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A pilot study in Hertfordshire is exploring multi-media in geography. Carolyn O'Grady reports on the state of the art. Geography is a very information-hungry subject; CD-Rom is a very data-rich medium. So it is not surprising that the medium is attracting a lot of interest among geography teachers. So far, most of the activity has been in secondary schools, though this may begin to change this year with the extension of CD-Roms into the Primary Schools Scheme.

This scheme is organised by the National Council for Educational Technology, which with the Geographical Association has also this year arranged a series of CD-Rom road shows. At these shows for secondary geography teachers CD-Roms are demonstrated, published materials displayed and conferences and in-service training sessions on the medium arranged. All were financed by the Department for Education's GEST-funded information technology support project.

The strength of CD-Rom is that it can contain a huge range of materials. The best examples imaginatively make use of text, photos and graphics with added video and sound regularly updated.

Research by the NCET has suggested that both boys and girls take to the medium quickly and are motivated by it. The bad news is that at present many CD-Roms do not fulfil the medium's potential. There are, says David Hassell, an NCET programme manager, some common faults: * CD-Roms are still too dependent on the book metaphor. "Too often they look like a book transferred to the screen and are structured like a book, rather than allowing the student to access the material as he or she would wish."

* Others lack enough support material. Yet research suggests that CD-Roms are most effective when the teacher acts as guide or jointly interprets information with pupils.

* Tasks are needed. Allowing children to browse is not necessarily a good idea. Pupils tend to get lost. Moreover, children need to be encouraged through tasks not to lift the text wholesale.

* CD-Roms often contain confusing instructions about copyright. Output methods can be unsatisfactory. Some, for example, do not allow everything to be printed; with others, text and images cannot be copied into another package which enables students to use the material for their own projects.

* Encyclopedias and atlases on CD-Rom often do not have enough depth for use in secondary-school geography or else they may originate from America and concentrate on that continent.

There are signs, however, that material more directly useful for geography departments is emerging. Distant Places (AU Enterprises) is an interactive atlas which allows the user to access around 200 statistical and thematic maps of population, economy, development, social agricultural and commodities. Data can be displayed as area shaded maps or as point data, bar or pie charts. This extensive CD-Rom also includes case studies with data, pictures, text and sound and a role-play activity.

Distant Places is a good example of CD-Roms' capacity to juggle and present information in a wide variety of formats. What many geography teachers would also like to see are simulations, which would enable pupils to explore developments and changes in landscape and other environments. A rare example is EcoDisk (TAG Developments) which enables the user to take on the role of a nature-reserve manager and study the impact of conflicting ideas on the site.

Also wanted are CD-Roms which directly address national curriculum targets. Physical World (Nelson) contains information and case studies under three main headings: features and processes, natural hazards and people and environment. Nelson's Environment Series I and II looks at Water and Land and Air. The first CD contains 17 case studies; the second enables subjects to be searched and explored in a very flexible way.

Other types of CD-Rom which might attract the geography department include those published by newspapers as well as resource-based CD-Roms containing photos and, perhaps, aerial photographs and maps. Examples include Picturebase (AVP) and Discover York (Ordnance Survey).

At The Barclay School, a comprehensive in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, the geography department has been taking part in a county pilot project on CD-Roms. Jennifer Piggott, the school's head of information technology and learning resources, points out that teachers must be made aware that CD-Rom, like all media, is not a definitive view of reality. Apart from the data itself, "The way you access information is determined by the structure. You are even browsing in a way which has been determined."

Pupils at Barclay are encouraged to use and compare other electronic sources as well as CD-Rom. However, she is doubtful that the Internet is yet an alternative. Its vastness and slowness make it frustrating for pupils to use, she says. Eventually geography students may be finding their way around the information superhighways, but CD-Rom can at present appear to offer a more effective data package.

* Further details from: NCET, Milburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry CV4 7JJ. Tel: 01203 416994

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