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Software in Education

Software in Education

Software in Education

A computer would be meaningless without software. Software is what brings the computer to life. Software is the name given to computer programs that are written to instruct the computer how to do something. Computer hardware alone is not useful to the average person. Even the operating system (e.g., Windows, Mac OS, Linux) is considered to be software, so the most basic of computers that can be bought will be a package of hardware and software.

This main software that every computer uses is called the operating system. The operating system controls the computer and allows the user to perform actions, such as opening various software programs (e.g., MS Word) and helping the computer communicate with hardware attached to the computer (e.g., printers, scanners, monitors). This chapter focuses on software that can be found in a typical school setting.

Productivity Software

You may have heard of the term productivity software. Productivity software includes some of the most common office-type applications, and is designed to support people—including teachers and students — as they work to become more productive. Some of the main productivity applications include word processing software, spreadsheet software, presentation software, and database software.

Word Processing Software

The most widely used software application is the word processor. Word processing software is used to work primarily with text to create documents (e.g., letters, reports, newsletters). The most commonly used word processor is Microsoft Word, but many other titles exist (e.g., AppleWorks, Wordperfect, Microsoft Works). Figure A shows part of a page of text produced using a word processor.

Teachers can use a word processor to create many documents for the classroom, such as lesson plans, worksheets, or to develop tests. The possibilities are numerous. In fact, many of the documents an average person encounters each day can be created using word processing software. This does not mean that word processors are ideal for all documents, but word processors can produce most of what a classroom teacher will need.

Word processing software is often used for desktop publishing. Desktop publishing is the use of software to create documents that are to be shared. The major difference between word processing software and desktop publishing software is that the final results using desktop publishing software tend to look more polished and professional. Some teachers use an application such as Microsoft Word to do their desktop publishing (e.g., newsletters for parents), while others use a higher end application that is specifically designed for desktop publishing (but is more difficult to learn). The most common desktop publishing application is Microsoft Publisher, but other titles include Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress.
One of the greatest benefits of word processing software is it ability to improve many aspects of students’ writing across the curriculum. A page produced using a word processor has many advantages over the handwritten page, but the biggest is that handwriting issues disappear when the student uses a word processor. Some students who have learning disabilities may have difficulty, and spend much energy, trying to manipulate a pen or pencil to create letters. The word processor can benefit the student by removing the barriers to writing, thus allowing the student to focus on the content of the paper.

The writing process is typically considered to be a 5-step process:
1. Prewriting (brainstorming)

2. Writing

3. Revising (reading through your paper and deciding how to improve the writing)

Figure A Word Processor in Action

4. Editing (checking for spelling, grammar, punctuation, word usage)

5. Publishing (printing the document, saving to the Web)


Figure A

Research indicates that student writing does improve when using a word processor over using a pen and paper. Further, while each step of the writing process is easier using a word processor, the editing and revising stages are particularly more efficient. As a teacher, you can help your students use the writing process in any curricular area when using word processors. You will likely find a better-quality written product from your students if you do.

A student should understand the basics of operating a computer to best succeed using a word processor (e.g., using a mouse, opening and saving files), and can benefit greatly by learning what the various keys can do (e.g., space bar, return, delete, arrow keys). As their hands get larger, students should learn how to type. When typing becomes more natural, students are able to focus less on the process of finding the correct keys and more on the process of writing, which should be the goal while using word processors. Young students should learn how to type, format and edit text. Elementary school students can also learn how to use the various pull-down menus (File, Edit, View, Insert, etc.), and they can learn how to use the Help features built into most word processing software. As students become more proficient at using word processing software, they can be introduced to more advanced options.

One way to extend the capabilities of many word processing software applications is to use features already built in to the software. For example, Microsoft Word has many toolbars available in the View menu that can be turned on to add functionality to the word processor (see Figure B).


Figure B

Spreadsheet Software

The first spreadsheet, VisiCalc, was developed in the late 1970s. VisiCalc quickly turned personal computers from machines performing computer-related functions to machines that could revolutionize the business world. VisiCalc (short for Visual Calculator) did the same basic function back in the 1970s that many people use spreadsheets for today: organize and manipulate numbers. Spreadsheets have matured from their earliest days, and Microsoft Excel has become the most widely used spreadsheet today.

Most interfaces for spreadsheet applications look very similar despite the actual software package being used. Most look like an array of boxes, or a grid, that fills much of the screen (see Figure C). These boxes are called cells. The cells stretching from left to right in a line across the screen make up the rows, and the cells from top to bottom are the columns. Each individual cell has a unique address. For example, the selected cell in Figure C is labeled as B3. The columns are named according to the alphabet (A, B, C, . . . AA, AB, . . . ) and the rows are labeled with numbers that start with 1. Unlike early spreadsheets, the software now allows the user to place many other variables beyond numbers in a cell (e.g., text, formulas, dates and times, etc.).


Figure C

Teachers are discovering many uses for spreadsheets in how they manage their classrooms. Most teachers who rely on using a paper grade book will quickly see the benefits of using a spreadsheet on the computer instead. Spreadsheets can also be used to easily figure student grades and class averages. Likewise teachers can quickly create charts, giving data a visual display (e.g., pie chart, bar chart) for analysis (see Figure D).


Figure D

Spreadsheet software can be used in a variety of ways in all kinds of classrooms. In early elementary classes, the emphasis can be less on the numbers and more on text. For example, Figure E shows a spreadsheet comparing two countries, with individual cells being used to display and organize the results.


Figure E

Teachers could also create a weekly spreadsheet that displays the homework for each student to take home to parents. Figure F provides one example of how this might look.


Figure F

A teacher could use a spreadsheet with students to track daily temperatures or to help keep the accounting for a school or classroom business. A math teacher could use a spreadsheet to have students do “what if” scenarios. For example, students could use a spreadsheet to compare total purchase price of a new car, depending on years of the loan and various interest rates.

As students become more advanced, they can learn to use formulas in a spreadsheet (e.g., average, sum, standard deviation). Formulas can help students perform complex calculations quickly and effortlessly. A spreadsheet could be set up to use a formula to calculate what a student’s weight would be on the moon or on another planet. A physical education teacher could use a function in a spreadsheet to compare daily calorie intake with weight gain/loss and how the two are positively related.

Some people who are not proficient in math may find a spreadsheet a bit intimidating, but spreadsheets have so many uses beyond manipulating numbers. Any teacher should be able to find ways to supplement a curriculum using spreadsheet software.

Other Productivity Software

While word processing software and spreadsheet software tend to get the most use from teachers and in schools, there are other productivity applications, including: presentation software and database software.

Presentation software allows teachers to use a computer and projector much like they would transparency sheets with an overhead projector; however presentation software offers many more features. Two examples of presentation software applications are Microsoft’s PowerPoint™, and Apple’s Keynote. Figure G provides a glimpse at Apple’s Keynote application and a presentation being edited.


Figure G

Microsoft’s PowerPoint™ is a full-fledged presentation application, but it has also become a rudimentary multimedia development tool. Teachers can create slides for presentations or student applications that are interactive. Presentations can offer multimedia elements (e.g., audio clips, video clips, photographs, charts) that a regular paper worksheet or textbook cannot. A wonderful benefit to this software is that a teacher can provide the presentation file to students, eliminating the need for them to take notes, and thus allowing them to pay better attention to the content being discussed. This is an accommodation that can benefit many students.

Students can also use presentation software in many different ways. Some teachers will have students create a presentation rather than write a paper, which can benefit those students who have strengths other than writing. Students can create slides full of text, images, or other media that can far exceed what a normal word-processed document could provide in regard to multimedia. The main limitation of presentation software is that each page or slide displayed is limited in size. The result is that, while students are limited in depth of information provided, they are not limited in the number of slides they can develop.

Another less commonly used productivity application is database software. This software is used to store and organize information. The database application provides users with a tool to manipulate data and information and output it into reports. A teacher might use a database to store information about each student, including name, address, parents/guardians, and so on. Another database could be created to store lesson plans. A teacher could use keywords to identify a specific lesson plan (e.g., frogs, dissecting, biology) when storing and retrieving the data. Most school libraries use a computer database to store card catalog data, and that database allows users to search using various search criteria (e.g., author’s last name, date of publication, title, call number). All students should understand how to use a database. In fact, the Internet is actually the largest database on Earth.

Most teachers will never design their own database; however, many teachers might use a spreadsheet to solve problems that would be better suited for a database. A database differs from a spreadsheet in that a database is typically harder to set up and has a larger learning curve to get started. The database can be easier to manage once it is created and can be easier to share information, reports, and the like. The spreadsheet is most often thought of as a tool to manipulate data— specifically, numerical data—but a spreadsheet can handle other variables as well, which is why many people choose a spreadsheet to perform functions that a database is designed to do. While a spreadsheet is used and updated by one user at a time, multiple people can use a database at a time and the database can have various levels of security implemented. The bottom line is that most people will choose a tool they are comfortable with over a tool that is unknown, and few teachers know how to plan and configure a database.

There are many other productivity-type applications that serve a number of purposes. For example, some software give users the ability to easily create flowchart diagrams and outlines (e.g., Inspiration, OmniOutliner and OmniGraffle). Teachers and students can use the software to brainstorm, plan, organize, outline, and diagram a paper or project. Many possibilities exist for this type of software, with so many potential applications related to productivity and the curriculum.


Educational software is a broad category that encompasses many different software
titles. This category includes software designed for teachers and software that is
created to be used by students. Both of these categories are examined in this section
and both teachers and students use many of the software titles discussed.

Educational Software for Teachers

Classroom management software is gaining much popularity in the classroom. This is software that is created to help a teacher run the classroom more efficiently. For example, many schools are now recording attendance on the computer. Your future classroom might have software for you to use that makes the attendance process more efficient. You might also have a website to enter daily attendance results. Using technology helps provide feedback to parents more quickly when problems with attendance arise.

A teacher might also use software to manage student grades. In the past, most teachers used grade books with graph paper, but grade books are rapidly being replaced in many schools with electronic solutions. Some teachers will use a spreadsheet to keep grades organized. Some schools will provide grade-recording software or a website where teachers can enter and store grades (see Figure H). The nice thing about entering grades electronically is that parents can receive such information more effectively than they could before. Many systems allow parents to check attendance and grades as needed, which helps to get parents more involved in the educational process.


Figure H

Academic Software

Much education software exists on the market. Although trying to sift through individual software titles can be tedious and time-consuming, knowing how you want to use the software before shopping for it can reduce your time tremendously. Software can be classified in many different ways, but most educators tend to recognize the following categories of academic software: drill-and-practice, tutorials, learning games, simulations, Integrated Learning Systems (ISL), reference, and
other academic software.

Case Study

To start the school year, Mrs.Wei received two new computers for her classroom. They came with a suite of productivity applications, which she greatly appreciates; however, she would also like some applications that can help her meet some of her curricular objectives for 3rd grade. Some of her students are still struggling to learn how to read at grade level; her district is convinced that these reading skills are key to just about every subject in school; and the state assessments will require the ability to read and comprehend questions.

Mrs.Wei is not sure where to find software that she can trust, as there are hundreds of titles to choose from. Another teacher suggested going to a site on the Internet that provides reviews of educational software. She found a site that she really liked, which allows users to rate software . . . so, she could read what other teachers thought of the software she was considering. This site was one of the top sales sites online -- (educational texts).

She wanted software written at roughly a first-grade reading level. She found one title that was rated pretty well (The Learning Company Reader Rabbit 1st Grade).

Mrs.Wei also received a long list of potential software resources for future use (e.g., categories and specific names of software) from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), which is the preeminent professional organization for teachers and technology ( & hardware).

Drill-and-Practice Software

Drill-and-practice software was very popular in the early days of computing. This software was developed to reinforce and practice content that is not being introduced for the first time. In other words, drill-and-practice can work very much like traditional flashcards in helping to practice previously introduced content (e.g., the multiplication tables). This type of software tends to be passive in nature, so care should be taken to ensure that students using drill-and-practice software are being stimulated and are getting good practice on a targeted concept. Newer drill-and-practice software can take advantage of multimedia elements to provide a more feature-rich learning experience. One of the great educational benefits of technology is the ability to receive instantaneous feedback. The most effective drill-and-practice software will provide instant feedback to the learner.

Unlike drill-and-practice software, tutorial software presents new material. Tutorial software is designed to carefully introduce a new concept and walk the user through the various steps toward learning the new concept or skill. Some tutorial-based software will take the user through predetermined steps in order, while other tutorial software leaves the order of the information being presented to the user. Tutorials are interactive in nature, which means that the student plays a significant role in its use and is able to make decisions and demonstrate an understanding of the content being presented. Many effective tutorials will let the user determine the pace of the learning.

Learning Games

Learning games present instruction in the form of a game. This means that, while the game will likely have the appearance of a video game, there are still more archaic titles floating around. The benefit of this type of software is that it tends to be more motivational to the learners as they, are covertly at times, presented with drill-and-practice or tutorial-type components. While the student may enjoy using this software more than that in other categories, using games in the classroom has many critics. One of the main arguments against such use is that the game can sometimes become more important than the learning. Care should be taken when using educational games to ensure that winning does not become the goal over the curricular objectives.

Software that provides the user with an electronic version of a real-life concept or experience is called simulation software. One of the most common types of simulators is a flight simulator, which allows the user to have an experience similar to flying a real airplane without the dangers and logistical issues that ensue. The software attempts to replicate a real flight as much as possible, and to create scenarios that reflect an actual situation. The user must react to changes in climate, air pressure, wind, altitude, speed, and so on. The user is able to press keys on the keyboard and mouse (or a more advanced device, like a joystick) to control the functions of flight. There are many educational simulations on the market, and the costs vary greatly. An educational simulation might allow students to perform virtual experiments in science, which can save money on supplies and can reduce the dangers associated with working with many chemicals. For schools on a limited budget, dissecting a virtual frog can save money over purchasing dissecting equipment and real frogs. Simulation software also has applications in other curricular areas: it allows students to do more discovery-type activities in the classroom, and can also have tutorial components built-in to help free the teacher to work with specific students.

Integrated Learning Systems

Integrated Learning Systems (ILS) include software that runs on a network of computers and is designed to provide instructional content, assessment, and a management system for substantial course content. An ILS can be used over many grade levels and can provide detailed information to teachers about specific curricular objectives. Integrated learning systems were much more popular in the earlier days of computing in schools. Much research has shown that ILS provides skills in isolation of the curriculum and that any learning is not being transferred to other subjects and tasks. A problem with ILS is that these systems tend to rely on frequent practice and rote instruction and memorization. One of the biggest criticisms is that the ILS not only changes the curriculum, but it also becomes the curriculum and the teacher. A much more effective way to use ILS is as a supplement or remediation tool for students who may not have grasped the material when first taught. A good teacher is still far more effective at instruction than any computer software, which is why ILS might work best for students who need remedial-type activities.

Reference Software

Reference software is really a broad category by itself. Reference software is designed to provide those materials typically found in reference books— dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc. The benefit of presenting this material in an electronic format is that a classroom is saved much space by using a few CD-ROMs versus a whole encyclopedia set sitting on the shelves. Another benefit to reference- based software is the multimedia element that software can add to a traditionally paper-based medium. Rather than showing your students the text and a photo from M. L. King’s “I have a dream speech,” software can be used to actually watch the speech on video.

Other Academic Software

Other academic software makes up the remaining collection of educational software, and includes curriculum-related products. Educational software is used most often to supplement the curriculum being taught but will occasionally be used in place of the curriculum, if the software can meet specific objectives as determined by the classroom teacher. Buying or selecting educational software should be approached with care.

Much educational software is marketed by subject area, with the specific objective of helping to reinforce a particular subject taught in school. For example, one software title is “Reading for Meaning” and another is called “Math Mysteries.” The difficulty with subject-area software is often in trying to determine if it will benefit your students in a specific content or subject area. As a teacher, you should try to determine if the software has been tested on students similar to those in your school, and what results were achieved. Too often software has features that make it look appealing to teachers or to students (e.g., fancy packaging, nifty name, animations), but less care is taken regarding the actual content. Some websites provide free reviews of educational software and can be found with a simple web search. Thousands of titles exist and, fortunately, there are strategies for narrowing a search for a specific software package.


Productivity software remains the most widely used software in education, with word processing software at the top of the list. This is not a surprise because word processors can be used in so many different subject areas.

Other productivity software includes spreadsheet software, presentation software, and database software. Many of these software categories are found with regularity in our classrooms. Productivity software spans a vast array of business related applications, and its main function is to help people be more productive.

Some educational software is designed for teachers (e.g., grade book software, attendance software), while others (academic software) are designed to be used by students. Academic software falls into seven categories: drill-and-practice, tutorials, learning games, simulations, Integrated Learning Systems (ILS), reference, and other academic software. Each category has benefits and disadvantages, which are largely determined by the age of the students and the content area being studied. Knowing how each category can best be used will help to ensure that the academic software is used most appropriately.

When choosing software for your classroom, you should always consider the many needs and learning styles of your students. There is no software package that can replace you and there is no software solution that will work effectively with every student. A good teacher is still very much the key to good instruction and classroom management.


1. What productivity applications have you used and how have they saved you time? What software do you use regularly and how do you use it? What software would you like to learn? Why?

2. Do word processors become too much of a crutch for students learning to write? How about the use of calculators in math?

3. In what scenarios would a teacher choose to use a database application rather than a spreadsheet?

4. When are drill-and-practice software applications beneficial to students? How can they be a hindrance to the learning process? 5. How are grade book software packages and a spreadsheet alike? 6. Should software applications be taught in a separate computer class or in each subject area? Why?


Productivity software: A common office-type software designed to support people as they work.

Drill-and-practice software: Software that reinforces and practices content that is not being introduced for the first time in a stimulus-response approach to learning.

Tutorial software: Software designed to carefully introduce a new concept or skill that walks the user through the various steps toward learning it.

Learning games: This software presents instruction in the form of a game.

Simulation software: Software that provides the user with an electronic version of a real-life concept or experience.

Integrated learning systems (ILS): This software is designed to provide instructional content, assessment, and a management system for substantial course content.

Reference software: Software that is designed to provide those materials typically found in reference books (e.g., dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc.).


Create a sample grade book in a spreadsheet application and fill in some sample students. Try to use the spreadsheet to automatically figure your grades. Can you also create a bar graph chart that illustrates your results?

1. Search for Websites that sell software at education prices. Do many of the titles have nice discounts for educators? What are the necessary requirements to purchase this software?

2. Explore the mail merge option in your word processing application. Read how it works in the tutorial and then try creating a sample letter to a few parents. This is an example of combining a word processor and a database to create a shortcut in writing letters home to parents. One letter and one database can be combined so that you only write the letter one time and the software packages handle the bulk of the work for you.


Productivity Software

The National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers Curriculum and Content Area Standards. This site discusses technology productivity tools.

Educational Software

The National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers’ Sample Software and Website Evaluation Forms is a site that provides user reviews of educational software.

Page last updated: May 23, 2013