I manage the independent software review process set up by Parents Information Network (PIN), a national independent organisation helping parents to support their children's learning with computers. Six months ago, PIN conducted a national survey of its membership and an astonishing 90 per cent specifically asked for independent software recommendations.
Perhaps such unanimity is not surprising. If you've tried scanning the shelves of software in your high street shop or superstore, you will know that there is a need for some means of making sense of the lavishly designed boxes which promise all under the labels of "educational" and "national curriculum". There's no quality standard in the use of these terms and, in the main, you can't try before you buy.
One obvious answer is to turn to the equal number of shelves groaning under the weight of computer magazines, some featuring reviews and comment on "kids' software" or "edutainment" titles. While these provide a much- needed service, the professional reviewer is not necessarily best placed to make the level of critical judgement required by many parents. Do they take long enough to make real qualitative judgements on content and depth? Has the reviewer seen the software actually being used by children? Do they have any educational expertise?
On the educational front, there are listings of much of the CD-Rom software available to schools. This could seem the answer to many parents' prayers - until they are confronted by the sheer volume of titles. But if you want to know which ones to choose, and which are most appropriate for home use, a comprehensive list of reviews still leaves you with a lot of questions.
PIN has established a review process that aims to identify the best educational software for use at home. This leads to independent recommendations and the award of PIN's Quality Symbol. I direct this process and have spent many years working with teachers and parents in selecting and using software.
Unlike any other review process, PIN tests software over a period of three months.
The initial selection is made by panels of practising teachers who judge the software for educational credibility, having used the titles themselves and tried them with children. The best are then passed on to families who use the software over two months.
The findings of the PIN review process are subject to no form of commercial compromise or advantage. Only a few packages make the grade each time; these are selected because they have the depth of content, quality of design, educational value and enjoyment factor to make them more than a short-lived wondern
For a free newsletter, send a 39p sae to PIN, PO Box 1577, London W7 3ZT. The Parents' Information Network will be at Bett 97, the educational technology trade show, from 8 to 11 January at Olympia, west London. Parents can visit PIN at Stand 645 on Saturday 11 January. Bett ticket hotline: 0181-984 7711.