Principles of Quality Software

From our experiences building the programs described in this book and others like them, we have learned a core set of principles about how to design quality educational software. Interestingly enough, these principles turn out not to be specific to software, but to pertain to teaching in general. As you read them, ask yourself whether you would have enjoyed school more and gotten more from it if it had followed these principles.

Principle 1 - Learn by Doing: Learning should center on a task. The task should require those skills or knowledge we want to teach. The task should be challenging, but within the student's ability.

Principle 2 - Problems, Then Instruction: Students respond best to instruction when they see how what they are told relates to problems with which they are struggling. Instruction must clearly and directly address the real needs of students.

Principle 3 - Tell Good Stories: Students respond to well-told stories. Educational software must contain interesting cases and tell them when and only when they relate to students' problems.

Principle 4 - Power to the Students: Student should be in control of the educational process. Software may recommend what path to take, but students should always be able to stray from it to pursue their own interests.

Principle 5 - Provide a Safe Place to Fail: Reality is not always the best teacher. In some situations, it is unrealistic or dangerous to allow novices to practice in real situations. Computers can offer novices realistic simulations that provide a safe environment in which to make and learn from mistakes.

Principle 6 - Navigation to Answers: Software that instructs but does not let students ask questions removes control from students' hands. Students should be able to ask questions of the educational software they are using, and expect reasonable replies. Often, however, students do not know what question to ask. In this case, it should be possible for students to navigate through an information base so as to easily discover what is there.

Principle 7 - The Software is the Test: Teachers want to know how much their students have learned. This is reasonable goal, but, unfortunately, it usually leads to a multiple-choice test. Since the software we are talking about enables students to do certain things, or to discover certain answers, the test is in whether the student demonstrates a new ability or makes a discovery. As long as the program can monitor what the student has been doing, no test is necessary. Instead, software can be thought of as having various levels of achievement and various gates that have to be opened to get to the next level. In order to reach a given level, the student must have been able to do the tasks leading to that level. No explicit tests need ever be given if the software has been correctly designed.

Principle 8 - Find the Fun: Learning should be fun. An instructional designer's single most important job is to make learning fun. No matter how well educational software is designed, if it is not fun, it will not work well.

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