must acquire is not a product but skilled self-discipline.

Learner managed instruction requires a sense of strategic plan of action, then the motivation and self-awareness to continually compare feedback and progress against standards and goals (Butler & Winne, 1995; Pape, Pajares & Zimmerman, 2005; Schunk & Zimmerman, 2007; Winne & Perry, 2000). The effort of self-regulated learners to seek feedback from a variety of sources ((Butler & Winne, 1995) is represented in the LEAP problem solving model, by the Assess stage. The challenge is how to teach such skills in different setttings, from web-based learning environments (Narciss, Proske & Koerndle, 2007) to classrooms (Perry & Hutchinson, 2006). Based on factors of cost and flexibility, learner managed instruction would appear to be the better value. More research will need to be done to determine if that is in fact the case. Yet these are not mutually exclusive concepts, as a self-management system could easily include the use computer managed instruction applications.

The CROP model provides a strategic model of actions for learning and problem solving that integrate computer applications and classroom practices which a learner would use in exploring and responding to the needs of the world around them. What is a fact is that the Web has become a giant digital library of articles, books, tutorials, courses and a wide range of other activities for those that can self-regulate their learning. As a measure of the depth of the Web, try a web search of the term tutorial and any topic (example, tutorial and swimming) to see if there is any for which some tutorial has not already been created. Web resources and systems also cover complex systems and topics with high visual information needs such as learning software applications. Online instructional resources increasing include all of the forms of media of which the web is capable. Collections of thousands of online screen movies for hundreds of software applications are now available online. Excellent examples include atomic learning and

Who Controls?

The simple answer is that both the learner and the educational system should share control of learning management and computer software. However, there will be no simple answer to this question. Given different maturity levels, experience and knowledge, and economic costs, reasons will exist for the novice or the expert, the learner or an organization to guide the learning process. The unsatisfactory drop-out rate of students disenchanted with the educational system indicates that there is still much to change and improve with the educational system in place. The history of genocide (Totten & Bartrop, 2008) in human culture by those with extreme power makes the issue of self-managing citizens of a democracy a non-trivial concern. In the long term, given the needs of a democracy for independent thinkers that can not only manage their own learning, but objectively examine and make decisions in the world, educators will need to teach self-management and pointedly share control as learners mature. The basic fact remains that at some point students will graduate, and will have to exercise the ability to control discovery, thinking and problem solving independently in a rapidly changing world.

Balancing the role of teacher managed instruction, learner managed instruction and computer managed instruction will remain a fundamental educational challenge. At what age and to what degree does control by the learner, teacher, organization or state create the best learning?


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First published 1996 | updated March 3, 2008 | Page author: Houghton