A "How To..." on Using Courseware in the Classroom

by J'EL LITTAUER, Mentor Teacher Bell High School Bell, Calif. Recently, I conducted a pair of lunchtime presentations to a group of technologically oriented colleagues, some of whom have been reluctant to move their classes beyond word processing into instructional software. Indeed, courseware, as a whole category of instructional software is called, has some strange characteristics. First, the usual considerations in lesson planning -- questions of content, organization and evaluation -- are not addressed as clearly and respectively in instructional courseware as they are in, say, grammar and composition textbooks. Second and more importantly, the role of the teacher changes: Where the teacher was a lecturer, he or she is now a facilitator. As facilitator, a teacher presents the onscreen content and is there to help students overcome individual difficulties. Emphasis is on individual needs; the class is not addressed as though everyone has the same needs, as is the case with a lecture format. Facilitator is still a new and unfamiliar role for teachers, especially those having limited experience with computers (training in this teaching method is sorely lacking on all levels), hence the discomfort. What to Consider Effective utilization of courseware is basically a matter of organization. The following is a list of questions (and some answers) that teachers may wish to consider when setting out to incorporate instructional courseware into their classrooms. D'es the courseware basically consist of drills? Subject matter drills work very much the same way regardless of the equipment used. Courseware drills can be used by individuals or groups. Groups can become teams that compete for points or prizes. If there aren't enough PCs for individual work, a teacher can address the whole class simultaneously by using an LCD panel with an overhead projector. Teams choose spokes-persons to call out answers to drill questions seen on the screen. Is the program project-oriented, involving students in planning and problem solving? Project-oriented courseware generally lends itself well to collaborative learning techniques. Oregon Trail is a good example. In this courseware, students plan and execute a wagon journey west during the 1880s. They must decide about supplies and routes, overcome difficulties and avert or recover from disasters. The original pioneers traveled west in groups, so groups are also highly appropriate for this simulated journey. Are students grouped simply to help each other understand the material, or d'es each member have a different role, as in some interactive, long-term projects? One multimedia project that I assign to my composition classes has students examine the planets of the solar system in order to find a planet suitable for colonization by a humanoid species from another galaxy. In this project, students utilize a courseware package I developed called The Planets of the Solar System. Groups of four students investigate each planet. (Theoretically, one student is responsible for graphics, two gather data from a variety of sources and the fourth synthesizes the notes, writes the composition and assembles the disparate parts. In reality, however, all the students participate in all parts of the project.) Planets are investigated one at a time; each investigation constituting a separate project. My program, The Planets of the Solar System, includes data, sound and visual effects, animations and access to a 20-minute videodisc in which our celestial family is explored. Thus, for this project, students do have separate roles. Even though they may join in on all the tasks of the investigation, each student has a primary responsibility to fulfill. Of course, a natural by-product of the group is that students help each other in understanding the material. Is the courseware interactive? That is, d'es the program contain a component in which students take notes onscreen or do other tasks that alter fields or screens? If so, another question must be asked: How many classes are using the same program? If only one class is using the program, then interaction is no problem. But if two or more classes are using the same program, notes that students need to refer to continually should be placed in students' notebooks rather than entered onscreen. The program then remains clean for the next class to use. D'es the program contain all the data necessary to complete the assigned project, or must students refer to other data sources? If the latter is the case, the teacher may wish to gather books and other resource materials before introducing the courseware and the project. The classroom then becomes a self-contained environment. Otherwise, students may be sent off to libraries or other campus parts to gather necessary information. Considerations here include availability of resource materials for classroom use and a teacher's comfort level regarding the location of his or her students at any given time. What is the teacher's tolerance level for "confusion?" What appears on the surface to be bedlam is the norm. Not all students are working on the same aspects of the project at the same time, nor in the same location. Groups using project-driven, interactive courseware work at their own pace. Thus, the classroom becomes a resource room and the teacher, a facilitator. While one group gathers data or enters it into a PC, another group in a different spot in the room pastes computer-created graphics onto construction paper. A third group is in the library using the microfiche. Teachers must move around answering questions, solving technical problems and providing guidance. This is not a quiet, obedient atmosphere and requires a flexible personality from teachers. Is the courseware item sold with an unconditional, money-back guarantee? Let's face it -- none of us will use material we haven't reviewed and, in order to review courseware, you have to buy it. Some mail-order houses offer guarantees of satisfaction; many software publishers and distributors to the educational community also offer money-back clauses. The guarantee minimizes risk. In reviewing courseware, if you are able to "see into, through and beyond" the material (borrowing a phrase from the California Literature Project), then use it. If not, return it. You have a new experience to gain and nothing to lose. Final Thoughts Each software title challenges a teacher's organizational skills. The instructor must become as familiar with the (sometimes-labyrinthian) design of a courseware program as he or she d'es with the content of a short story, the principles of a trinomial equation or a unit on the Civil War. Only after thorough familiarization is achieved, should lesson planning begin. Arthur C. Clarke once observed that any significant technological advancement is indistinguishable from magic. Courseware, appropriately chosen and carefully utilized, can make that magic happen for both you and your students. n J'el Littauer is a mentor teacher at Bell High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. A member of the Model Technologies Schools Project for three years, he has developed numerous instructional courseware packages, including The Planets of the Solar System. E-mail: [email protected] Products mentioned: Oregon Trail; MECC, Minneapolis, Minn., (800) 685-MECC. The Planets of the Solar System; Chariot Software Group, San Diego, Calif., (800) 242-7468.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1994 issue of THE Journal.