Designing Educational Software

Designing educational software is an interesting challenge. The goal is to produce a learning activity that is both fun and educationally beneficial. Thinking up a computer program that is educationally beneficial is not too difficult. But making that activity appealing at the same time is no small challenge.

There's a vital ingredient to good educational software that can never be fully described. It's an intangible quality that creates a positive chemistry between the child and the computer.

As an educational software designer, the most richly satisfying reward you'll get is watching a child become excited and involved in using software you've designed. It's as if they were interacting personally with your mind. The computer becomes an extension of you yet capable of existing independently of your corporeal body. When children interact with a well-designed educational program, it's as if they were closely interacting with the sharp wits of the person who designed the program.

Coming up with ideas for educational games can sometimes be a hurdle for novice software designers. For example, thinking up a novel math game is a very steep challenge if you hope to distribute the product commercially. Dozens of larger educational software companies have produced many excellent math games in the past ten years. And schools are reluctant to spend scarce funds on software that accomplishes the same results as software they have already purchased.

Likewise, simple word games, while beneficial and often appealing to children, just do not excite much interest in the educational market today. (This is not to say that such programs are not worthwhile for a shareware disk or for your home or local school.)

These days educational software purchasers are rather discriminating. For a product to have commercial appeal, it must stand out from the crowd. It must be unique in some important way.

Once you have a working version of a uniquely original program you have designed, then you need to spend time testing the software with kids. If the kids do not like it, you need to go back to the design phase to see if you can incorporate some of that intangible magnetic appeal. Ask the kids what they think should be added or taken away from the program. Kids are not shy about expressing their opinions. And they have special insight as to what works and doesn't work in an educational game.

If you don't have a herd of children running around your house to serve as in-house beta-testers, you might try volunteering for after-school computer classes at one of your local schools. Or see if there is a summer computer camp in your vicinity that would be interested in helping to beta-test your software.

Two summers ago I had a valuable experience beta-testing software at a computer camp near my house. Early in the summer the kids saw the program in a raw, unfinished form. With each passing week they saw small enhancements being added. And their week-to-week response to this software provided vital feedback to the features that were included in the final version of the program.

A special luxury is beta-testing educational software with children who have programming skills of their own. Such kids are experienced enough to know what is feasible and not feasible on the computer. You can bounce ideas off them, getting feedback both on the ideas themselves, and the estimated programming work needed to implement those ideas. In some cases, you might even enlist their help to produce some of the sections of the software.

Creating educational software can be one of the most satisfying types of programming work. The rewards can be as lucrative as a young child's gentle smile. Late night programming sessions become eminently worthwhile if you have ever witnessed a child interact enthusiastically with one of your programming creations.

Phil Shapiro

[The author works as an educational computing consultant and freelance writer. He can be reached at:]

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