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The textbook conduit

The heavies have weighed into the courseware market. With vaster resources the big textbook publishers - Houghton Mifflin, Addison-Wesley, Scholastic, and others - are clearing a swath through the hundreds of tiny educational software producers.

Initially, the textbook companies simply distributed software developed by outside firms. It's a natural conduit. They already have the contacts, plus the familiarity and trust of educators. Now, they're beginning to offer their own product.

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''In the end, they're the only ones that can do the job,'' says Washington Township (Indianapolis) computer consultant Gary Olin. ''The book companies have trained people who know educational needs and can relate the materials to the classroom. The fact that they can coordinate software with textbook series is a big drawing card.''

But even the large textbook companies are learning the ropes, and the quality varies. ''It ranges from good to bad. They've released some pretty terrible stuff,'' says Bob Haven, editor of School Microware Reviews.

The intergrated curriculum gap is one of the most serious educational software deficiencies. Less than ten percent of the software produced is part of an integrated package, says Haven. The rest of the software, abundant because it is so much cheaper to develop, merely teaches an individual topic such as punctuation at the end of a sentence. The computer hardware companies are working closely with the major software publishers to correct this deficiency.

A number of good effects will result from the textbook publishers' participation, according to LeRoy Finkel of SOFTSWAP. But he worries that there will be an influx of more conservative software. ''True, the quality will be better. The programs will be more user-friendly. But, I think, the more creative efforts will still come from the cottage industry of software producers.''

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