Amazon.com: Software: Clifford the Big Red Dog: Phonics
We have a pretty good collection of pre-school through grade one "educational software". Clifford Phonics is one of the better examples; that's why I'm picking on it here. We also own Earobics, a niche market package for phonemic awareness training. I've watched our children work with both, and it finally dawned on me why mass market "educational software" has only marginal educational value.
It's the market, stupid.
Take Clifford Phonics. Sure it teaches bits of phonics and reading, but it teaches it in an ad hoc way without any kind of consistent progression model. Worst of all in the incessant music. I watched my son using it during a rhyming word exercise. He's supposed to hear two words, then pick an object that rhymes with them. Great idea, except one of his challenges is isolating sounds and retaining them in short-term memory -- and all the sounds in Clifford Phonics are surrounded by a loud and incessant musical background. It's like trying to find a lost object while wearing psychedelic eyeglasses.
Nice pictures. Catchy music. Lousy education for a child that needs education. Fun for a (younger) child who has no disabilities, and no real need for the software either.
On the other hand, consider Earobics. Dull as dishwater. Weak production values. Boring. But it's structured, it isolates sounds, it has a good progression model.
The Clifford Phonics people aren't dumb. Their reading consultants probably know it's of marginal or no value to a child who really needs help. The Earobic folks aren't dumb either, but they know Earobics can't invest in fancy production values.
Why does this happen? That's the way markets work. Clifford Phonics, and its ilk, are products for the large and wealthy "edutainment" market. This is a market made up of fairly well off adults who need to entertain their children and like the non-violent aspects of this software and the reinforcement of respect for learning. Any educational component is relatively minor, but it's not important anyway. The vast majority of these kids will inherit their parents facility for learning and the software is of minimal value and minimal harm.
Earobics and its kin are markets for a the small and relatively poor education market.
The same phenomena operates, by the way, with advertiser driven health education web sites. People who really need health education in diabetes, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis are a small minority, and their disease often means they don't have a lot of cash to attract advertisors. The market with money has different medical interests: weight loss, cosmetic surgery, exercise programs, life extension, back pain (everyone gets that) and self-diagnosis (usually of exotic disorders). The huge expansion in internet health sites in the late 90s was all driven by advertising dollars, and they focused on entertainment and production values -- not services and education.
Could edutainment software also be educational? In theory yes. They could make the music optional, they could enable parents to control what parts of the program kids could use, they could implement progression and monitoring but keep it optional. The problem is all these things increase costs and don't help one bit with the target market. That's not a formula for staying in business.
Could truly educational software develop better production values? I think there's more hope here. If the open source community starts getting into the game business, then the production frameworks used for entertainment software would be available for use in true educational software. A company could focus on its core competencies and narrow revenue streams, while parents and outsiders could donate the work to add production values on an open source base. It's not easy, but I don't see any market forces actively pushing against this option.
Otherwise, we'll be stuck with two unsatisfactory choices: entertaining software that's not truly educational, and educational software that's really boring.