Beware! Avoid Carmen Sandiego Syndrome

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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.



11 thoughts on “Beware! Avoid Carmen Sandiego Syndrome

  1. Michael Simkins

    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. Harry Dickens

    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. Susan Brooks-Young

    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. Kathy Schrock

    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. James Scoolis

    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. Susan Brooks-Young

    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. Stephen Vaughn

    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. Susan Brooks-Young

    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. Pingback: Carmen Sandiego Syndrome « ICT4D @ Tulane

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