Education: Information unlimited: When one disk can teach anything, schools may not even need classrooms, says David Hewson

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COMPUTER-based interactive learning may be the most significant breakthrough in teaching techniques this century - or a piece of technological hype to match the Sinclair C5. Whatever the truth, few children, parents or teachers will survive the coming year without hearing, and probably experiencing, this latest buzz word in classroom tools.

Most people agree that interactive learning is going to be an important element in educational techniques. The Government, mainly through the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET), is paying for pilot schemes, research and the development of interactive software linked to the national curriculum. By the end of this year, most schools will have the preferred delivery medium for interactive material - CD-ROM, a computer-based version of the audio compact disk - attached to at least one of their computers.

CD-ROMs have been in schools for several years, principally for reference. Several encyclopaedias are available on disk, and a number of newspapers, including the Independent, publish CDs that contain every word they have printed during the year. CD is simply an inexpensive way of storing a vast amount of computer data - 600 million characters per disk - in a convenient form.

A measure of the storage capacity of a CD-ROM disk can be gauged by the CD version of the Oxford English Dictionary: it compresses all 20 volumes on to a single disk, with sophisticated search and retrieval facilities and a normal selling price of pounds 495 plus VAT - a third of the cost of the books themselves. These are fast and easy reference devices, capable of finding information at a speed which would be impossible on paper.

Interactive software is very different. It uses the vast storage capacity of CD to combine text, graphics, sound, and even television-quality video pictures - together known as 'multimedia' - into a teaching or entertainment system that behaves the way the user wants. The simplest analogy is a video cassette that can be rewound instantly to a chosen location by a button on the TV screen, and sent in several directions according to the user's, or the teacher's, wishes. The resulting lesson need not follow a preset track. You can start at Chapter Three and return to Chapter One for more basic work if your answers are not good enough. Equally, the package can let you branch into a number of different lessons as you choose, cross-referring or picking them at random.

The benefits, according to the computer industry, are that more of the lesson is retained by the user than through conventional methods. The sales pitch for interactive learning argues that we retain 10 per cent of what we read, 20 per cent of what we see, 30 per cent of what we see and hear, and 70 per cent of what we see, hear and do. Interactive means doing - whether picking a route through the lesson or some more complicated action.

Educationists generally agree with this view. An evaluation report on CD-ROM in schools by NCET last year concluded: 'CD-ROM is remarkable not only for the sheer volume of data which can be stored, but also for the speed of access and selectivity which can be applied. Over the next few years, the same optical disk technology will support true multi-media products with tremendous potential for education.'

Hard evidence for the efficacy of multimedia as an education resource is now being researched in an NCET project. Interactive software linked into the national maths curriculum, developed from government grants, is being placed in 35 schools on a pilot scheme; a further 200 schools will later become involved.

The report is scheduled to appear at the end of 1994, but Leslie Mapp, the NCET's programme manager responsible for multimedia, says that it is already clear from the use of television in education over the years that there is great potential for interactive media as a powerful learning experience.

'How far it will be adopted by the education system is part of a much wider debate about information technology in education. There are people who see this as a revolution in which the classroom will disappear. Others argue that it can only be used to reinforce existing procedures. Most people will have an opinion somewhere between these two extremes. Our view is that this is a healthy area of debate.'

Putting interactive technology into British schools will be no easy matter. During the Eighties, when computers sprouted in schools everywhere, the government took a largely political decision to promote the Acorn BBC computer, designed and made in Britain. In the outside world, the free market has been merciless on systems based on solely national markets, whatever their merits.

Leaving aside machines largely designed for the home games user, mainstream personal computing now consists of just two 'families' - IBM PC compatibles and the Apple Macintosh series, with the PCs in the dominant position. In British schools, however, Acorn (which is now Italian-owned) remains by far the biggest single supplier. PCs, mainly the Nimbus computer from Research Machines, are in second place, and Apple far behind, though probably growing in importance.

This confused market poses difficulties for schools who want interactive learning, and for publishers who would like to sell the material. Oxford University Press, which published the Oxford English Dictionary on CD, has no plans for an Acorn version because the size of the UK market alone is unlikely to make it viable. Interactive Learning Productions, which is working on National Curriculum French with the aid of a grant from NCET, plans to release an Acorn and a PC version, but not an Apple one.

Nor can schools take it for granted that they will be able to move easily from their present generation of computers into interactive learning simply by adding a CD-ROM drive. Acorn offers an upgrade kit for its computers that adds the necessary drive and sound capabilities. Apple sells the only computers to come with most of the technology already built in, except for the CD-ROM drive. It is now selling one of the most sophisticated CD drives on the market 'at cost', which means pounds 175 a unit for schools, in order to build market share in the educational sector.

For PC-owning schools, the picture can be horrendously complex. Existing CD disks come in a variety of formats and are only now becoming standardised on Microsoft Windows, an add-on 'front end' for PCs which is increasingly popular. However, to run CDs adequately under Windows, a school needs a fairly high-specification PC and a confusing tangle of add-ons such as sound cards. And some early CD titles will still not work well.

When the multimedia technology arrives, along comes the question of choosing the software to run on it. CD reference material is well-established with a wide choice of encyclopaedias and newspaper files. But interactive teaching material has only begun to be developed over the past two years. Some is embarrassingly awful; other packages, such as the Asterix disks for learning French, are enormous fun for students of a certain level, but do not tie in well with the national curriculum. Many are produced in the United States and suffer from an American bias.

Mr Mapp admits that while CD-based reference material is becoming increasingly well established in schools, the future of interactive material is much more muddied. As the education debate continues at a leisurely pace, the rest of the computer world moves on. For the computer companies, a breakthrough for CD technology in education is only a first small step in bringing interactive material to a wider audience. Their real goal is to produce a cheap CD reader for the home that will allow teaching material to be played back through a domestic television set, just like an interactive video recorder.

Almost all the material now being produced for computer CD-ROM is based on a point-and-click design. You do not need a keyboard, so transferring it to a more general home format is not a problem. The first sitting- room CD-ROM player has already appeared on the market in the US and many more are on the way.

Before the future of interactive software in schools is mapped out, the technology may well have been hijacked by faster-moving forces. Sega and Nintendo, the games companies, are both thought to be working on CD versions of their popular titles, with better graphics and sound, all to be run on a common format home CD machine. One of the latest interactive CD titles in America is The Mario Brothers Teach You Typing. Can Learn National Curriculum Physics with Sonic the Hedgehog be far behind?

Further information: the National Council for Educational Technology has a free summary of its report of CD-ROM: Sir William Lyons Road, Science Park, Coventry CV4 7EZ (0203 416994, fax 0203 411418).

UK CD-ROM multimedia educational developers: Eurotalk (Asterix and other language titles, Apple and Windows), 315/317 New King's Road, Fulham, London SW6 4RF (071-371 7711, fax 071-736 6447). Interactive Learning Productions (various titles for Archimedes and Windows under development, including National Curriculum French in conjunction with the NCET) Third Floor, North Street Court, North Street East, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 8HD (091-261 1255, fax 091-230 0944).

(Photograph omitted)