The floodgates are open for educational computer software. ''There's a tidal wave of software hitting the schools,'' says Gary Olin, a 13-year teacher-turned-computer-education-consultant. The deluge comes from an estimated 800 companies producing and marketing some 6,000 educational programs.
For teachers and administrators with little or no computer training, these are uncharted waters.
A year ago, a large percentage of the programs available were of dubious value. Many were produced by computer programmers who knew little or nothing about educational goals. Or, equally disastrous, by educators dabbling in programming.
''Today, approximately 80 percent of the precollege programs being produced are of a quality I can recommend,'' says LeRoy Finkel, instructional-computing coordinator at SOFTSWAP, a California software clearinghouse.
''If you're teaching in the field of math, music, or language arts at the elementary-school level, and even in some areas of high school math, it is possible to find good software to support your teaching curriculum,'' says Bob Haven, editor and publisher of School Microware Directory.
The general optimism comes after an infant industry floundered for several years. Observers say the industry has learned to float, if not yet to swim. There remain huge gaps in many subject areas. And Mr. Finkel, who spent 19 years as a teacher, 15 of them in computers, says software catalogs still feature programs that don't measure up to teaching standards.
So where does a precollege school with its fresh-out-of-the-box computer turn to select a computer curriculum?Belatedly, many schools are realizing that they have purchased the cart before the horse.
''So many schools spend all their money on hardware,'' says Gary Olin.''That leaves them with nothing for training staff and purchasing software. This can be a fatal error.'' As a computer consultant for Washington township, which includes Indianapolis and suburbs, he has seen this mistake all too often.
First, he says, devise a plan; then set curriculum goals. ''Figure out what you want to do now and two or three years from now,'' Mr. Olin advises. Then buy the software to support it.'' Even the hardware manufacturers back him up.
''Look for the courseware (software), then look for hardware,'' says Bill Gattis, director of Radio Shack's educational division.
To begin the software search, ''order all the software catalogs you can get your hands on,'' says Bob Haven of School Microware Directory.
There are more than 30 catalogs, most free, available from distributors. Some list programs for specific systems only - such as Atari or Apple. Others are more general.
''Catalogs are a good way to get an idea of what's available. Somebody has looked at the software and thought it was half-way decent,'' Mr. Haven explains.
Similar to catalogs, but somewhat less biased, are software directories. Catalogs are meant to sell products, while directories simply provide a service to users. However, directories have the drawback of being dated, especially given the pace of software development.
From the catalogs, or directories, an initial software selection can be made. To narrow the field further, there are a multitude of options.
Mr. Haven recommends finding published reviews of the selected software. His own School Microware Reviews is a source suggested by a number of computer educators. Another outlet of software reviews is Courseware Report Card. A directory published by Classroom Computer News magazine lists six other software-review publications.
Computer education magazines are yet another source of reviews - and provide an easy introduction for the beginner. In the last two years a half-dozen magazines of this genre have appeared on the market.
Software clearinghouses can further expedite selection. These are usually nonprofit, state-run organizations that collect, review, and disseminate software to educators.
For instance, Microcomputer Software and Information for Teachers (MicroSIFT) , SOFTSWAP, and the Minnesota Educational Computer Consortium (MECC) fall into the catagory of being most often mentioned and highly recommended by computer educators.
SOFTSWAP, at the Microcomputer Center at the San Mateo County Office of Education, received a grant to be the software clearinghouse for California schools. It receives public-domain (unrestricted use) software and evaluates and refines it. It also maintains a library of commercially produced software that can be viewed but not copied. It is an excellent source of inexpensive software of varied quality.
MicroSIFT, at the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory in Portland, Oregon , has organized a network of more than 26 sites nationwide where software is evaluated by two teachers and a computer expert over a three-month period. MicroSIFT offers reviews in published form and through an on-line computer data base with Bibliographic Retrieval Services (BRS). This service (too expensive for most schools individually) is intended to serve state education agencies, which in turn provide the information to schools.
MECC, based in St. Paul, Minn., is the nation's only statewide computer-instruction network. It was formed in 1973, and is recognized as one of the leaders in the field of computer education. MECC does some reviews, and can be a relatively inexpensive source of software to out-of-state schools. Discs cost $30; support booklets, an average of $7.
Local user groups - such as county and state resource centers - are another good source of inexpensive software and reviews.
With all the disseminators of software reviews, there are still many uncritiqued programs. Therefore, hands-on evaluation of all software is strongly recommended.
Even if the program has been reviewed, an evaluation is urged. ''It's like reading a movie review,'' Mr. Haven says, ''you may or may not find someone with the same bias as you. And, software is complex. It's easy to be impressed by certain aspects (graphic displays, for example) and overlook important points.''
With software costs ranging from $5 to $1,500 a program, evaluations can save considerable money. One computer educator, when asked about MECC and other inexpensive software sources, said that generally the best (and most expensive) software is commercially produced.
Most large hardware and software companies have salesmen who will bring a test copy to the school. A few companies offer software on a trial basis, but many do not because they fear schools will steal a copy of the software. The SECTOR Project (see accompanying box) has a list of companies that offer preview copies.