Whatever Happened to Carmen Sandiego?…

…did she die from dysentery on the Oregon Trail? Ever since the Apple II began making its way into homes and classrooms the software market has been making games and other applications designed to be educational. How have they evolved?, Are they any good?, and Where can I find my old favorites? are just a few of the questions that today’s post looks at, as well as handing out some gold stars to some of the early developers of this now multi-million dollar industry.

TeacherJay remembers some of his favorites as a kid, and seeing some of the advancements made even during his schooling years from the old green screens of the Apple, to the first color monitors to ones that even had 3D animations. Classics like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, Number Munchers, and of course, The Oregon Trail, were all favorites of TeacherJay’s. Looking back though, were they really education, or entertainment?

Many of these early games were written by techno-geek programmers and tended to have very little input from trained educators. These programs were also quickly produced and did not always have the end user – young children – in mind. Consequently, some of these games would come out with typographical, or even factual errors; had little teaching and more gaming; were not aligned to any educational standards whatsoever; offered information that was not grade-level or age-appropriate; and might even crash if something unexpected happened, such as pressing the U key instead of the Y when answering a question.

Yes, yes… some have fond memories of these softwares, but when you get right down to it, they were junk. They were new at the time and kept kids entertained. Perhaps they were better than TV because there was at least a little bit of involvement, but they never lived up to the promises of a computer replacing a teacher. At best, these applications provided “drill & kill” practice until kids got bored of them. Did any of us really learn those far-flung geography facts from Carmen Sandiego travels, or what it was really like to break an axle, lose 5 days and drown while trying to ford a river? – probably not! TeacherJay did get a bit faster with his times tables using Number Munchers (and is still proud of his top score), but even back in the third grade, computer time was used as a reward for having scored well on the multiplication test, meaning the kids who got the fun practice were not the ones who even needed it. Mostly, these programs were used as entertainment with the weak ploy of being somewhat educational – forming the term edutainment.

The industry has developed and become a profitable venture, but is the software actually doing anything? Certainly the marketing message that simply buying a computer will make your kids smarter has propagated itself and has almost become common knowledge. the major problem with this is that the computer itself is powerless to affect education. Even the best designed software cannot relate its teachings to the student’s life and therefore it is not real. TeacherJay never did, and still doesn’t, understand why growing up in New Jersey and then Florida he was learning(?) about the Oregon Trail. What he does remember his is trying to ford the river, hunting using the arrow keys and trying to finish the game as fast as possible – never could quite get there before the period was over(!). The game was entertaining sure, but didn’t really teach him much, except that shooting 5 bison on a single outing is way more food than he could carry.

This is not to say that all educational software is bad, or useless, or is even edutainment. Some of it is good, such as the Rosetta Stone, SuperGrades!, Crazy Machines, and Storybook Weaver – all of which can be used effectively because they were designed to teach – not just entertain. TeacherJay recently discussed this on Neil Hokanson’s blog in regards to the release of the iPod Touch and what impact it may have on education.

The real impact they had was to get the industry started and moving in the right direction. For all of their hard work and dedication to educational software – and for the hours of enjoyment they brought to TeacherJay, gold stars are bestowed upon, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), and Brøderbund, and The Learning Company.

What has become abundantly clear is that what started out as games has become big business. Some of the early companies were assembled by state legislatures with the true goal of monitoring the use and purchasing of the new-fnagled devices known as a personal computer. Naturally they also began developing software (that way they didn’t have to be worried about viruses or inappropriate materials appearing on school computers, right?). Years later, some of these little government offices branched off to become their own companies and sold for 100s of millions of dollars! MECC and Brøderbund were both bought up by The Learning Company, which was, in turn, purchased by Riverdeep, which also just bought Houghton Mifflin. NOTE: TeacherJay wasn’t aware of this buy-up of educational outlets until researching this posting and is a bit concerned – more on that in weeks to come.

For those of you who still need your fix of these classic games, try Googleing the title of the software with the words “free download”. Or try one of these:

Number Munchers – http://www.pcgaming.ws/viewgame.php?game=number_munchers

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego – http://www.abandonia.com/games/13/download/WhereinWorldisCarmenSandiego.htm

The Oregon Trail Deluxe – http://www.classic-pc-games.com/pc/educational/oregon_trail_deluxe.html

Mystic Geek even posted a way that you can emulate an old Apple IIe system on your Windows XP machine – http://blogs.howtogeek.com/mysticgeek/2007/09/13/play-oregon-trail-the-way-you-remember-it/


One Response to “Whatever Happened to Carmen Sandiego?…”

  1. Vicki Says:

    Jay, sure these programs weren’t great by any stretch of the imagination, but they were, in most cases, our first introductions to the world of technology. I’m probably just enough older than you that I remember a time when there was one computer in our entire school and we got to go to a special room in the library to use it. I was probably one of the lucky ones whose parents realized that computers were here to stay, and they gave my brother and I as much exposure to the ol’ Apple IIe as they possibly could in a time when hardly anyone had a home computer.

    Even if the games were lame, they introduced us to basic keyboarding and computer usage protocols (ctrl + open apple + delete anyone???)…often for the first time. Maybe it wasn’t so important that we learned how to hunt buffalo with a joystick, but it was good that we were developing hand-eye coordination. Sometimes I think it’s important to look beyond what we think the program is supposed to teach, and think about the other benefits it may offer.

    Thanks for the fun links! What a fun flashback.

    P.S. – I have a friend who works for Riverdeep if you’d like to chat with her about your future post.

    P.P.S. – I like your blog!

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