Riding The Educational Software Wave

Ask Jan Davidson whether technology for kids makes a difference, and you soon will become a believer. "Success is a great motivator," she says. "If one of these programs makes kids more confident in their ability to learn, that will help them do well in school. The result is that they'll love learning, they'll learn the rest of their lives, and they'll take responsibility for their own learning."

Davidson is the preeminent pioneer of the education-software business and of what's now called edutainment. For the record, she hates the word: "I hope our software does not bastardize education, which is what the word suggests." But she doesn't fight it: It's making a difference to kids--and more profoundly, it's finally having an impact in schools.

And it has made Davidson a successful entrepreneur. In the late 1970s, after a dozen years of teaching, Davidson founded a nonprofit tutoring center in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., and quickly discovered computers. For $3,000, she bought a black-and-white Apple II and with a friend wrote programs to drill students in vocabulary and math while she tutored others. "It could only handle capital letters," she recalls.

Soon, Davidson began selling her wares through an Apple Computer Inc. catalog. But the computer maker quit the catalog business. After searching vainly for a software publisher, Davidson decided to go it alone. Her company grew modestly until 1991, when edutainment put it into overdrive.

Today, Davidson & Associates, which she runs with her husband, Bob, has annual sales of $60 million and is No.2 in edutainment after Broderbund Software, which has just agreed to a $400 million-plus buyout from Electronic Arts. The Davidsons say they're not interested in selling. The company's stock went public at 13 in April and now trades at 22 3/4, making their stake worth $290 million.

"SWEET TEACHER." Davidson, now 50, hardly seems the tycoon. "She comes off as this incredibly sweet teacher--disarmingly genuine and warm," says Ken Wasch, executive director of the Software Publishers Assn. "But she has tough and sophisticated business instincts." Five years ago, she was smart enough to realize she needed management help. "I was in over my head," says Jan. She and Bob interviewed candidate after candidate, but she wasn't comfortable turning her baby over to any of them. So, she offered her husband the post. Bob quit his job at Parsons Corp., an engineering and construction company, to become chairman and chief executive.

These days, Jan focuses on creating the company's titles--and working tirelessly as an education activist. She coaxes businesses to give more to education, goads competitors to build more educational value into their products, and prods teachers to push for change. Thanks to the popularity of edutainment titles, it's easier to get her message across. "I no longer spend time answering questions like 'Why would I need a computer in the classroom?'" she says. "Now, it's 'What's the best way to implement a computer in the classroom?'"

Davidson doesn't claim to have all the answers. Competitors who are further along in creating interactive multimedia products say Davidson's big hit, Math Blaster, is hardly cutting-edge--a drill-and-practice program in video-game drag. But you will get no apologies from Davidson. "It's not what I want to be remembered for, but I'm not ashamed of it," she says. What counts is her unhidden educational agenda: Before grade-schoolers can shoot space trash, they must complete a drill-and-practice section on fractions. Even in the 21st century, says Davidson, there won't be a shortcut to memorizing those basics.

HOLISM. In the future, she predicts, software will not be so narrow: "We're learning that we don't learn in subject areas; we learn more holistically." One step in that direction is Davidson's Cruncher program. The spreadsheet for fifth-graders and up includes a word-processing program so kids can write a description of how they tackled a problem--in social studies or science or health.

Next on Davidson's plate: electronic textbooks. The company has deals with several publishers. Along with Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., it has a $1.2 million contract from the giants of textbook buying--California, Texas, and Florida--to write a multimedia history and social-science curriculum for junior high schools. If it catches on, Davidson will once more be making a difference in the classroom--15 years after she left.

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