Beware! Avoid Carmen Sandiego Syndrome

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on November 16, 2011

Educators all over the country are exploring ways they can use iPads and other tablet technologies as tools for teaching and learning. Apps—free and low cost programs designed to be used on these devices—are a primary attraction. What better way to provide quick and easy access to instructional activities than by downloading and using some of the thousands of education apps? But I’m noticing a troubling trend.

Many of the apps labeled “educational” are developed by programmers with little or no background in education; use of these apps does not support student learning in any fashion. In addition, there are teachers who are spending a lot of time and energy figuring out ways to use apps that make no claim to be educational and do not support the curriculum in any obvious way, but that are fun to play. It reminds me of the days when desktop computers were initially introduced to classrooms.

The year was 1985. Good educational software was still difficult to come by. Once a teacher had run through the offerings from the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, (think Oregon Trail and Lemonade Stand), there wasn’t much else available. Then Brøderbund Software released Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? The goal of this fast-paced game was for players to travel the world solving geography-based clues, track multiple villains, and finally arrest Carmen Sandiego herself. The software was a hit, becoming a staple in many computer labs, despite its limited applicability to the curriculum for a narrow range of grade levels.

This is what I call Carmen Sandiego Syndrome, the willingness to use a software program for instruction even when there is little or no educational value. For school leaders this becomes a problem because first use of a new technology often becomes entrenched use. It is critical that we help teachers avoid this pitfall.

One strategy for avoiding Carmen Sandiego Syndrome is to insist that teachers take time to carefully review new apps using tools that measure how well the objectives of an app align with the curriculum. There are three free tools I recommend that can be used for this purpose. The first is a rubric called Evaluation Rubric for iPod/iPad Apps created by Harry Walker (Johns Hopkins University) and modified by Kathy Schrock. The second is the Critical Evaluation of an iPad/iPod App checklist developed by Kathy Schrock. And finally, eSkills Learning’s Mobile App Selection Rubric. These resources and more are available in the iPod Touch & iPad Resources LiveBinder which Chris O’Neal and I developed and maintain.

This is not a time when more is necessarily better. Take the time now to insure that teachers are making well-grounded decisions about the apps they introduce into the classroom. Students will reap the benefits for the long term.



Published by

Susan Brooks-Young

A former school administrator, Susan Brooks-Young is a prolific author, educational technology consultant, and member of the TICAL leadership cadre.

14 thoughts on “Beware! Avoid Carmen Sandiego Syndrome”

  1. Susan, I couldn’t agree more. The “fun value” of technology too often trumps any consideration of actual learning value, not to mention thinking about what the side effects or unanticipated consequences of use might be.

  2. Agree here too Susan! I am using Kathy’s rubric and Common Core State Standards before sharing with others.

    I have talked with several developers about the apps they are submitting to the Apple Store. I wish there was a better clearinghouse that label the apps in the store. There are many lists of apps on the Internet with no ties to anything that is taught in classrooms or enhance instruction. Many of the lists I find are usually linked to the Apple Store descriptions.

  3. Thanks, Michael and Harry. It’s funny you would mention a clearinghouse, Harry. We used to have one in California that did just what you are suggesting, only it was for software back then. With budget cuts, it’s long gone, but maybe we should think about a way to do something like that?

  4. You are so right…that is why I keep pushing Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy with iPad apps ( It includes tools at all levels (not just apps). I feel it is important to frame any technology use around a set of standards or accepted pedagogical model.

    And I try to keep pointing out other successful classroom practices ( and good lists of apps that seem to support teaching and learning in a meaningful way!

  5. Technology is a tool in educational settings and I don’t think it ought to be an end in itself (the Carmen San Diego syndrome). Technology in school ought to mirror the way technology is used in the real worldforemost it is a vast information source and conduit and then secondly, a place to organize and synthesize the information collected. The entertainment value of technology also exists in the real world but in my mind has questionable value in educational settings.

  6. Kathy, I’m so glad you mentioned Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy. I also use it and have it linked in the LiveBinder, but neglected to include it in the list of resources I posted. Thanks also for the link to successful classroom practices.

  7. I missed something. When I was a teacher, I used Carmen to a good end. Maybe it was because I taught upper elementary grades and the content of the game matched my curriculum better. I know for a fact many of my students learned more geography from Carmen than from any other way. Even if I used Carmen because the kids liked it doesn’t make it bad and “of little or no educational value”. The same things applies today. A good teacher can use “a game” to teach many things well, even Angry Birds. (Just think of the math.) Motivation to learn is a key component to an effective program.

  8. Sounds good to me, Harry!

    Stephen, Carmen Sandiego did fit best with upper elementary curriculum. I don’t disagree with that at all.

    If you have a standards-based lesson plan effectively using Angry Birds, please share it.

  9. You couldn’t more wrong. I am a product of learning in a time when Carmen San Diego was a huge hit. I played this game in school when I was a kid. Let me tell you, it was one of the greatest computer experiences I can remember. Before that, the Oregon Trail (which helped me to learn English as a child). I am now a computer scientist going into my Masters in Computer Engineering. I am female and Hispanic, which is the rarest in Computer Science fields. It looks to me like the responses in this thread who agree with you are far older than me and most likely did not benefit from these types of computer games. I can assure you, they are not played in vein. Not everything is educationally obvious to all. I only hope these types of games are around in school for my kids, if not, they will be playing them at home because I know what they can do for a kid, first hand.

  10. I appreciate your comment, Milena, and the fact you took the time to write it. Except for Bridget, I know all the people who have commented previously, as well as the author, and no, none of us is a youngster. The mere fact we were teaching at the time of Oregon Trail and Carmen San Diego dates us with fair accuracy. However, I don’t think our age is at issue. The point Susan was trying to make was that it’s important to think hard about just what students are going to learn from any given game or app and whether or not it matches the course or the curriculum. Stephen mentioned the value he saw in Carmen for learning geography in upper elementary grades, and Susan concurred with that. All that said, I’m very happy to have a dissenting voice in the discussion. It’s no fun when everyone just nods their heads in agreement!

  11. Wow, great to see an argument over such an important issue! While I agree with all of what you said, Milena, you might want to consider Susan is writing for our profession, not the one you aspire to, and we are cursed with a lack of effective technology usage in our system.
    As a computer engineer, you will have to stay current or be left behind, given the market forces you are accountable to. However, there is very little priority given to effective tech integration in too many of our schools. Instead, we send kids of to “go play computers” with little or no teacher interaction. A prime example of that is Accelerated Reader. I have extensive data that shows this staple of school technology programs actually slows most students’ reading progress. Yet countless school districts have used it for decades.
    As far as Carmen San Diego and similar programs being fun and you learning from them, I value that perspective, because learning is supposed to be fun, and I still use an online version of Oregon Trail in my classroom.
    I also work part time for an ed tech application company in Mountain View and that is a foundation for their success. My work for them, however, centers around what Susan is talking about, especially being careful to know what we want students to learn BEFORE promoting a program.
    In addition, the members of TICAL are the cutting edge of ed tech in California and have a mission to keep our profession current. Which is quite a task, given the approach many districts take, and Susan does a great job of identifying a huge gap in our system.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *