TECHNOFILE

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The Independent Culture
NLast week, with exquisite timing, this column explored the question of what hypermedia could do to enlighten our children about the Germans. You'd never know that we work a fortnight in advance here in the medium of dead trees, would you? This week, an issue that is even more pressing: can CD-ROMs keep our children quiet during the school holidays? To explore the problem, I assembled what market researchers call a "focus group". The three boys and one girl (one aged 10, the others eight) turned out to be more of an unfocus group, who bombarded me with an unbroken fusillade of questions, particularly about the price of CD-ROM equipment.

The overall answer is that it may hurt parental bank accounts, but it works. Though none of the children were familiar with the CD-ROM medium, they took to it like ducks to water, and responded enthusiastically to every disk they chose from the pile of samples. We began with the "Science Edition" of Mr Wonder's Greatest Toyshop On Earth (OmniMedia pounds 29.99), which introduced them to the ubiquitous computer metaphor of rooms. The cartoon toyshop's shelves are stacked with toys, which activate games when clicked. I didn't spot any science myself, but the panel had a good time.

The boys were keen to view Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness Encyclopedia of Space and the Universe (pounds 39.99), but the computer balked at the disk's memory demands. Later, the machine loaded it up without a blink, but the glitch reminded me that whatever it says on the boxes, many CD-ROMs require computers with more than eight megabytes of RAM to work properly. And even if you invest in a powerful machine, the current state of CD-ROM technology is such that parents may expect to be summoned at regular intervals to deal with crashes or assorted technical matters.

We fared better with the companion Eyewitness History of the World, though I had my doubts about the opening screen display. Faced with a choice between an image of a military helicopter and one of Martin Luther King, how many children are going to click on a middle-aged man with a moustache? In the event, the boys dived headlong into a video clip of Hiroshima, then seized on a quiz option which enabled them to compete against each other.

Peter Rabbit's Number Garden (Mindscape pounds 29.99), a lovely animation of the familiar Potter pictures, made a refreshing change to basic mathematical skills, for children from four to eight, and our panel loved doing the sums which enabled Mrs Tittlemouse to sweep the creepy-crawlies out of her house.

Their favourite, though - girl and boys alike - was Ghosts (Funsoft pounds 12.99). Introduced by Christopher Lee, it offers a whole house to explore, with computer-generated graphics that I found as entertaining as the children did. Unfortunately, it purports to be a balanced inquiry into whether ghosts exist. Its idea of balance is to present as "experts" four believers and Dr Susan Blackmore, who stands out in the rationality wars as the one individual with a foot in both the skeptical [sic] and the parapsychological camps. Her impact on children viewing this disk will be limited precisely because she is pleasant and reasonable. This is a job for a two-fisted debunker like James Randi, confined in Ghosts to a weaselly-worded footnote.

The bad news, then, is that superstition beat arithmetic. The good news is that arithmetic was very popular all the same. I still don't believe in ghosts, but I do now believe there's such a thing as edutainment.

Marek.kohn@mcr1.poptel.org.uk

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