Software is good, but your time is better

Computer Life column for 8/30/97 by
Richard Gordon

My son and I have a pile of pencils, colored pencils, rulers, scissors, markers, folders and other stuff sitting in the spare bedroom waiting for the first day of school. New clothes and shoes are stashed in his bureau and closet.

Yes, our back to school shopping is done. Or is it?

If you have a computer at home, you may have decided to browse the educational software aisles at area stores, surf the web, or pore over your catalogs, looking for homework helpers or intellectually stimulating alternatives to watching the tube, playing in the street, or gaming with Sega/Nintendo/Playstation.

I hopped in the car last Sunday on just such a mission.

For no particular reason, my first stop was Toys R Us. The place was packed. Kids and parents were racing all over the notebooks, lunchboxes, stuffed animals, and Legos; the air was filled with an auditory competition between children hollering, sample Nintendo and Sega games going at full volume, and PA announcements. However, in the 45 minutes I browsed in the educational software, I saw only three other customers and no sales help.

Even though CompUSA and Zany Brainy were just as busy, several staff members offered to help me, even before they knew I was just doing some research. It was clear that the staff at these two stores, especially Zany Brainy, have actually tried some of the software; in fact children and parents could preview selected titles at both stores.

Shop hard and you can find bargains, perfectly good software that is just a year or two old, or software bundled together.

For example, I bought my son a copy of MECC's "Classic Oregon Trail" for about $15, picking up a coupon to order more software for $3 in the bargain. (Don't tell him yet-his birthday isn't until next week.)

The version I bought may not have the fancy, high-resolution graphics of the current version, and there may be minor differences in the way the programs work, but the older version will do just fine on our two-year-old computer.

You could purchase Broderbund's "Write, Camera, Action" for about $35 at all the stores I visited. But several stores had this excellent cartooning and writing software for 10- to 15-year olds bundled into "Learning Advantage Library 4." Priced between $40 and $55, this bundle also includes "ADAM: The Inside Story," a well-regarded human anatomy program; the popular geography program "Where in the World is Carmen San Diego"; and "Print Shop," specialized word processing software for greeting cards, fliers, and other fancy stuff.

My favorite moment came at Computer City, in a conversation I had with a third grader and his mother. Tim was clutching a copy of Davidson's "Mega Math Blaster" and The Learning Company's "Super Solvers: Gizmos and Gadgets," two pieces of software that had looked intriguing to me, too.

Tim told me he had tried them both and liked them a lot. "It makes this stuff seem like it's fun," he said, pointing at Mega Math Blaster. As he walked away, his mom quietly told me that math was something Tim had found difficult, but that this software seemed to make it easier for him.

I saw hundreds of dollars worth of software that would help my son or stimulate his interests-no matter what his age. I understand the temptation to think with your credit cards, to try to improve your child's learning by throwing money at the situation. However, there's something more important than buying the right "Reader Rabbit" or SAT preparation software.

I did indeed buy two packages for my third-grader. But buying that software is not a replacement for helping him develop a good homework routine, offering to assist at his school, reading to him, and letting him read to me.

No matter how old your kids, your time, interest, and support are more important than any software you can buy.

Copyright © 1997, The News Journal Company

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Richard Gordon helps support faculty, staff and student computing at the University of Delaware. E-mail questions, comments or suggestions to, or write him at The News Journal, Box 15505, Wilmington, DE 19850. Although each note cannot be answered individually, reader comments and questions will often be incorporated in future columns.