Despite knowing that the educational value of computers motivates parents to buy, computer retailers make a poor job of selling software to make their customers' wishes come true. Plenty of educational software titles for the PC or Mac never make it to retailers' shelves. Andre Wagstaff, program manager at the National Council for Educational Technology, believes this is in part because education remains a specialist market made up of hundreds of small publishers; a profile which does not fit the profit strategy of multiple retailers aiming to sell a lot of programs from a handful of publishers.
Shoppers will need to look elsewhere. Catalogues from the big educational publishers and distributors such as AVP, Rickitt and Tag Developments give a useful overview. Think of them as an Argos catalogue: useful for ideas although you may end up buying elsewhere.
Most education subject areas are over-published, so choosing from the wealth of titles available is your next step. Mr Wagstaff has no doubt where parents should start. "Think of a CD-Rom as a box to put things in. The first thing you need to decide is what you want to put in your box," he says. Teachers can help. They will know the national curriculum requirements for your child and will have a view on where your child may need help. Compatibility with the national curriculum is a blanket claim made by all "edutainment" titles. In general, titles originating in the UK follow the curriculum more closely than their US equivalents, no matter how much the publisher has localised an American program for resale in the UK.
Having decided what you want from your program, reviews, demo discs and exhibitions are all useful in choosing a title. The major exhibition is BETT, held at Olympia in January. Although not open to the public, parents can visit if they approach their children's school and attend on its behalf.
It is no surprise that publishers chase recommendations to splash on the box, but be warned. Software publishing is awash with awards, star ratings and approval schemes and choosing on the strength of recommended stickers can be tricky. For reliable, independent reviews, NCET's Web site has assessments by headteachers and subject specialists of more than 400 software titles with three screen shots per title.
One or two software titles have started to bear an approved stamp from the Parents' Information Network, an advisory service partly sponsored by the big hardware and software companies. PIN will not reveal details of its reviewers so the value of its approval symbol beyond marketing is difficult to judge. It also asks software publishers featuring its symbol to bundle PIN sales literature with software titles.
One independent source of information on computers and learning is the the British Dyslexia Computer Committee, based at the University of Hull's psychlogy department. The committee runs computer clubs across the country so has first-hand experience of seeing programs in use by children outside school. Its guides on software, which include maths, literacy and early learning, are packed with information and useful addresses as well as software reviews.
You may be lucky and find the program you choose is available on a sale or return basis from the publisher, or there may be a demonstration disc. Dorling Kindersley receives hundreds of requests every week for its demo disc and publishers such as Macmillan and Sierra have followed suit with free demo discs direct from the publisher. If not, you are unlikely to be able to try before you buy as the major retail chains stop short of letting you test products in store.
Buying software without playing it first is like buying clothes without trying them on. Customers demand fitting rooms from fashion retailers: software shoppers need to start demanding their own fitting rooms.