A MISSION TO ENTERTAIN

A little learning is a pleasurable thing when it comes with colour pictures, animation, video, music and graphics.Our junior panellists try out CD-Rom encyclopaedias and games
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The Independent Culture
EVEN the most determined technophobe can't fail to get excited about the way CD-Roms bring information to life. For those unfamiliar with the concept, these computer discs can hold a phenomenal amount of information: one CD weighing just a few grams can, for example, store all 44 million words in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The advantage in educational terms is that they are multimedia; text, pictures, animation, video, music and other sounds can all be accessed in seconds. If, for example, a group of children were learning about the civil rights movement in the US, they could see and hear Martin Luther King giving his "I have a dream" speech, instead of just reading about it.

The other important thing about CD-Roms, of course, is that they are interactive. Learning is no longer just a matter of passively receiving information: you can become actively involved in the process yourself, answering quizzes, manipulating images, summoning up pictures or music, and pasting together your own notebook of words, images and sounds on-screen.

CD-Roms are available on everything from the Bible to pornography, via the annals of Manchester United - plus, of course, numerous games of the zapping tendency. Here we look at educational software aimed at school- age children, which is likely to be of interest to parents who have a CD-Rom drive at home, or are considering buying one. Encyclopaedias are one of the most popular types for parents to buy. They often include atlases, animations of such things as the mechanism of the heart, and video and audio clips of historic events.

A group of older children between the ages of 12 and 14 tried out six encyclopaedia CD-Roms for us. Younger children gave us their opinions of five educational games on CD-Rom aimed at primary-school level. The equipment needed to play CD-Roms - a CD-Rom drive, sound card and speakers - will set you back at least £200, not including the cost of the computer. You will need a fairly powerful IBM-compatible PC with Windows, or an Apple Mac (although not all CD-Roms are available for the latter), and a colour monitor.

THE PANEL (YOUNGER CHILDREN): Lisa Gaul (10), Anthony William Killick (9), Amar Carmody (10), Abeda Haque (9), Chloe White (8), all at Barnet Hill School, Hertfordshire. Teacher Maureen O'Shaughnessy added her comments from an educational perspective.

THE TEST: The panel gave the CD-Roms marks for how easy it was to find their way around them, how good the pictures were, how much they enjoyed listening to the music and sound, how much they learned from the disks, and how much fun they were overall.

THE PANEL (OLDER CHILDREN): James Onalaja (13), Isha Campbell (12), Donya Coward (13), Tran Ha Thanh (14), all students at Holland Park School, west London.

THE TEST: They looked up what each encyclopaedia had to say about the city of Lagos and the solar system. They gave each marks for how easy it was to find information and how useful; graphics, pictures, video clips, and any speech or music; and how interesting they were overall.

CD-ROMS FOR YOUNGER CHILDREN

***MATH BLASTER: IN SEARCH OF SPOT

(ABLAC Learning Works £39.95, for PC)

A space adventure (nothing to do with Spot the Dog) for the 6- 12 age group, using animation, graphics and sound effects to develop maths skills. This was the CD-Rom most akin to a computer game, which may explain why it was the one children enjoyed the most - and why Maureen O'Shaughnessy was slightly dubious about its educational value. She found some of it repetitive, but most of the children fthought they had learnt a lot. "I thought Math Blaster was very interesting because it helps you learn your sums in a kind of activity way," said Abeda Haque.

**CREATIVE WRITER

(Microsoft £45, for PC and Mac)

Again for all ages, this program aims to stimulate children into making up their own stories by providing ideas and pictures to get them going (there is some overlap with Fine Artist). It can also be used to make newsletters, birthday cards and banners. As with Fine Artist, some time might be needed to get the most out of it; some testers did not take to it immediately. "I liked the pictures you could choose to write about," said Anthony William Killick. Chloe White said: "I liked it when we had to write a story. I disliked it when I pressed the wrong button" - a feeling familiar to most computer users.

**FINE ARTIST

(Microsoft £45, for PC and Mac)

This CD-Rom, suitable for all ages, allows you to create your own pictures by using source material such as shapes, cartoons, and colours. You can make images bigger or smaller, move them around, and combine them with such techniques as painting and calligraphy. Despite its exciting potential, Fine Artist was only moderately successful with the panel. As Maureen O'Shaughnessy pointed out, it takes a lot of time to become familiar with all the possibilities. "I couldn't find my way around it," said Anthony William Killick, "but I liked the pictures."

**BUSYTOWN

(Paramount Interactive £53.99, for PC and Mac)

This CD-Rom, for 3-7s, uses characters from American author Richard Scarry's Busy World books to develop language, maths and other skills. Though the younger children at whom it is aimed would probably learn more, it gave older ones a lot of fun. "I loved this game," said Amar Carmody, "even though I didn't learn anything." Lisa Gaul thought it was more "for younger children who are learning to read". Maureen O'Shaughnessy said its main benefit was in encouraging children to observe and discuss what characters were doing. It would be best used with an adult, or in pairs.

****THE WAY THINGS WORK

(Dorling Kindersley £79.99, for PC)

A multimedia version of Dorling Kindersley's book of the same name, this CD-Rom demonstrates how inventions work, from lasers to lightbulbs. Intended for age seven upwards, it will soon be available for Macs as well. The children enjoyed operating the animated working models; by clicking the mouse on a lever, for example, they could see how a mechanical digger worked. "I learnt a lot," said Amar Carmody, "such as how a motor and a telescope work, and the sounds were excellent." Maureen O'Shaughnessy's verdict: "Informative and relevant to today's curriculum."

CD-ROMS FOR OLDER CHILDREN

**WORLD BOOK NEW ILLUSTRATED INFORMATION FINDER

(World Book £99, for PC and Mac)

This encyclopaedia would have been rated more highly had it not lacked sound to match the high quality of text and pictures. Donya Coward commented: "The graphics were brilliant, but they would have been better if there had been sound." The students found the information detailed: "It was very useful," said James Onalaja, "perhaps a little too useful, depending on your standard." He thought it would suit adults better than children. Most testers found it easy to locate information they wanted. A new version with sound, animation, and video will be available in April.

**COMPTON'S INTERACTIVE ENCYCLOPAEDIA 1995

(Compton's NewMedia £69.99, for PC or Mac)

Despite the guiding hand of Captain Picard (successor to Captain Kirk at the controls of the Starship Enterprise), the pupils didn't rate this a favourite. They did not find the information as useful or interesting as in some others. "You couldn't find much on what you wanted," Isha Campbell complained. And Donya Coward said: "The maps weren't that good, and didn't show you many places when you zoomed in." On the plus side, panellists voted pictures and graphics among the best. There is a facility to create your own multimedia show from text and the audio, video, and picture collection.

****GROLIER MULTIMEDIA ENCYCLOPAEDIA 1995T T T TT Y

(Grolier Electronic £99.99, for PC and Mac)

The pupils' favourite. They gave it high marks on all counts. "The best of them all," said Isha Campbell. "It was fun, very easy to use, and the information was great." Tran Ha Thanh agreed: "I think it was brilliant, with all the graphics and sound." He could scarcely be dragged away from its animations of the solar system. Donya Coward found it "very detailed in its information, both the written explanations and the audio". The encyclopaedia's features include multimedia maps and audiovisual essays on such subjects as space exploration.

*HUTCHINSON MULTIMEDIA ENCYCLOPAEDIA 1995

(Attica £58.69, available on PC only)

This will appeal to those trying to prop up the dike of cultural identity against a flood of Americana: it is the only British-edited CD- Rom encyclopaedia on the market. However, our students felt the information was sketchy compared to that in other encyclopaedias. Entries were shorter and less detailed, making it less suitable for in-depth research. The pictures and graphics came in for some praise, though. "These were the only good thing about it," said Isha Campbell. "The audio wasn't very good, and the information wasn't very interesting or helpful." Tran Ha Thanh liked it, however.

***ENCARTA 95

(Microsoft £85, for PC)

This best-selling encyclopaedia was a close runner-up to the Grolier. A Mac version is due in March (and the less advanced Encarta 94 is available for Macs now). It matched the winner in sounds, pictures and quality of information, but pupils found it slightly more difficult to find what they were looking for - despite a popular feature, a "wizard", to help them find their way round it. "The graphics were very good," said James Onalaja, "and the information was interesting and well presented." Tran Ha Thanh complained, however, that pictures and sounds got in the way of information.

STOCKISTS

Encyclopaedias: World Book Information Finder from World of Education (0734 773423); Compton's Interactive from Virgin, Dixons and other stores; Grolier Multimedia from Dixons, W H Smith and other retailers, or contact Children's Computing (0869 324324); Hutchinson Multimedia from Dixons, HMV, PC World, Currys and independent computer shops, or contact Attica (0865 791346); Microsoft Encarta from Dixons, PC World, Toys'R'Us, Currys, HMV, Virgin, John Lewis, Game and Staples. Younger children's CD-Roms: Math Blaster from most software retailers, or contact ABLAC Learning Works (0626 332233); The Way Things Work from computer retailers as well as selected bookshops, or tel 071-753 3488; Microsoft Fine Artist and Creative Writer available from same retailers as Encarta; Busytown from computer retailers, or phone 021 706 6000 for stockists.

COMPILED BY STELLA YARROW

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