All You Have to Do Is Ask: Middle School Students' Specifications for Software

DR. MARY P. MAULDIN, Director Educational Technology Laboratory Medical University of South Carolina Charleston, S.C. "I am going to be very honest with you: rarely do I use a computer program and walk away with a feeling of impartiality. Frequently, my opinions are based on first impressions of the program, and if I don't like a program, it's rare that I use it again. For whatever reason, I seem to either really like a program or absolutely detest it. I know what I like and what I don't like, and if I don't find the features I like, I quit using the program. A bad computer program has about as much chance of me using it as a 'stairmaster'." -- Educator & Seasoned Computer User The ability to easily "escape" from a computer program has led to the need for programs to quickly capture and maintain a person's attention. Knowledge of this fact made the design team in the Educational Technology Laboratory at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) fairly apprehensive when asked to develop two CD-ROMs focusing on environmental careers for middle school students. By looking at such careers, students are encouraged to start preparing early by taking lots of science and math courses in high school. Since middle school students have probably had at least limited exposure to computers throughout their school careers, they have had time to develop some definite opinions as to what makes a computer program "good" and what makes a program "bad." The MUSC design team suspected that any programs they developed would have only one chance to make a good impression with this audience. During the initial planning meetings for this project, the team focused on issues of instructional design, including an audience analysis. Components of instructional design -- such as the development of goals and objectives, presentation of content, and methods of evaluation-- were discussed in great detail. The audience analysis was designed to obtain as much relevant information as possible. However, during its development, one question was discussed more frequently than any other: "What do middle school students like in computer programs?" quickly followed by "What is the best way to find the answer to the first question?" Ask the Would-Be Users The design team decided to employ two methods in order to obtain this information: go directly to the students and ask their opinions, then involve as many students as possible in the formative evaluation process. To talk with students directly, the team visited middle schools in various settings (suburban, urban and rural). Over 200 students participated in interviews, and answered questions such as: Do you like using a computer? Why or why not? What kind of computer programs do you enjoy and why? What kind of computer programs do you not enjoy and why? What features have you seen in programs that you like and why? What features have you seen in programs that you did not like and why? If you could design an ideal computer program, what features would it include? What features would you not want in it? Although interviews frequently extended beyond these basic questions, the purpose of discussions remained consistent: determining features that students liked in computer programs. For example, a detailed conversation with students about a software program that gave users a variety of choices prompted the MUSC design team to consider ways in which students could maintain navigational control throughout the entire program. Students' opinions were also sought during formative evaluations when the actual programs were being tested in classrooms. Observations, questionnaires and interviews with students provided additional data that was factored into the design process. In total, over 850 middle school students provided comments on their likes and dislikes in computer programs. The most frequent responses are reported in Figure 1, Likes & Dislikes. Figure 1: Student-Reported Likes & Dislikes of Features in Computer Programs Likes Clear directions Easy access in and out of program Games that keep score and/or are timed High-quality, colorful graphics Video Sound effects Popular-sounding music Choices (e.g., becoming a character, level of difficulty, etc.) Brief introduction to program A variety of musical styles Dislikes Games without movement "Pixelated" graphics Games that are too easy Navigation that forces user to remain in one location Complex or unclear directions The design team agreed there were no glaring surprises in the responses. Students wanted to be challenged, have clear and concise directions, control over the program, and a program that was appealing to the eye. Perhaps the surprise was that they did not ask for features guaranteed to push the limits of technology. Give Them What They Want Armed with this data, the design team continually reviewed and incorporated students' comments into design decisions throughout the development process. As a result, the final computer programs incorporated the multimedia components of video, sound, animation and interactivity. However, rather than simply adding these features as "bells and whistles," the team made a decision as to whether or not inclusion of each feature would significantly improve the instructional quality of the programs and, if so, how? Figure 2 provides an illustration of features included as a result of student requests, as well as the design team's reason for inclusion. As the chart illustrates, the majority of requested features were added in order to maintain students' attention, increase comprehension, and/or improve chances that their motivation would increase. Whether it is for a computer-based program or other instructional method, the design team agreed it is critical to plan for these factors (attention, motivation and comprehension) when designing instruction. The team spent time planning ways to gain and maintain attention in order to increase the likelihood that comprehension would occur. Their Instincts Are Right It is interesting to note that a large number of the features requested by students are based on principles of instructional design. For example, students requested challenging programs; material that is too difficult or too easy will not encourage a person to continue using it. Also, students requested a very brief introduction; long introductions prior to actual instruction may cause students to lose interest. Clear and concise instructions were also requested; without clear instructions, chances decrease that students will be able to meet the objectives. When the design team initially decided to ask students what they liked and did not like in computer programs, an underlying concern was that students would respond with either irrelevant or technologically impossible requests. The old saying, "If you don't want to know, don't ask" was in the back of everyone's mind. However, after the results were in, the design team concluded that perhaps the biggest surprise from student requests was that there were no big surprises: students desired programs that were easy to use, challenging, offered a variety of choices and appealed to the eye. In all probability, the design team would have incorporated most of these features even without direct input from students. However, discussions with students led the team to understand the degree to which students wanted control of the navigation, where to include choices, and specific examples of ways in which to make the program visually appealing and challenging. It was the students who gave the design team creative ideas and new ways to look at situations. Figure 1: Student-Requested Features and Reasons for Inclusion Feature Comment Reason for Inclusion Easy navigation User can leave one area and quickly get to another; user is never forced to stay in one location. This feature came about as a result of students requesting that the user have numerous choices, as well as the ability to enter and exit with ease. Maintain attention and increase chances for motivation. Brief introduction Each program includes a few introductory screens and a statement regarding the purpose. This feature is a result of students' desire to immediately have access to a program without being forced to watch a lengthy introduction. Maintain attention Clear & simple directions Directions for both programs pair simple text on a screen with an oral narration Increase comprehension, maintain attention, and increase chances for motivation Challenging games Each program includes games that give students an opportunity to practice content presented in other portions of the program. Challenging games were a direct request from students, and features such as timed responses and animations were incorporated to increase the level of complexity. Maintain attention and increase chances for motivation Video Numerous, brief videos provide explanations and examples. Maintain attention and increase comprehension Popular sounding music Both programs contain a variety of music segments. Maintain attention and increase chances for motivation High-quality, colorful graphics Both programs include high-quality graphics produced by the team's illustrator. Maintain attention Students' requests led to the incorporation of numerous details throughout, which assisted in creating two highly successful software products (on environmental careers) used throughout the state and beyond. "Success" is based upon the fact that 95% of students who participated in formative evaluations met the objectives and reported that they enjoyed using the programs. This level of success would not have been possible without guidance from the student audience and, for that, the design team expresses their gratitude. Mary Mauldin is Director of the Educational Technology Laboratory, home of the MUSC design team, at Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, S.C. E-mail: mary_mauldin@smtpgw.musc.edu The two CDs discussed in this article (Enviro Quest & ROC-CD) are available to all South Carolina middle schools free of charge, and to schools in all other states for a $10 S&H fee. Minimum system requirements: Mac LC 475 (Power PC-compatible), 13" color monitor, 8MB RAM, System 7 and 16-bit color (32,000 colors). For more information contact: Dr. Curtis Wise, Dept. of Physiology, Basic Science Building, Room 401, MUSC, 171 Ashley Ave., Charleston, SC 29425; (803) 792-2486; curtis_wise@smtpgw.musc.edu

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.

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