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Software: The Best of the Basics


Members of the Education World Tech Team shared what software they considered absolutely essential to even the most basic educational technology program. Our experts came up with 22 different software programs and online subscription services; three of those programs, however, far surpassed the others in terms of the number of recommendations received. 


The Education World Tech Team provided our readers with an extensive list of the best educational software in eight different categories: productivity software, presentation software, curriculum software, keyboarding software, web-authoring software, concept-mapping software, reference software, and classroom management tools. This year, in light of budget cuts facing many districts, we asked Tech Team members to recommend the most basic software -- programs that no school, whatever its size or budget constraints, should be without.

The Team as a whole recommended 22 different software programs or online subscription services, encompassing nearly all eight categories. A few are free programs; most are eminently affordable. If they're not already on your desktop, add them to your holiday wish list!


For a more extensive list of the best available educational software, check out the Tech Team articles in our series Load 'Em Up: The Best Software in the Education World!


The Top 22

The Education World Tech Team's top 22 software picks are:
* Adobe Photo Deluxe
* Belarc Advisor
* Bubblegum Machine
* Celestia
* Creative Writer 2
* Cross Country USA
* Graph Club
* ImageBlender
* Inspiration
* Kid Pix 3
* Kid Works Deluxe
* Kidspiration
* Lettergrade
* Making the Grade/Grade Busters
* Microsoft Office
* MyLearningPlan
* NetProbe
* Number Maze
* Paint Shop Pro
* Print Shop
* Print Artist
* Schoolwires


"Different software needs are important at different grade levels," elementary technology coordinator Beth Gregor told Education World. "Although all my software picks can be used at more than one grade level -- and I do use them in all grades -- I have different favorites for each grade."

For kindergarten students, Gregor recommends Kid Works Deluxe. "This program allows students to write and draw," Gregor noted. "My kindergartners start the year learning to use some of the draw tools and to change the colors of the crayons. Very quickly, they learn to find the letters in their names, make upper case letters, and use the backspace key to delete. We move on to writing the date, which includes numbers and commas, and to using the space bar and Enter. Next we add words and sentences. Every week in the lab, in addition to writing their names, date, and words, they draw pictures related to the classroom theme of the week. We also do journal writing each week, and they start doing it on a rotating basis in their classrooms as well.

"For my first graders, I like both Tom Snyder's Graph Club and Heartsoft's Bubblegum Machine," Gregor continued. "Graph Club, which teaches simple graphing skills, is very user-friendly and makes learning fun for kids. Bubblegum Machine is about word families and rhyming skills."

Number Maze, by Great Wave Software, in which students drive a car, take a mouse to cheese, or have a horse race through a maze, is "an old program, but still a good one," according to Gregor, who calls the program "the best for teaching a variety of math skills. It presents math problems horizontally, vertically, and in story problems. I start teaching Number Maze in first grade and use it all the way through fourth grade; changing levels as the students' skills increase. Even my special ed kids-- who are really only counting in first grade -- can do the same program as the rest of the class, but at their own levels. I preset the levels to count only what their IEPs state they should be doing."

Gregor starts using Microsoft Office in third grade. "I use Word for teaching keyboarding, writing, and editing skills," she said. "Students also use Word Art and learn to insert pictures into Word documents. I use Excel to teach making graphs and entering data, and I use the animation tools in PowerPoint to teach cartooning. Office is a great all-around resource!"

Cross Country USA from Ingenuity Works is Gregor's top pick for fourth grade. "This program correlates well with their social studies curriculum," she said. "Students travel across the country picking up commodities in different cities. Along the way, they solve problems, use map skills to plan the trip and math skills to calculate expenses, stay healthy, and keep their 'trucks' running properly."


Computer coordinator Jennifer Wager also arranged her top picks by grade level -- and software type. "I deal with students in kindergarten through eighth grade," Wagner pointed out, "and I find that a variety of programs is necessary to cover all skills and learning levels.

"For graphics software, I like Kid Pix 3 for K- 4 students," Wagner said. "The program, which teaches students to create graphics and mini slide shows, comes with many templates and also offers an add-on tool that allows kids to record their own stories. Students in grade 5 and above migrate easily from Kid Pix to Paint Shop Pro, which allows them to create higher-level graphics. Those graphics can be used on Web pages, in PowerPoint presentations, and more! Paint Shop Pro also comes with Animation Shop, a great free add-on.

"When it comes to productivity tools," Wagner continued, "Creative Writer 2 is a 'must have' for teaching K-3 students to use word processing programs. The icons are big and easily understood, and the program comes with add-on templates, great clipart, and a paint program as well! For students in grade 4 and above, any version of Microsoft Office that includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and Publisher will do the trick. If I could have only one program in my lab, in fact, Microsoft Office Professional Suite would be my choice. There's no limit to what you can do with it!"

Wagner also recommended several other software programs for kids, including Jump Start Artist for K-3 ("just plain fun for learning art/graphics skills!"); Magic School Bus Rainforest for grades 2-4 ("by far the best Magic School Bus!"); Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing for grades 3-5 ("kids typing skills improved by more than 100 percent!"); and BRYCE for grades 6-8 ("The skills they learn and the projects they create bring out the best in all students!").

Kid Pix was also among the top choices of fourth grade teacher Mary Kreul, who called it "a great graphics program for illustrating student writing at the elementary level. Kid Pix allows illustrations to be included in Web pages and slideshows, printed 'as is,' or imported into other programs to make cards, posters, books, and so on," she said.


The runaway winners for "must-have" student software, however, were Kidspiration for grades K-3 and Inspiration for grade 4 and above.

"Those programs, which are used to create concept maps and webs, allow students and teachers to graphically represent the ideas and concepts they are learning or teaching," technology integration specialist Cathy Chamberlain told Education World. "Both programs are extremely easy to use and tap into the kind of visual-learning modality many people benefit from."

"Kidspiration and Inspiration have multiple uses," said computer training director Rusty Sinclair, "including developing pre-writing skills, organizing thoughts, building presentation skills, mind mapping, and webbing."

"Organizing ideas for writing is easy and fun with the Kidspiration concept mapping program," noted Mary Kreul. "Students can create idea webs with words and/or pictures, hear text read aloud, convert idea webs into outlines, and change and rearrange ideas into meaningful stories, poems, and reports."

"I vote for Inspiration," elementary technology coordinator Ken Barton told Education World. "Inspiration can be used across grade levels and throughout disciplines to organize and map, in prewriting or planning multimedia presentations, for example. The software is compatible with Word -- you can import and export between the two -- and with PowerPoint -- you can send an Inspiration map to PowerPoint and each topic becomes a slide. Inspiration maps can be saved as jpeg files and inserted into other documents as pictures or converted into html and used on the Web. The Inspiration Web site provides great support and lesson ideas, as well as materials for professional development training. You even can download a free 30-day trail from their Web site to try it out for yourself."

"Inspiration conforms to what research has indicated about students and graphic organizers, and it's excellent at addressing the learning-style needs of many students," added instructional technology specialist Julia Timmons.

"With Kidspiration, teaching K-3 students to structure their thoughts is easy -- for both teacher and student," Jennifer Wagner concluded. "The program is easy to learn and results can be uploaded to the Web. Inspiration is my choice for students in grade 4 and above -- it's unbelievable what the program can do. If I could only have two programs in my classroom, Inspiration would be one of them."


Not all software is for kids, of course. Some of our Tech Team's picks are programs designed to make teachers' lives easier. In fact, educational technology specialist Robin Smith mentioned several teacher programs that she "couldn't live without."

The first is MyLearningPlan. "This program is not a piece of software in a box," Smith told Education World. "It's a fantastic subscription-based service that allows us to put online our professional development offerings, conference requests, and Act 48 tracking and submission information for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. This program alone has saved me hundreds of hours. I could write a whole article about its benefits!"

Lettergrade by Tenex is another program Smith recommended. "This online gradebook allows teachers to enter grades from school or from home, and provides parents and students with the option of accessing those grades 24/7," she noted. "The program, which includes an attendance component, works with our student management system to electronically submit grades and interim reports. It has been a huge time saver for teachers, administrators, and clerical staff -- and has greatly increased communication between home and school.

"Schoolwires, also an online subscription program, is like a portal with templates," Smith added. "It allows us to post and easily maintain district and school Web pages. Our Hollidaysburg Area School District Web page has greatly improved in the year since we started using the program. Anyone who can do word processing, can create a Web page with Schoolwires, so now, instead of one person having to do all our Web work, anyone can post information. We have had much more interest from teachers, staff, and administrators. We absolutely love it."

Mary Kreul noted that, in her district, assessing student progress has become more efficient with the introduction of Making the Grade/Grade Busters. "With this program, teachers can enter students grades, weight grades, add categories for class assignments, add teacher comments, track students who are scoring above or below a certain percentage or letter grade, print a variety of reports for report cards and parents, e-mail those reports, and much more," Kreul told Education World.

Rusty Sinclair recommended three programs for technology coordinators and one for science teachers -- and all four programs are free!

"Belarc Advisor gives tech coordinators the ability to archive the software and operating systems loaded on every computer they're responsible for," Sinclair told Education World. "The program lists all the components installed on a computer, down to the processor, mainboard, cards, and so on.

"NetProbe," Sinclair continued, "lets the network administrator see what computers/servers are running on the network -- and provides other network statistics as well.

"And 3D Writer takes WordPad and adds background color, superscript, and subscript," said Sinclair."

Sinclair also recommended "Celestia for science teachers, saying "This is a great program for teachers who need to explore the solar system. Warning! You need at least a 16 megabyte video card to run this program."


Some software, of course, does double duty -- both teachers and students can use it for a number of purposes.

"A good word processing program, such as Microsoft Word or AppleWorks, provides nearly unlimited uses for creative teachers and students," retired computer teacher Libby Adams told Education World. "A good graphics program, such as Print Shop or Print Artist, allows them to create banners, posters, signs, cards, bookmarks, name tags, and much more. Both students and teachers like to see results quickly -- which can be done with either of those two programs.

"Together, graphics software and word processing software are time savers, giving both students and teachers instant results," Adams continued. "To me, all the other wonderful programs are extras; they're exciting to use, but if budget is a concern, schools should not be without the two choices above."

Print Shop is Mary Kreul's favorite graphics program, however. "This popular program offers a variety of text and image options that can be used by elementary students and their teachers to easily create cards, posters, banners, stationery, postcards, business cards, and calendars," she said.


"More and more, I'm finding the need for schools to have video editing software," computer teacher John Simeone told Education World. "I have a lab of Macintosh computers in the high school, and I offer students the chance of using iMovie or Final Cut Pro, both from Apple Computer. As a result, some students have found a career possibility in the film industry. At the middle school level, students use iMovie to do presentations and multimedia projects -- they can even teach their teachers to use the program for teacher presentations. Many teachers have already taken advantage of using iMovie at such events as awards night, open house, and parent orientation."

ImageBlender is the graphics editing program that Robin Smith finds indispensable. "This nifty, inexpensive digital editing software has saved me so much time and is so easy to use -- every teacher should have it on his or her desktop," she said. "The cost is less than $40 and once you buy a license, additional copies cost $15 to $18 each. The program allows users to do major editing in a very simple way; its ease of use compared to all the other programs makes this my number one software choice. "

Mary Kreul recommended that schools invest in Adobe Photo Deluxe. "This user-friendly graphics editing program helps teachers and capable students prepare scanned and drawn illustrations and photos for use on Web pages and in slide shows, reports, posters, and more," she said.


But the number 1 "must have" software mentioned most often for both students and teachers is Microsoft Office -- and its various components.

"We find that the basic Microsoft package is very useful," said Julia Timmons. "We have Word, Excel, Access, and PowerPoint, and our teachers have created some wonderful content-specific lessons using those programs."

"We utilize every part of Microsoft Office -- for doing grade books, newsletters, posters, letters home, worksheets, presentations, Web page development, mailings and so on," agreed Beth Gregor. "The uses are unlimited."

"Microsoft PowerPoint -- which allows both teachers and students to create dynamic presentations -- is one program I think all districts should have," Cathy Chamberlain told Education World. "The program allows users to incorporate various types of multimedia to bring their material to life, and the presentations provide visual and auditory stimulation for the audience.

This software provides teachers with another vehicle for distributing information to students in an entertaining and motivating way, and it provides students with a new way of presenting their research. When working with a presentation tool like PowerPoint, students have to synthesize information before presenting it. The tool can also be used to create books, posters, handouts and more.

"If teachers have access to Web server space," Chamberlain continued, "FrontPage, also by Microsoft, is another program districts shouldn't be without. It allows teachers to easily create classroom Web pages, virtual fieldtrips, online portfolios, and more -- extending student learning by making learning materials available 24 hours a day. Although FrontPage is easy for beginners to use, the program also contains many powerful tools for advanced users.

"Publisher is another powerful Microsoft program that benefits teachers and older students," Chamberlain added. "This desktop publishing program allows users to create a wide range of publications, including brochures, newsletters, calendars, labels, flyers, signs, cards, certificates, books, and more. An easy program to use, Publisher provides many templates that make the finished products look very professional."

"Personally, I couldn't be without a well-functioned spreadsheet package like Microsoft Excel," said Michael McMullin, resource teacher for special needs pupils in County Donegal, Ireland. "Apart from its most obvious purposes, I find myself using Excel for all kinds of administrative and curricular tasks -- from laying out class lists to creating sets of reading words and quick customized drill and practice exercises. Some of those uses can be more powerfully addressed through Access, while others might be adequately handled in Word, but for sheer convenience and power, I always find myself returning to Excel."

Robin Smith summarized the groups views when she said, "Say what you will about Microsoft, but every teacher in our district would be lost without the Microsoft Office Suite."


Who Are They?

The Education World Tech Team includes more than 50 dedicated and knowledgeable educational-technology professionals who have volunteered to contribute to occasional articles that draw on their varied expertise and experience. The following Tech Team members contributed to this article:
* Libby Adams, computer resource teacher (retired), Troost School, Kansas City, Missouri
* Ken Barton, elementary technology coordinator, Landon School, Bethesda, Maryland
* Cathy Chamberlain, technology integration specialist, Oswego Education Center, Oswego, New York
* Beth Gregor, PreK-4 technology teacher and elementary technology coordinator Pleasantdale Elementary School, La Grange, Illinois
* Mary Kreul, grade 4 teacher, Richards Elementary School, Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin
* Michael McMullin, resource teacher for special needs pupils Dromore National School, Killygordon, County Donegal, Republic of Ireland
* John Simeone, computer teacher, Beach Street Middle School, West Islip New York
* Rusty Sinclair, training director, Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA), Austin, Texas
* Robin Smith, educational technology specialist, Hollidaysburg Area School District, Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania
* Julia Timmons, instructional technology specialist, Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School for Innovation, Lynchburg, Virginia
* Jennifer Wagner, computer coordinator, Crossroads Christian School, Corona, California


Visit the TechTeam Archives to find the entire TechTeam series of articles, and to catch a glimpse of the progress of educational technology during the last three years.


Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2002 Education World


Editor's note, please note that this article was created in 2002 and has not been updated since that time. While we make conscious efforts to update some articles, since technology changes so rapidly we would rather our readers consult technology articles found on our main homepage, our technology section landing page or through a keyword search on the site. If you came upon this article through a search, we hope that it was helpful to you in some small way. Thank you for reading Education World.