Friday, February 14, 2014

Using Instructional Software in the Classroom

The widespread availability of instructional software has opened up the world of classroom teachers to many new and exciting ways to substitute and supplement to their teaching practices. However, instructional software should be selected and used carefully in order to maximize learning.
The main benefits of different instructional software include keeping students interested and motivated, allowing for differentiated and self-paced work, and exposing students to what otherwise would be impossible due to lack of resources and/or time.
However, there are also potential dangers to using such software. For example, they must be used very carefully or precious instructional time would be lost. There is also a Constructivist-type criticism, which rejects the lack of authenticity and natural integration of such software.
My own experience as a 5th grade homeroom teacher has taught me that instructional software can be a fantastic tool to enrich students’ learning experiences. However, I have also had experiences in which using such software did not only assist students, but even hurt and confused them, to a point of frustration and reduction in motivation. 
In order to illustrate these points, I will discuss three of the instructional software  I use in my classroom- one very successfully, the second with increasing success, and the last with little success and growing frustration…
BrainPop– BrainPop is an excellent tool for learning about different topics through fun and easy-to-understand videos. In addition, it offers quizzes, additional readings, and an activity for each topic viewed. It has a simple and attractive user interface, and maneuvering around the site is very simple and user friendly. Students really enjoy the videos, and it helps me to both introduce and review concepts across the curriculum (math, science, and language).
Mathletics– Mathletics is an excellent game-based software which allows teachers to assign different tasks for students (as a class or individually). It also keeps track of students’ achievements, and offers certificates for earning certain points. Although I feel that I am using it quite effectively, because students report they enjoy playing the games, and I have seen progress made, it was not always like that. When we first received this software, there was no tutorial to go along with it. I used it to the best of my understanding, which was inadequate! By assigning tasks to students, it blocked them from access to different parts of the websites (for example to the “Online Mathletics” area, that has fun competitive games). I also accidentally (and repeatedly) re-assigned tasks to students, which deleted their previous scores and achievements. In addition to that, the website requires the newest Adobe Flash version, which most of our computers did not allow us to upgrade to, since we did not have administrative privileges. Lastly, living in a developing country, Internet connection is quite slow, and in many cases students could not successfully log in- both at home and at school. As a result, my students were frustrated. They complained repeatedly, and precious instructional time was wasted on waiting and re-doing things. As I continue to learn about the software, I use it more efficiently and get more out of it, and my students continue to improve their skills and have fun learning.
Mahara– At my school we recently began using Mahara, mainly as an ePortfolio software for our students. The problem with Mahara has started even before we received it. Our new ICT department has decided to replace several of the existing software, and very quickly the teachers found themselves learning several new technologies in a short time. There was no clear explanation as to why Mahara was chosen, and the introduction of it to staff was not very organized. Teachers were told that this is the tool they will be using, and so the sooner they learn how to use the software, the better. A few tutorials were created and handouts distributed by the ICT department, and teachers were off to fend for themselves. However, although a few teachers worked diligently to learn the new software, most others did not bother to do so. One thing was shared by all- the complaints. Teachers complained that the system was not user friendly, that they did not have enough time to learn it, that there are fundamental flaws in it (such as the inability to export portfolios), etc. etc. And that’s even before students were introduced to the software. 
These three scenarios hopefully illustrated the relative advantage of different instructional software at my school. In the following Powerpoint Presentation, I explain what instructional technology is, give examples of five different types of instructional software, explain how to properly select and utilize them, and present different benefits and potential limitations for each. I conclude with some useful links for educators, most of which could help teachers select appropriate (and tested) instructional software for their needs.