A Basket of Software

This article appeared in Issue 11 of Khanya – Education through Technology – 2007

An important component of a school’s computer facility is educational software. In Khanya the emphasis falls, not on the technology, nor on computer literacy, but on curriculum delivery. For this reason suitable software products must be selected to ensure that educators have the right tools at their disposal to perform their task.

How does one go about selecting appropriate software? In fact, what is ‘appropriate’ in any given situation? What is the ideal number of software products that a school should have? This is not a simple matter, since various factors must be considered.

In the most straightforward and ideal case, a school has educators who are computer savvy. They would be able to assess the particular curriculum requirements and then source the software that would best satisfy these needs. It is the goal of Khanya to help schools to reach this state as soon as possible.

In many cases, when information communications technology (ICT) is introduced to schools, the majority of the teachers are not computer literate. They may be excellent class teachers but they have not had the opportunity to use ICT as a teaching tool. It would be unfair to present them with an Everest of software and expect them to reach the summit. Experience has taught us that it is better to introduce the notion of e-learning on a gradual and progressive basis. This implies that it would be better to provide schools with a few simple, easy-to-use software products from the start. As the ability of educators to use these products increase over time, the arsenal of software can be increased according to the needs of the particular teacher body.

There are two main categories of educational software: content-rich software and content-free software. Content-rich software has a lot of subject related information embedded in the product. For example, if it were a piece of software that supports science, it would contain science-related content, from which learners can read and learn. Most educational software products fall into this category. This group also includes electronic encyclopaedias and other reference works. It provides a rich source of information to learners that they can assimilate directly. The disadvantages are that it is rather static and it does not easily lend itself to innovative classroom practice.

Content-free software, on the other hand, refers to products that come without much, or any, subject related content. But it allows educators to add content as the need may dictate. Some of these products also allow learners to build content. This type of software is clearly more sophisticated than content-rich type, and as educators mature in their use of ICT, they would naturally migrate towards it.

The understanding that we have at Khanya at present is that, even though the ultimate goal is toward the use of content-free software, it is expedient to start with content-rich software. It is easy to use and educators feel comfortable to use it during the time that they are building up confidence and expertise in the use of ICT. It is for this reason that we assist schools in acquiring this type of software during the installation process. Our facilitators can help them to become productive in a short space of time. Over time, teachers are exposed to other form of software and schools are encouraged to acquire products according to their needs.

One of the mistakes Khanya made during its early years was the introduction of the ‘software basket’. This basket was provided to primary schools and consisted of a variety of software products, both content-rich and content-free. It was provided to schools in the belief that a variety is needed for teaching and that different educators would latch onto different products.

We still believe that a variety of software products are required but experience has taught us that most of the products in the basket remain untouched. Some schools have had content-free products now for up to five years and have never used them.

A more conservative software provisioning policy was therefore adopted. Only one, or maybe a few, products would initially be provided. When the school is ready for expansion, they can acquire what they need.

How will a school know which products to acquire? First consider the educational needs, as well as the ability of the educators. Talk to neighbouring schools and find out which products they have found useful. Approach software dealers and ask for demonstrations (but be aware of aggressive sales tactics). The Western Cape Education Department (WCED) has a list of approved software on its website to help schools to determine the relative value of each product. Khanya facilitators will be able to provide advice, based on their experience in a number of schools.

And after the software has been purchased, makes sure that it is used!

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