There seem to be two main functions that are applicable across almost all educational levels - the exceptions being pre-kindergarten and post-graduate. The two categories are:
- drill; and,
Computers easily beat human teachers at jobs where the goal is to have the student repeat something to the point that he can no longer get it wrong. Teaching kids the basic times table, for example, involves repetitively asking "what's a x b?" and checking the answer.
Similarly people learn to type, to correctly recognise and then hit notes on a keyboard, and to decline irregulars by having errors caught and corrected during repeated practice sessions -i.e. by drilling.
On a more sophisticated level computers are very useful for language drills, especially with respect to reading and basic composition - and it doesn't matter whether the language is English or APL.
There are examinations that can be given, and marked, entirely by computer - multiple choice and "fill in the blank" tests, for example.
More interestingly computers can be used to distance the marker from the student for both assignments and examinations -i.e. student materials can be presented to the marker without external identification, thus reducing opportunities for both favouritism and discrimination in marking.
Notice that the OS and type of computer used makes very little difference to the educational value received by the student - for example, a language lab can be set up to allow pronunciation drill for twenty or more students sharing one teacher and whether the 21 sets of headphones and mikes are attached to PCs, Macs, or Sun Rays makes no practical difference to the effectiveness of the process.
There are differences, but they're related to school costs and system availability and not to the educational value of working systems - although, of course, systems which repeatedly fail frustrate teachers and forfeit student trust, thus reducing their educational value.
You'll notice that I've left out the overwhelming bulk of 'educational software' - stuff like this (from a blurb about something called "Zoology Zone - Raptors")
Zoology Zone is a series of three CD ROMs that provide young students an introduction into the world of raptors, bears and spiders. A mixture of audio-visual presentations (narrated mini movies), interactive learning activities, music, quizzes and games, are all designed to engage the learner and help them understand and retain the knowledge conveyed.
This review will be about Zoology Zone - Raptors. Zoology Zone - Bears and Spiders, are almost identical in structure, design and style to Raptors, which we are profiling here.
Zoology Zone is organised into five learning areas ("Zones") - All About Me, How I Grow, Where I Live, How I Eat and Did You Know which cover all aspects of the world of raptors. There are also tabs on the main screen to a library with internet links for extended learning, a glossary of terms, and direct access to all the learning games.
Within each zone, there are typically 4 to five sections which, if followed sequentially, will start off with an audio visual presentation followed by intereactive quiz games that test your knowledge and then interactive activities that will add new information/learning about the subject.
This sounds good, but my guess is that if we had information about student comprehension and information retention on products like this one, those numbers would be functionally indistinguishable from zero because this kind of thing is, it seems to me, the teaching equivalent of the in flight movie -intended more as something to keep the demons quiet and in their seats than as something to help them learn.