software gets a mite cleverer (1998)

Software can put a bit more sense into the computer (Roger Frost TES 1998)
Microsoft’s ‘My Personal Tutor’ is a pair of titles with the claim to be the first educational software that matches its work to a child’s needs, just like its tutor would.
This new software for children ages 3-7, puts more brains into the machine and offers practice with shapes, counting, reading, addition and subtraction. Each has hundreds of activities involving choosing, sorting, stories, songs and games in addition to short lessons that explain say, how to count, subtract or ‘sound’ a letter. As children work at it, a technology called TutorAssist assesses their progress in the background. It not only makes the work harder or easier, but if they’re making mistakes it can drop into a teaching mode to show and practice the idea.

A first glance reveals that these essentially, home-learning titles offer enough activity to cover weeks if not months of play time. Covering an ambitious range of concepts, from nought to word making, they could soon be among the ones that schools recommend to parents or even use themselves. While lots of on-screen animation and talk allows children to work alone, what needs an expert eye is a progress report feature that scores every turn of a child’s progress. The software also allows you to get under its bonnet to set a target – such as ‘finding the missing digit in a subtraction’ – and see how the child copes. Most, I expect, will leave the spanners alone, and let the TutorAssist machinery choose the work to suit the child.

If this is what you expected of learning software, then its remarkable is how long it’s taken for anyone to use this approach in earnest. And if you take that idea for a spin – it’s more remarkable we have put such trust in making children cleverer with a machine as dumb as a computer. In fact, were OFSTED to inspect software you can imagine how patchy the report would be. Learning software has been great at motivating and while it shows promise as a tutor, it’s never been as flexible as a teacher. Their points for concern would be on how well it handles its subject and the learners: software is a duffer at progression and as for differentiation, it has yet to learn the word.

Even though My Personal Tutor has still to prove its worth, it is an important development to us in education. It’s several stages along from the talking software that appeared on CD-ROM and at last cued the youngest children through what computers had to offer. Like surprisingly few titles today it is very plug and playable: there should be no need to call a capable adult to install the software, press the correct button and get through screens of writing before you can use it. If you ever meet this in software that is supposed to teach you to read, you have really got to laugh.

But there are good landmarks from the past to here, the Living Books series, including ‘Little Monster at School’ which read to the child is one, while above average activity programs – such as Iona Software’s ‘Sammys Science House’ make another.

And if that’s a landmark, look at Random House’s ‘Jump Ahead Pre-school’ for an example of how software can adapt to the learners. As they run the gamut of sorting and counting activities, Jump Ahead watches the child’s progress and then hikes them up or down a level.

So that’s progress and in the light of it, maybe we are expecting too much. David Tymm puts it frankly, “As far as teaching software is concerned, we are still at the stage of the ‘talkies’ were in cinema”. With CD-ROM software just a few years old, we can only celebrate how far it’s come, rather than how long it seems to be taking.

Microsoft My Personal Tutor is two twin-CD packs for the PC. Typical prices are £29.99 each including VAT from shops or on mail order. The Pre-school title includes shape, size, colours, numbers, upper and lower case letters and sentence building. Primary School (Year 1-2) includes subtraction up to three-figures, rhyming, blending letter sounds as well as 100 maths objectives practised using arcade-style games.

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