Multimedia CD-Roms - compact discs that you play on a computer the way you play audio discs on a CD player - provide text and pictures on screen like those in a book, but with the addition of sound, animation and video clips.
The advantages in many subjects are obvious - in science and technology, diagrams can move to illustrate processes; in history and geography, you can visit people in places you're studying on video; in foreign language study you can hear words read as you read them on the screen. But the visual appeal and versatility of multimedia mean that it enhances the teaching of almost any subject, for any age-group. There are now multimedia CD-Roms to cover everything from learning the alphabet to A-level history, and the list grows every day.
The Internet, too, is a rich source of information, providing learners with immediate access to the libraries and research bases of the world - and to the minds, experience and advice of other on-line people everywhere. The World Wide Web, a subset of the Net, is a showcase for organisations and individuals, with pictures, sound and text to offer via the telephone line. Anyone in search of educational experiences can plug into Web sites as varied as the Natural History Museum, the monarchs of Great Britain - even Blue Peter, including a "One I Made Earlier" page.
Computers have long proved themselves useful for children needing extra practice in basic skills, and there are plenty of software programmes about to help them (including one called Wordshark 2, highly recommended by the British Dyslexia Association, which takes up six floppy disks but is now available on just one CD-Rom). Also useful for children with literacy difficulties is a new generation of junior word-processing packages that "talk" to whoever's using them - reading back what he or she has written to provide instant feedback. This can make a real difference to children's presentation of work, and also appears to improve literacy skills in general. Word-processing is, of course, a useful skill for students of any age or ability - homework assignments and course work are always enhanced by being neatly organised, typed, spell-checked and presented in print- out form, perhaps with added graphics.
There is more to come. Christina Preston, a computer expert based at the Institute of Education in London, reckons that the next great leap forward will be in terms of "interactivity" software programs. Children on their own can use open-ended software to hypothesise, explore and realise their own ideas. Programs such as Hyperstudio, which allow them to create their own multimedia essays, are accessible by even the youngest children, and operate according to their specific requirements. For the basics of education, an interactive program can tailor simple learning tasks to individual children's needs - deciding how fast each one should move through a subject, and how much and what sort of practice is needed at each stage.
"Computers can now do a lot of basic, judgemental tasks a teacher does," Christina Preston says, "maybe more objectively, and often less threateningly from the child's point of view. They will never replace teachers, but they can cover many routine learning tasks, especially in the home, where a teacher isn't available." It won't be long before the computer is genuinely a home teacher, individualising tuition for your child.
How, then, does one go about plugging one's children into this brave new educational world? In my family's case, we started by saving for several years. To take advantage of everything mentioned above, you need a pretty powerful basic computer, with plenty of memory; a CD-Rom drive for the multimedia software, with a decent video card and sound card to give you high-quality movies and sound; a printer for printing out children's work (colour, if you can afford it); and a modem for access to the Internet. Until recently this hardware came in bits but newer machines tend to have more built-in elements.
The advice of the experts is to spend as much money on the basic computer as you can - getting as many built-in parts as possible, and ensuring plenty of memory for future add-ons. You'll have to choose a particular system - PCs and Macintoshes dominate home computers, especially for educational use - and remember that software for one system won't work on another.
A big consideration is back-up support, both in installing your computer and in dealing with any problems that arise. Make sure you know exactly what technical support is available with any hardware (and software) you buy. It's also worth investigating what software is "bundled" with a particular machine. Software is not cheap - CD-Roms cost about pounds 50 each - so it makes sense to get as good a deal as possible out of the starter pack supplied with your computer.
You may find, as our family did, that a small local firm which builds a computer to your specifications offers a better package than a more anonymous high street chain: you can negotiate exactly what you want, and experts are available when you need help. Another possibility is buying through an "at-home" computing company, such as Habitech, which offers advice and help with installing a machine, plus technical back- up.
For software, get an overview from catalogues and magazine reviews (Parents and Computers magazine is good at avoiding jargon). But word-of-mouth is often the best recommendation - so talk to other parents and take advantage of organisations such as the excellent Parents Information Network and the British Dyslexia Association (see "How do you find out more").
Finally, once you've bought the computer, don't tuck it away in your child's room and expect it to work its magic all alone. Educational software gives best results when an adult works alongside the child, or at least keeps an interested eye on what's happening. If you position the computer in a communal area of the house, you can supervise what's going on and keep up an appropriate level of involvement.
You may even find yourself becoming hooked into these new ways of learning. As a dyed-in-the-wool book person, I never expected to be converted - but an hour's exposure to multimedia left me feeling like Caxton the day he set eyes on that printing press. The future is here ... it's electronic ... and it's amazing.
Sue Palmer is a teacher and writer. Her World Wide Web page offers starting points for grammar and spelling: http://www.nuff.ox.ac.uk/ users/martin/ languagelive.htm
HARDWARE, SOFTWARE, CD-ROMS, THE WEB: WHERE TO GO FOR ADVICE
PIN (Parents Information Network) is a national independent advice centre. It is introducing a PIN "kitemark" to indicate high-quality educational software and produces excellent parent guides - Choosing a Computer, Choosing Software, Computers Supporting Homework and Computers Supporting Learning Difficulties. Further details from PIN, Box 1577, London W7 3ZT.
For help in selecting and installing hardware, Habitech (for PCs) and its sister company MacFriendly (for Macs) specialise in home computers, and provide training in your home before and after you buy through them. They have a telephone hotline for technical support and send engineers to sort out your machine if it goes wrong (0181-334 0905).
For an overview of what's available in multimedia, Cambridge CD-Rom provides a free catalogue of more than 850 selected educational titles (01449 774658).
For the British Dyslexia Association's computer information pack, send SAE to BDA, 98 London Road, Reading RG1 5AU.
See up-to-date software at the BDA Conference on Computers and Dyslexia for parents and teachers - University of Surrey, 5 September (01482 465589)
Wordshark 2 is pounds 69 on CD-Rom from Whitespace (0181-748 5927)
For information on talking computers, contact ANSYST (01223 420101).
Microsoft plans to offer "family technology evenings" at local schools. In the meantime, the best way to find out about the Net is to get someone who's already online to give you a demonstration. Ask about user groups, search machines and the World Wide Web.
A good starting-point for the Web is the National Council for Educational Technology: http://ncet.csv. warwick.ac.uk
Natural History Museum: www.nhm.ac.uk
Blue Peter: www.bbene.org.uk/tv/children. blue_peter
GETTING STARTED: ESSENTIAL TIPS
Spend as much money on the basic computer as you can.
Get as many built-in parts as possible and plenty of memory space.
Make sure you know exactly what technical support is available.
Software is not cheap so get a good deal out of the starter pack supplied with your computer.
A small local firm may offer a better overall package than a more anonymous high-street chain.
To find out about software, get an overview from catalogues and magazine reviews. But word of mouth is often the best.
Don't tuck away the computer in your child's room. Educational software gives best results when an adult works alongside the child.Reuse content