Although training remains scant, more schools are buying more software programs than in the past.
This decade has seen a remarkable increase in sales and sophistication of K-12 curriculum software. Consider these numbers: In 1990-91, the Washington, D.C.-based Software & Information Industry Association estimated that schools spent $179 million and districts spent $319 million on instructional software, totaling $498 million. In contrast, in the 1999-2000 school year, Stamford, Conn.-based Simba Information projects total software sales at $1.39 billion and Denver-based Quality Education Data is projecting instructional sales alone to be $537 million.
Per-pupil spending for instructional software is also up--by a staggering 76 percent from 1997 to 2000--to reach $11.47 per pupil, according to QED. K-12 software purchases are also capturing a larger share of total technology dollars, 9 percent versus 6 percent during the same three-year period.
Elementary teachers lead the way QED reports that right now the heaviest users of instructional software are teachers in grades K-5, relative to higher-grade levels (8-12). One theory for these findings is that usually elementary teachers are able to spend more time with their students and this gives them more opportunity than the upper grades to make use of software and Web sites. A lot more software products are created for the K-5 market than for the secondary school sector, says Sue Kamp, SIIA's director of education market initiative. "In the last couple of years we have seen an increase in multimedia products that take advantage of the graphic user interface. We are also seeing an increase in supplemental materials that allow the educator more individualization of instruction."
For many the Web has had the biggest impact on the educational software arena. "One of the most significant trends I have witnessed is the increasing use of the Internet in the school systems," says Jeff Schon, president and ceo of Danbury, Conn.-based Grolier Interactive. And QED's Internet Usage in Public Schools, 1999, reports: "Internet access, rather than having a chilling effect, actually increased the usage of instructional software in 1999. Nearly half (47 percent) of teachers responded that Web access boosted use of instructional software, compared to those who said it had no effect (38.5 percent) or decreased usage (9 percent)."
The Web's changes have been pervasive, according to a SIIA report. For vendors, delivering content via the Web changes their pricing models and support structures. Manufacturing costs and timelines shrink as CDs no longer need to be reproduced, packaged or shipped. As technical support and targeted help for classroom- and curriculum-integration moves to the Web, teachers use asynchronous communications (e.g., forums, chat rooms and e-mail) to improve their use of the content. Finally, the report stated that Web-based instructional content offers more flexibility in where, when and how it is integrated into teaching and learning experiences.
Despite the obvious gains of using software in the classroom, not all teachers feel comfortable using technology in their classroom. "Teachers consistently say they don't have time to try out new software or Web sites, and they don't have time to fit digital content into their busy class schedule," reports Education Market Research. "In addition, they implied that they are too busy focusing on preparing kids for state and district standardized tests to use software/CD-ROM that is not, for the most part, well suited to that specific purpose."
Therefore the challenge remains the same. Teachers and staff need ongoing training and support if technology is to be put to effective use. "Conducting training once a year on one or two software applications is insufficient for teachers," reports SIIA. "Educators are becoming more experienced with technology but many are still moving from the `learning to use technology' stage to the `using technology for learning/teaching' level. …