The educational market has always been targeted by CD-ROM publishers, and although some still show a lack of understanding of the needs of teachers and the curriculum, the word educational adds a patina of respectability to any CD-ROM product. It can also add significantly to its sales. Over the last two years the government has […]
The educational market has always been targeted by CD-ROM publishers, and although some still show a lack of understanding of the needs of teachers and the curriculum, the word educational adds a patina of respectability to any CD-ROM product. It can also add significantly to its sales. Over the last two years the government has pumped ú9.5m into CD-ROM-related spending into UK primary schools. The latest figures from the Department of Education, Science & Employment shows the average secondary school spent ú23,950 on computer equipment in 1993-1994. Faced with this potentially lucrative market, CD-ROM publishers are still making something of a fist of it. Earlier this year Coventry-based and government-funded National Council for Educational Technology published its guide to CD-ROMs in education, containing reviews of more than 400 titles aimed at primary school children. Since 1994 a Council field officer has visited around 55 of the primary schools, to find out exactly how children and teachers actually use the products.
To date, many of the publishers aiming at the school CD-ROM markets are new to the educational market – and it shows. There are, of course, lots of issues about how to design interfaces and software for young children but quite apart from that, Dave Hassell, programme manager at the Council, said that anyone approaching the market needs to ask themselves a list of questions about exactly how the disk will be used in the classroom and what the needs of the teachers are. Get these right and you may have a hit on your hands. Get it wrong and no matter how good the raw information on the CD-ROM, it is likely to gather dust and a poor reputation. First and foremost, said Hassell, authors need to ask is it relevant to the National Curriculum?… they really need to buy themselves a copy of it and read it. The primary school curriculum is divided into a number of stages for older and younger children, and yet there are still companies out there that mismatch content and linguistic level – producing CDs that would be appropriate for stage one, except for the language, which would baffle even a much older child. And its not just a question of vocabulary, said Hassell, there’s also the question of how much text you put on the screen… young children are just not going to scroll down much. Then it’s back to how it can be used. One of the more common complaints in the CD-ROM review is that the titles typically come with little or no support materials. Teachers simply don’t have time to explore the CD-ROM’s contents and workings in full.
By Chris Rose
What each package should have, said Hassell, is a brief description of what is in there, advice on how to get started… what they could use this for in tomorrow’s lesson. Thereafter, they like to know what else they might do with the package, how they might be able to incorporate it in to their general teaching. It’s the fitness of purpose argument… the teacher must know exactly how value will be added to their lesson. Another field officer, Anne Sparrowhawk, said that when she asked schools which three titles they had used most A major initial concern was to get going as quickly as possible. The really good teaching packages are the most flexible ones, said Hassell. If you are using a product that can only be used in one way, then it’s limited. If the assets on the disk are good then they should be able to be used in a number of ways in the classroom. Take for instance, a hypothetical CD-ROM about volcanoes, The author might say ‘these are all the things you need to know about the formation of volcanoes,’ but the teacher might want to be able to search for images to use with a creative writing class, said Hassell. The same flexibility could be extended to supporting multiple age groups from one CD. Hassell pointed out that the most expensive and difficult part of CD-ROM production is getting the ‘assets’ together in the first place. And if you have a wonderful set of assets why not have two s
ets of text or audio? he asked. Continuing on the subject of documentation, many teachers are bemused by the stringent standard copyright notices that plaster the cases of most CD-ROMs. We get quite a lot of phone calls from teachers who want to know what they should do, said Hassell. The same CD-ROMs that have explanations of how students can cut and paste and edit text and pictures into their own work will often be accompanied by lengthy pieces of legalese prohibiting the copying in any form of the contents. Developers should make it clear what the appropriate use is, Hassell said. And so to the technical niceties of developing for children. Some of the things that the Council has discovered are far from intuitive. Big colourful buttons may sound like a good idea, but in fact can be so attractive that the young child will click on them without actually examining the page first. Icons need to be chosen with care since they will not necessarily be interpreted the same way by a child as by an an adult.
Check the software by testing it out on children, said Hassell – but don’t make the mistake of using the brightest, most motivated children you can find, the results will be skewed. One of the things that he would really like to see, but which he said educational packages still lack is the ability to do fuzzy searches. Spelling isn’t likely to be the eight-year-old’s strong suit so if the software can make intelligent guesses about what is really meant by the search term Iful tower so much the better. Finally, a word for all those companies who are producing general-purpose products, in the hope that schools will buy them too. The market is going to get a lot tougher over the next year. At the moment, generalists prevail, but, said Hassell, the big educational publishers, who have plenty of curriculum experience, are turning their attention towards the CD-ROM market. The Council holds occasional seminars on educational CD-ROM design. The next will be held in Coventry on October 3 and costs ú45.