So now I know why my hair falls out If only school had been this funky. Charles Leadbeater willingly surrenders to the latest educational CD-Roms

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I am trying to justify the amount of time I spend in a darkened room in front of a flickering screen. I am surrounded by piles of CD-Roms and convinced I'd have got much more out of all those physics classes if I'd stopped paint-stripping the win dows with a Bunsen burner and started studying electromagnetism.

It was the teachers, you see. They didn't make funny bleeping and whooshing sounds when I asked them a question. They were not able to leap effortlessly from the Montgolfier brothers to the Harrier Jet; show a witty animation of a woolly mammoth taking its first experimental swoops into the air, and then whizz back to the brothers M to tell us where they went to school and who their mates were. They couldn't strip out human organs sans blood and gore, and tell us how they work and then whack them back again with a satisfying electronic grunt.

Worst of all, they never made balloons dance when I spelt a word right. But now all that is possible because Dorling Kindersley, previously known to parents everywhere as publishers of big white books for children, has entered the CD-Rom fray. I invited some product testers, who do not wish to be named but who give their ages as three, eight and 11, into my multimedia room and we worked our way through DK's latest offerings.

DK first put a toe into the market in collaboration with Microsoft, producing Dinosaurs and Musical Instruments (both good fun), but now they have released five titles which in theory could keep a child happy and educated for its first 16 years.

We started off with My First Incredible Amazing Dictionary, a souped-up version of the book. It is easy to install and quickly gives you an opening screen with mixed pictures and graphics, a jolly tune and a nice little girl who welcomes you and tells you how to proceed. There is an alphabetic strip across the top of the page and once a letter is summoned up, you can choose from an array of pictures beginning with your chosen letter.

We chose "M" and then "magic" and up popped a larger screen with a short description of our word on one side and a picture of a little girl with a magic hat on the other. Click on the trumpet symbol by the words and a lady will read the description to you. Click on the drawing and rabbits scurry out of the hat. From this point you can start a journey through the program need never end.

So we leapt from magic to tricks to car to left to bicycle to girl to grow to woman, learning how to spell and seeing amusing moving graphics accompanied by a selection of clanks and clunks to liven it all up. There is a useful "backtrack'' that allows you to review your work, a quick-search feature and some jolly games. And you can make good-quality, full-screen printouts of completed work.

There are irritations: the same sounds are repeated too often - especially that of a heavenly harp every time you choose a new word; some of the drawings are dull and there could have been considerably more learning games - but the youngsters gave it an "almost as good as Home and Away''.

Three other titles, The Ultimate Human Body, Eyewitness Encyclopaedia of Science and The Way Things Work, follow the same principles but on a considerably grander scale. The journey through the human body, split into the body as machine, system and organs, is a hoot. I've learnt how to take my pulse properly, how I cry (though not why), why my hair falls out (though no hints about how to get it back in) and what the inside of the penis looks like (it wasn't my idea!).

Each leap around the body is accompanied by well-drawn diagrams and pictures into which you can zoom to find out more detail, usually ending with a microscopic photograph of cells or the inside of an organ. Most screens provide either an audio or visual "extra'' to lift the details off the page.

The Encyclopaedia of Science is equally entertaining. Even the maths section, into which I entered with some trepidation, had me humming equations and feeling at one with Pythagoras. There's a who's who of science that taught us about Hypatia, the daughter of a maths teacher, who developed the hydrometer and the astrolabe; all the thanks she got was to be stoned to death by monks. Our top prizes go to David Macaulay's The Way Things Work and the even more entertaining Mammoth Movies in which our woollyhero cavorts cartoonically, while demonstrating the principle of pressure in relation to firefighting and learning. It's lovingly drawn and presented by a voice with a great line in irony.

Our booby prize goes to Stephen Biesty's Stowaway! You simply have to be interested in the history of ships to appreciate this journey through a cross-sectioned galleon. The drawings are average and it is not executed with enough wit or style to capture the imagination. The actors playing the crew show little sign of life when telling their stories, and there's not even a sea shanty to be heard.

We have some other gripes. We like Big Macs like the rest of the world and accept that America rules the planet, but could we have CD-Roms presented by voices that are not, at best, transatlantic, and at worst someone who sounds like Woody Allen's analyst? Do not be fooled by claims about video footage. It's used sparingly and, on most home computers, very jerkily. But next spring, we are promised titles on nature, sex, history, an atlas and P B Bear's Birthday Party. You can slide the tray with the foo d under the door. We're not coming out.

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