Homework tips for wired-up families

helping with the homework part 2; Schoolchildren are increasingly expected to research their projects, and computer software can make all the difference - especially if Dad is prepared to vacate the keyboard. Jerome Burne offers a guide to educational CD- Roms.
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You've all seen the ads. A happy family, with that Fifties glow, clustered around the computer, all learning together as they dip deep into the Internet.

However, if my own experience of home computer use is typical, even by the flexible standards of adland this is a spectacularly inaccurate picture.

I'm a journalist who uses the Internet daily to research articles, and I find that the reality is me at the keyboard, grim-faced: "Why the hell won't this thing download? Gabriel, have you been messing with the settings again?" The boys sulk because they want to get on the Web to play a game that involves blasting aliens in tunnels.

Though I have three children whose homework might benefit from computer research, until now I've downloaded only the occasional article. And the ads are getting to me.

There may be an amazing, ever-increasing range of information available on CD-Rom, while the Web is littered with sites that promise to do your homework. But what exactly do you use? Is it practical to surf for details of the Vikings?

First step is to get Encarta, the Microsoft encyclopaedia, on CD-Rom, because it seems to be the gold standard; it gets glowing reviews from IT commentators.

But teachers complain about homework consisting of regurgitated slabs. So if going on-line is to be worthwhile, it must produce stuff that Encarta doesn't have.

Reviewers are also impressed by Encarta's Web site; it not only has monthly updates that can be downloaded to your computer, it also has a library of newspaper and magazine articles.

For comparison I get another CD-Rom encyclopaedia - The World Book - which has also been well reviewed and has monthly updates and a link to a different journal library.

For my Web searches I use regular search engines such as AltaVista, Hotbot and Excite. If those names don't mean anything to you, they soon will.