Thursday, July 17, 2008

How Shall We Evaluate Media?

Last night was an exceptional one in my college class. We were set to talk about evaluating software. As the students were looking at three pieces of software that we are fortunate enough to have on our computers and one on my laptop, I sent out a Tweet. I said that I was waiting for class to look at software so we could talk about evaluating. Lucky for me, my Cyber Angel, Sylvia Martinez was on Twitter at the same time and said she would have a lot to say on the topic.

So, proving that the world is truly flat, I asked Sylvia to Skype into my classroom and join the discussion. I should probably mention that I have had Skype on my computer for a year, but never used it for a phone call. This is the sort of fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants that either makes me look brilliant --- or a fool! Lucky for me, it was brilliant. I was lucky to have a brilliant guest!

For those who might not know her, Sylvia Martinez is the president of GenYes and has years of experience in software development. Her insight is phenomenal and was just what this rather quiet class needed. Before the call, we had a mini-conversation on the four vastly different pieces of software we had looked at. The students enjoyed the interactiveness of some and wondered about the breadth of others. When Sylvia was on the phone, she talked about the great promise of "blank page" software. She quoted my hero, Peter H. Reynolds, who is also a proponent of the blank page. Peter owns a bookstore and if anyone asks him what the best book in the store is, the international famous - New York Times best selling illustrator points to the blank books that they sell. So both of these marvelous mentors point to the wide range of implications of the blank page to curricula. Sylvia wowed the class and provided the impetus for a great conversation.

After the call, there was an excellent discussion about software and what to look for. When I went back to Twitter after class, I noticed that Dr. Gary Stager had asked me why we evaluate software. He questioned why we don't apply that same scrutiny to items such as textbooks. I replied with, " The reason I talk about software eval is because some people let software dictate curricula-instead of the other way around." I think my job, as an instructor, is to get students to evaluate all media. Whether it be a Web 2.0 application, a piece of software, a video used in class, a textbook, or any other media. I think most techie-people will agree to that.

Dr. Stager's point seems to include why we use a canned, out of the book type rubric to evaluate media. Do we use that same rigid and generic criteria to evaluate textbooks? Good and thought provoking question. Truth be told, I start the conversation with such a rubric. The rubric in our book asks students to look at things like content and navigation. The reason I extend the conversation is that there are a LOT of things that are not in the rubric. Many good pieces of software would NOT rate well on that rubric. An example would be the new software Animation-Ish. Blank page software does not fall neatly in the package of the rubric. The student doesn't receive feedback from the software and there isn't any teacher monitoring.

So, the question is, how do we start the conversation with future teachers about evaluating media. Seems to be a tender balancing act to help distinguish between the groundbreaking achievements in software development and the slick and/or shiny objects that people become enamored with. We must provide guidance in selection so that the objectives/education drives the media acquisition and not the other way around.

I sincerely want to thank Sylvia Martinez for her participation. I also want to thank Gary Stager for asking the tough questions. My favorite undergraduate teacher, Dr. Berg, quoted one of his instructors when he would say, "Anything worth believing is worth questioning." It is critical in this education/information explosion to question why we do what we do and how we choose what companies and materials get to be viewed and explored by our most valuable asset....our students!

I encourage you to leave comments!


cossondra said...

Your perception that software evaluation is as critical as textbook evaluation is right on, in my mind. With both, it is easy to look at the flash appeal, is it bright and shiny and fun, without truly delving deeply into the content and long term applicability of the product.

Time on task on the classroom is critical. We must utilize software that enhances our curriculum, not software that becomes a curriculum all its own. The program must make tasks easier or more meaningful for students as they interact with the technology to explore the curriculum.

I find rubrics to evaluate texts or software a starting point only because of the variability of both.

A closing thought.. sometimes, a software we love initially, we find is a waste of class time. Others, which on the surface may seem frivolous, we find to be wonderful tools in the classes we are teaching. The key to success is exploration and an open minded approach.


Barb said...

If we look at use of technology as a journey, those teachers just beginning need a lot of hand holding and to feel comfortable with their steps. Evaluating software is a step along the way and will let them feel in control of making decisions about choosing the most appropriate tool for their purpose. Keep up the good work.

Gary said...


For more than 20 years I have watched colleges and universities to "teach" software evaluation. Some do it better than others. Sometimes the students create an evaluation rubric and other times students go to a room full of software, pick a title and evaluate it.

I question the educational value of such activity.

First of all, no other "stuff" is given an evaluation course. Therefore, one must conclude that either software is more important than everything else; it's more important or it' more complex than say, "reading a book" or "using a microscope."

Worst of all, it turns education into consumerism and perpetuates the assumption that you need lots of software.

Another problem is the commercialization of ed tech. I am NOT against a great software company being rewarded for their efforts. I AM against being told that I, as a computer-using educator, and part of "the industry."

Are reading or music teachers referred to as part of "the industry?"

Software evaluation seems the stuff of daytime television, not graduate school.

I you find a piece of software that works for you, use it. Maybe even keep using it until kids develop fluency and can really learn or express themselves via that medium.

The fact that Sylvia essentially used the telephone to join your class is great, but is hardly evidence of a flat world.

I too love blank-page software, but the best such software has embedded objects-to-think-with, leading a user to develop, or at least bump against, powerful ideas. That's why Microsoft PowerPoint is not richer than MicroWorlds EX, for example.

The best work I've ever seen done by kids with computers was on 1990-era hard drive-free laptops loaded with LogoWriter. With one piece of software and plenty of access, plus time, kids were able to program, draw, animate, write, solve problems and dream across the curriculum and beyond.

If their teachers had been enrolled in a software evaluation course, they would have felt pressure to have more software and their kids would have developed less fluency.


Cossondra, why is time-on-task critical? Are kids working in a sweatshop? Does learning occur best in such a coercive predictive environment?

Can't a professional look at some material and determine if it's good or bad, useful or useless, appropriate or inappropriate without going through the machinations of an evaluation process?


Most schools in the industrialized countries began getting microcomputers more than a quarter century ago! Why are we still holding hands?

More than a generation of children have been deprived of rich learning experiences because we indulged the whims of teachers.

TJ Shay said...

Thank you, Gary, for challenging my thinking once again. What you help me do is refine my thoughts and make them clearer.

First, how does a new teacher (or any teacher for that matter) become acquainted with new tools for the classroom? They read journals, attend a trade show, hear it from friends/colleagues, or search through catalogs. What you are assuming is that every person has the motivation and drive to seek out new practices that will enhance the learning in their classroom. I can honestly say that I haven't seen a lot of that in my twenty two years of classroom teaching.

How should teachers decide what is best for their classroom? By exploring the five and a half football fields worth of booths at NECC? By seeking inspiration from a catalog? I am a music teacher and none of my students are...So they must take the broad knowledge given in this course and make decisions on what is best for their future classes. My ultimate goal is to get them excited about strategies and products and encourage them to LOOK at what is out there and DREAM of ways that kids can show their knowledge in new and different ways.

When discussing software, I said if they were at a trade show, they would go from booth to booth each person would show them the 'very best' product in the whole world. If they looked through a catalog they would find much the same thing. Every single product is the best. What I am teaching is a process for how they can see if the products will help them meet an objective.

Second, a very small portion of this undergraduate class has to do with software. In fact, probably <5% of the time is spent on that. It is one of many tools that we look at. We also look at instructional strategies that engage students, not all of which involve technology.

Using your example of the 1990s software free computer, I think I am presenting the class with the tool and letting them decide how to use it... Fortunately, there are just tons of tools now. I believe I am presenting the class with resources...How they use it, depends on their level of motivation, resources, and skill.

Cossondra- I agree, a rubric is a first step and starting point for beginning educators. As we become more experienced, we rely more on our professional opinions. I also agree that some of the software we enjoyed in the beginning begins to lose it's appeal when compared with software that is more open or 'blank page.'

Barb- Yes, if we look at teaching as a journey, technology can help us on the path. Using that same analogy, evaluating software is like looking at the rocks beneath our feet and deciding which one will give us a firm footing and which ones are just pretty!

mindelei said...

Although your students may or may not realize it yet, I want to thank you for providing them with a beginning tool to learn to evaluate the media that they will be coming into contact with in their future classrooms.

I am also a pre-service teacher, I take the bulk of my methods courses this coming fall and hope that my university has the insight to know that such things will be essential as I move into a new career. I appreciate that you and other professors/teachers like you are looking out for new teachers and helping us to learn how to determine what pieces of media will be most useful in our future classrooms. Thank you.

cossondra said...

Gary's questions:

Cossondra, why is time-on-task critical? Time on task is critical for me as a classroom teacher because I only have those students for 60 minutes a day, roughly 180 days a year, with many of those minutes/day sucked up by other things, like assemblies, interruptions, etc. I need to 'teach' them as much as is possible in the time I do have. Math is important for their success in life, and the math they will learn in my alloted time period is a part of the much larger math piece of their life.

Are kids working in a sweatshop? Kids are NOT working in a sweatshop, no. That doesn't mean their time is invaluable. It means that in thsoe 60 minutes, they need to be dedicated to the task at hand.

Does learning occur best in such a coercive predictive environment? My classroom is neither coercive nor predictive. Ask any student who has ever had me for a teacher. My room is active, lively, engaged, AND on task, on the task of math, how it applies to life and why my students must master the skills presented to them.

Can't a professional look at some material and determine if it's good or bad, useful or useless, appropriate or inappropriate without going through the machinations of an evaluation process?
Some teachers can look at textbooks or software and easily evaluate them. Others, yes, more inexperienced value from a more structured approach. It is like a being a new vehicle or appliance - you look at your options, weigh pros and cons, "evaluate" the item before purchasing it. Consumer Reports makes millions evaluating for consumers using a preset standard.

When I choose the math series to be purchased by my district, I did an intensive evaluation process of a wide variety of materials available. I looked to see if they met the criteria set forth by the state of Michigan as what I should be teaching. I looked to see if they matched what the NCTM suggests is appropriate for middle school students. I looked to see if a wide variety of resources accompanied the text. I looked to see if I myself found the text appealing. I did not use a rubric, but I did use a methodical process to compare them all.

I tend to be an analytical person when making a major educational purchase for my classroom whether texts or software. I know that resources to purchase both these are limited and I need to be happy with my purchases. I seek free resources to match my needs in both arenas first.

Too often people who do not look carefully, evaluate intensely, the products to purchase for classroom use, find they go with the more glitzy option, that really does not meet the deeper needs. I choose the other route.

Peggy said...

Terry, thank you for inspiring a discussion on the value of software evaluation and the pros and cons of using a rubric.

I think it’s helpful to provide pre-service and beginning teachers (and often experienced teachers, too) with qualities to consider when judging software. When I buy a car or appliance, I always read Consumer Reports, as Gary suggests. I’m not an auto expert, and their charts (like rubrics) list multiple criteria, some of which I wouldn’t have thought to consider, and they rate cars on each. Their guidance is valuable, but in the end I decide what criteria are important to me.

Those new to education may look at a rubric, or several rubrics, and get ideas to guide them in forming their own criteria. Like you, I agree software evaluation doesn’t warrant a full course or even the extended attention it got 20 years ago. However, I’ve talked with teachers who believe games certainly are not educational, but drill and practice software is. Comments like that provide an opportunity to discuss what makes media educationally meaningful. Often taking the time to evaluate encourages us to purchase less, not more.

When we evaluate any product or media before we purchase, we serve our students, and we serve developers and publishers, too. I encourage educators to contact publishers and provide honest feedback. They want to hear from you. You are the experts, and providing feedback is the best way to get the tools you want.

Anonymous said...


All I can say is WOW…You sparked something here. I am so glad I read this blog. I am also thankful you do make this a part of your course for upcoming teachers! I am an Instructional Specialist for my district and I see this all the time. Teachers and even admin get excited by a piece of software and they want it. We pay big $’s and then the “new” wares off and the teacher is overwhelmed with too much to do and not enough time to do it in. Most software packages have sales people. If the sales people are good at their jobs, they will convince you that this piece is a must have if you care about the education of your kids. Teachers are not always armed with the right tools to think about relevance and usefulness. Teachers LOVE teaching and when they see something that might excite their students they get excited. I think I might have to teach my district teachers and admin some of your evaluation tools! Keep working TJSHAY!

Gary said...


First of all, my apologies forgetting that you were teaching undergrads.

There are many assumptions underlying the teaching of software evaluation. I challenged a couple of them. Another is the idea that new educational software will be abundant and that educators need to keep up with the latest advances in the marketplace. This is fundamentally untrue. The number of interesting educational software titles released in the past decade can be counted on one hand. You and I might disagree on some of those.

Another reason for teaching software evaluation is that so much of the software is purchased by teachers with their own personal funds. This unfortunate reality is evidence of how edtech continues to be marginalized by school.

I really think it's condescending to suggest that teachers are incapable of navigating a tradeshow without being swindled. My advice would be to skip[ the tradeshow entirely and attend conferences where powerful ideas are explored.

I really don't know anything about the course you're teaching so I should not comment further. I prefer to use my classes to provide learning experiences that may be transformational for learners. I'm driven by the mantras, "Things need not be as they seem. & "Less Us, More Them."

I suggest you share the following Alfie Kohn article with your students:

I've written and spoken a great deal about my research, practice and educational theories over the past 26 years. It's frustrating that less attention is paid to such longer works.

You might find some things of interest in the following papers:

Te syllabus for my most recent graduate course, "Learning and Technology," may be found here:

Gary said...


I have no doubt that you are a terrific teacher.

It is also clear that statements like thr following mean that at least the curriculum is coercive:

"That doesn't mean their time is invaluable. It means that in thsoe 60 minutes, they need to be dedicated to the task at hand." (I hope you meant, not valuable.)

"why my students MUST MASTER the skills PRESENTED to them"

andrea said...

I am a student in TJ's college class. I do feel that it is important that we as undergrads learn the process of evaluating software. Evaluating textbooks and other resources is equally important, and many of my methods classes thus far have covered that. To me, the framework for evaluating software that we follow for this class can be likened to the specific lesson plan formats that we use to create detailed lesson plans. Both frameworks are essential for pre-service teachers who do not have a lot of classroom experience. Just as writing extensive, detailed lesson plans teaches us how to mentally map out a lesson when we are teaching, using a framework to evaluate software helps us develop the skills needed to be able to look at a piece of software and determine it's value. Do I plan to use a rubric or checklist to evaluate every piece of software I purchase or use in my classroom? No, but I do believe that I will learn to instinctivly look for certain qualities in the software I use.

I do agree that time on task in the classroom is critical. I would love to give students unlimited time to explore freely, however the current legislation prevents this from being possible. Students are basically forced to be passive consumers of information if they are to do well on the standardized tests. Unfortunately, this limits the time that can be used on "extra" things that are not part of the curriculum.

cossondra said...

So glad to see students from TJ's class commenting!

I have taught for 15 years, and have seen the shift in education towards standardized tests driving the curriculum. So many of the worthwhile things we did in class before this shift, I no longer find time to do simply because I have so much math curriculum to cover. While I will admit my students are getting much more math instruction, and reaching higher levels of math than before, I wonder at what cost. Just because a 7th grader can write a linear equation, or solve systems of equations, does that mean we are gaining anything in the long run? Were they better off when we spent more class time playing math games, building numeracy and problem solving skills?

I don't know the answer. I feel confident they leave my class with strong math skills, which truly is what I am being paid to do. I just don't know that this is 'the answer'.


Leslie said...

My name is Leslie and I am currently in Mr. Shay's class. I am glad that Mr. Shay is giving us a way to evaluate media. I might not use exactly the format we have but, now I have an idea what I might look for. There are a lot of possibilites to choose from and this helps allow me an idea of how to decifer good qualities to look for. I just do not have to time to play with all of the software out there so this helps me narrow down what I am looking for.