Where in the Oregon Trail Is Carmen Sandiego? A Commentary on Software and Its Sensitivity to Diversity
Guzman, Delrita Gruz, Multicultural Education
A COMMENTARY ON SOFTWARE AND ITS SENSITIVITY TO DIVERSITY
In the Oregon Trail, a computer software simulation, kids can take on a historical character, hop on a wagon train, and set up their crew for a long journey. Along the way, they face hundreds of decisions and challenges. Should they wade across Red Vermillion River or pay for a ferry? What should they use to treat diseases? Should they face subzero temperatures or make camp? This software is packed with historical complexity. Kids can choose from twenty-five occupations, three trails (Oregon, California, or Mormon), different kinds of wagons, and emigrants to travel with. What is more interesting is that it encourages kids to use their historical imagination. Kids feel as if they are shooting the rapids, walking into towns, exploring the streets, conversing with historical figures and other pioneers.
Another exciting expedition for kids is the software package Where in the United States is Carmen Sandiego?-which provides kids the challenge of locating Carmen Sandiego. The software is filled with real photos of real places, detailed physical maps for every state, sound effects, and over three thousand clues to track down Carmen. This cartoon-style animation features sixteen bad guys on the getaway. Kids end up following a trail of complex clues in order to recover stolen items by Carmen and her gang. This fun-filled pursuit provides ways for kids to pick up factual information, foster research skills, and connect them with books. What is interesting is that it allows kids to create maps and incorporate them into reports or assignments.
These software packages for kids are challenging and addictive. In fact, they are known to be the best "Around the World" titles for kids (Miranker and Elliot, 1996). And, although the packages push the right buttons for parents and teachers, these educational computer programs are developed in the Western world. So, how do students of culturally diverse backgrounds relate to these activities? These programs are about familiar territory and reflect scenarios of the dominant culture.
The bottom line is that most educational software are designed with little regard to multicultural-ism. Bill Bigelow's (1997) critique of the Oregon Trail suggests that the much acclaimed Oregon Trail reflects a white, male perspective. The same is said for the villainous Carmen Sandiego where a sexism bias exists.
Most schools depend largely on promotion and distribution. In Jane Healy's Failure to Connect, an untrained teacher admits that her school gave her the responsibility for choosing and evaluating software programs only because she was good with machines. As she responds,
I was drafted to select certain software programs for our content area courses. Occasionally we get something from the central office, but the kids like the drill and practice better. I get all these samples from manufacturers, so I take them home and let my eleven-year-old daughter try them out and pick the ones she likes best. Then we get several copies. I have a budget for ordering new stuff. Some of the CDROMs are real cute. (p. 44)
It is quite disturbing to discover how software packages are selected for instructional use, especially in Healy's case study of the untrained teacher. Imagine the difficulty diverse students face while navigating through unfamiliar language and misrepresentation of colors and symbols. Educators need to consider these vital issues when selecting educational programs, especially when it comes down to students of diverse backgrounds.
Although there are specific guidelines for developing educational programs, software companies focus more on marketing and distribution of software packages. Thus, the technological factors become more significant as opposed to the multicultural content of a program.
Edward Yourdon, one of the bestknown figures of the software industry, cites in his book, Decline and Fall of the American Programmer, that software organizations compete with other companies for a software project. …