The age of the barbarian

I'm one of those people who like books," is a common response when you talk about CD-Rom reference works. The unspoken implication is that you are a soul-less barbarian who has been plotting for years to get libraries incinerated, leather bindings shredded and vellum classified as a banned substance.

At the other end of the scale is the computer nerd who sees all CD-Roms like Hale-Bopp - as signs on the road to salvation. The nerd, though, is closer to the truth; we have moved into another age.

But the disadvantages of reference works on CD-Rom are hardly ever mentioned. They are slow, most new ones require a high-specification machine, you need a high level of skills to search them properly, and they take some time to get into. By the time the disc is found, the machine fired up and the software located, a couple of minutes have passed. Compare that with lifting a book off the shelf.

Nevertheless, backward glances to the past should be discouraged. Monks in the scriptoriums almost certainly looked with disdain at the plainness of printing, ignoring the fact that their beautiful hand-produced books were available only to the few. Most information is now digital. We are moving to a digital age and should encourage pupils to live there, and give them the skills to do so.

CD-Roms, though, can cause problems for many children. Texts in mainstream encyclopedias are inaccessible to most children. Encarta offers enough diversions - videos, maps, animations and sound clips - to mask the paucity of information being ingested. The main problem remains that many children lack the search skills needed to extract the information locked beneath the shiny surface. It is probably harder to carry out an effective search on a CD-Rom than in a paper encyclopedia. And few schools have developed whole-school policies to deal with this.

Even when information is found, only a minority will put the information on a disc and take it away to work on. Most students still print out. Probably the most helpful service a librarian or teacher can provide for a pupil is to ban the printer. Only when the material is kept in its digital form can the really worthwhile tasks be carried out.

It is relatively easy to construct work cards that will set students off on some de-contextualised task. "Use Encarta to find the place of birth of JF Kennedy and how many brothers he had." Far better that the task should be related to a subject that fires the student or is connected to work in which he or she is already taking part.

Any information taken from a disc must be transformed - change the audience, edit it, change the appearance, put it into a different medium. All those tasks will ensure that the students read the information, rather than just place it in a folder and forget about it. Programs such as HyperStudio, Illuminatus and Odyssey encourage teachers and students to think about the information they have acquired and how to link it with other information. Adventurous schools might even like to think about constructing an intranet (an internal Internet) with their own reference area.

It is possible to run multimedia reference works across a network. Lisa Penton, network products marketing manager at RM, says the company is using software to copy multimedia CD-Roms on to network servers, so users will access the CD-Rom, not from the CD but from the server hard disc. This will increase speed and allow video and sound to go across the wires. Ms Penton points out that RM's nine-gigabyte hard disc server can hold 16 CDs, and its dedicated server will hold up to 30 titles. A network like that could transform the use of CD-Rom in secondary schools.

A favourite work is the Oxford English Dictionary. It is the one I leave in the CD drive - a default disc, a desert island CD-Rom. If you love language there is no better monument to its complexity and variety. It is better in every way than the paper equivalent - easier to search and cheaper. But it is so important that it should be in every school. This is our language. If we made as much fuss about our language as we do about our currency, the Government would give a copy of the disc to every school.Other Oxford discs are the 3 in 1 Bilingual Dictionary (French, Spanish, German), The New Shorter Oxford and the Concise Oxford, which now has sound to help with pronunciation.

Schools regard encyclopedias as essential. For primary schools there is the specially written Micropedia 2nd Edition, which has reasonably simple text and comes with two discs so it can be used on more than one machine. The Oxford Children's Encyclopedia is splendid in the way it is related to the UK curricula. It works well for upper primary and lower secondary.

Dorling Kindersley has recently released The Encyclopedia of Science 2.0 and Earth Quest, a guide to geology and geophysics for key stages 2, 3 and 4. DK also has The World Reference Atlas. All have been produced with DK's usual attention to detail and style.

Microsoft has brought out Microsoft Bookshelf: the British Reference Collection. On one disc there is Chambers Dictionary, the Hutchinson Concise Encyclopaedia, Longman's Thesaurus, A Dictionary of Quotations, The Internet Directory and Encarta Concise World Atlas. The disc also contains images, videos, animations and sounds. It will run on Windows 3.1 and Windows 95. Because it is Microsoft, all the works integrate with Microsoft applications such as Word, PowerPoint and Excel. With the disc resting in the CD drive, you can access it at any time and pull information directly into a word processor, a spreadsheet or presentation package.

Pleasure is not a word that can be found in my electronic copy of the national curriculum. But many reference works are fun. Autoroute Express from Microsoft is splendid. Briefly, it plots routes between places you nominate. It is based on Ordnance Survey data and contains some detailed maps. It will pull into the library many teachers who want to plan a trip, but it will also convince some informatio n-shy students that information can be extremely useful.

There is an ocean of information, and it will grow and grow. The task is to make sense of it. Unless students are given the tools, they could well end up feeling intimidated, overwhelmed and excluded.

Illuminatus, #163;89 or #163;199 for site licence (PC only), RM 01235 826868

HyperStudio, #163;99.99 (Mac, Acorn and PC), TAG Developments 01474 357350

Odyssey, #163;19.99 (PC only),

YITM 0113 243 8383

Micropedia 2nd Edition, #163;45 (PC), #163;65 (Acorn), Sparrow-hawk and Heald 01223 576241

Oxford Children's Encyclopedia, #163;49.99 (PC only), OUP 01865 267979

3 in 1 Bilingual Dictionary, #163;120 (PC only), OUP

Concise Oxford Dictionary, #163;19.99 (PC only), OUP

The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary, #163;79.99 (PC only), OUP

Oxford English Dictionary, #163;293.75 (Mac and PC), OUP

Autoroute Express, #163;59.99 (Windows 95 only), Microsoft Connections 0345 002000

Microsoft Encarta 97, #163;49.99 (Windows 95 only), Microsoft Connections

Microsoft Bookshelf, #163;49.99 (Windows 95 or Windows 3.1), Microsoft Connections

The Encyclopedia of Science 2, #163;39.99 (Mac and PC), Dorling Kindersley 0171 753 3488,

Earth Quest, #163;29.99 (Mac and PC), DK

World Reference Atlas, #163;49.99 (Mac and PC), DK

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