"Beware of Edutainment." By William L. Bainbridge and Kathryn Bailey Bleimes. School and College. January 1995.


by William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D.
Kathryn Bailey Bleimes

"The common school is the
greatest discovery ever made."

- - Horace Mann

The history of American public education is deeply rooted in the concept of equal educational opportunity for all. Court decisions, legislative mandates and executive orders have weathered a variety of political storms to "ensure equality".

Many school administrators have taken strong stands supporting financial parity and opposing concepts such as "pay to play" and "vouchers". The goal has been to preserve the principle of equal access to educational opportunities.

There currently looms on the horizon a greater threat to equal access than has been imagined previously. A marvelous new concept called "edutainment" has the potential to seriously compromise the central purpose of Horace Mann's "common school" - - universal availability of the tools of teaching and learning. Simply stated, "edutainment" is instructional software in a game format.

Through public schools, Mann sought to expand the benefits of privilege equally - regardless of socioeconomic class. While technological innovation can bring unparallelled, individualized instruction to many, the "edutainment" movement threatens students in those homes not well equipped for the information age.

We greatly admire the work of those developing programs such as "Memphis Math", "Carmen Sandiego", "Reader Rabbit", "Cuckoo Zoo," "Scooter's Magic Castle" and "Eagle Eye Mysteries". What better way to inspire love of learning than to put education in a format enjoyable to pupils? Everyone knows most children love videogames. The transition from "play" to "schoolwork" is simple and universally well received.

The problem centers on a few simple facts. Software publishers are focusing their attention on home education. Youngsters have limited access to computers in school and are expected to supplement their school-based learning with "homework". Many assignments can or could be completed using the computer. Computers, however, are not readily available in the home for most American youngsters. This is particularly true of the economically disadvantaged who need the most help. In these homes, computer technology is not affordable, little understood, and not highly valued.

Home computers have become more affordable to middle income families. The minimum pricetag for a reputable system with a color monitor and printer is about $1500. That's a steep price for a welfare mother or a family struggling with unemployment. Many low socioeconomic families compare the cost of a computer to several month's rent, or a luxury like a large screen TV. The computer is not likely to be high on their priority list.

Market researchers know there is a high correlation between family education and home computer ownership. Even when the parent(s) can afford a computer, if they are not computer literate they are less likely to make such an investment. A computer is not like a stereo or television. The expectation is that the owner will interact with the computer on the keyboard or with a mouse. Parents with little education or poor computer skills are unlikely to seek opportunities to embarrass themselves in front of their offspring. We already have a public educational system in which parent education is the highest predictor of school success for their children. The "edutainment" phenomenon is likely to further extend an educational caste system.

A trip to the local retailer marketing VCR tapes, computer games and SEGA or Nintendo action games like "Mortal Kombat" or "Street Fighter" highlights the issue. Good educational software is, in most cases, only compatible with IBM- or Apple-type personal computers.

In the quest to provide the best technology to our students, it seems important to consider the consequences of the emerging "edutainment" trend. Responsible educators, corporate leaders, government officials and entrepreneurs need to explore ways of making technological advances available to everyone. In this case, the medium is just as important as the message.

Dr. Bainbridge and Ms. Bleimes are principals in SchoolMatch, a Columbus, OH, research firm assisting corporations with school data and consulting services.