Once upon a time, smart, ambitious, and creative people designed software for children. Since so many adults believe that the job of children is to be educated, a vibrant educational software industry burned bright like a comet. That was until Steve Jobs devalued non-enterprise software to zero and teachers embraced the fantasy that software should be free.
Like most “educational” products designed for kids, most educational software was terrible, got learning wrong, or merely subjected kids to flash cards with increasing levels of surveillance, all in the name of measurement and assessment.
“The phrase, “technology and education” usually means inventing new gadgets to teach the same old stuff in a thinly disguised version of the same old way. Moreover, if the gadgets are computers, the same old teaching becomes incredibly more expensive and biased towards its dumbest parts, namely the kind of rote learning in which measurable results can be obtained by treating the children like pigeons in a skinner box.”– Seymour Papert
There were however a few gems to be found among the dung heap that was educational software. Sadly, nothing of this caliber is available for children, teachers, or parents today. A colleague asked me to list the top five educational software products I miss. Here are seven, including some honorable mentions, since some of the choices were not literally designed to be educational or used specifically by children.
Gary Stager’s Top Ten-ish Best Extinct Educational Software Titles
- MicroWorlds EX is for my money the best dialect of the Logo programming language ever developed. It provided a powerful programming environment for children with multimedia and text editing capabilities. (Lynx is a web-based version, but it made some infuriating omissions.)
- TableTop was an incredibly ingenious tool, developed by smart people at TERC, to allow students to collect, analyze, and visualize data. The accompanying teacher and student materials were terrific. The Broderbund product eventually got acquired by Inspiration Software (also now defunct) and renamed, InspireData. Kids need and deserve a tool this good in the age of data and AI.
- HyperCard It is unconscionable that the multimedia programming and authoring software that basically invented tablet computing was never released for the iPad, because despite his elitist views on television, Steve Jobs envisioned the iPad as pure consumption device
- The Blue Falls Post Office (This is a product I designed, pitched to Tom Snyder Productions, was told it was “a million dollar idea,” and never got made. The great Peter Reynolds created fantastic art for the prototype. This never produced software would still be timely and relevant.
- The Graph Club was tool software designed by Peggy Healy-Stearns and published by Tom Snyder Productions (also defunct) that allowed young kids to collect, analyze, and display data.
- Dazzleoids was a bizarre, addictive, multimedia (not safe for school) CD-ROM developed by Rodney Allen Greenblatt for the Voyager Company in 1994. Its singular vision, beauty, wit, self-deprecation, and extended play value leaves my children capable of singing its songs from memory nearly three decades later
- A usable version of iMovie When and why did Apple decide that iMovie should suck?
Thankfully, the best computer game ever created, The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis still exists.
The BBC micro:bit is the perfect low-cost microcontroller, capable of being programmed to play games, be the brains of a robot, conduct science experiment, collect dara, and more. Microsoft’s MakeCode block-based software is imperfect, but keeps improving and allows learners of all ages and experience levels to engage in engineering and computing projects.
Wolfram Language is a miracle that borders on alchemy. Everyone should be playing with Wolfram Language more than fretting over generative AI.
One more thing…
There still isn’t any software I use that is better than ClarisWorks.