If you're a teacher, you are spared the brief encounter with the salesperson. But you often have to go by an even smaller blurb in a catalogue which will tell you where the material fits into the curriculum.
Beyond that, it's up to you. You may ask around or read reviews in The TES or specialist journals. But more often than not, you have to steel yourself for a leap of faith. If, once you try it out at home or in school,you find that it's not what you wanted, needed or expected, more often than not the retailer will not take it back.
PIN, the Parents Information Network, says parents and teachers have had enough of flailing around in the dark, so it has taken matters into its own hands and set up a quality control system similar to the kitemark. A PIN logo stating "PIN Approved" displayed on the box means that the product has been carefully examined and approved for its value as a home-based learning support for school-based teaching.
PIN co-directors Dr Maggie Holgate and Jacquie Disney, and Jane Mitra, the homeschool links co-ordinator, have set up a team of teachers and parents from among the 13,000-odd PIN members to evaluate and review the software. Titles are selected on the basis of educational content as well as appropriateness for home use, two factors which do not always coincide.
In the first leg of assessment, the teachers, all of whom have children of their own, examine the material for educational credibility. Then the software passes on to parents and families, who have up to two months to use it, paying attention to its adaptability, its accessibility and, most importantly, its sustained attraction to young users who often have an attention span of no longer than a TV advert.
The team looks at the depth and level of content, creative potential, how it supports learning, accessibility of structure, value for money and whether it is fun and motivating at the same time.
The evaluations serve two purposes: as well as good software receiving the PIN-approved symbol, they form the basis of recommendations that appear in the network's quarterly newsletters. Written very much from and for a parent's perspective, they give detailed information on content, value in terms of leisure and education, and target age range.
The idea of getting both teachers and parents to review the materials recognises "teachers don't always assess software with home use value in mind", says Jacquie Disney. "For home use, you need more depth in a sense,going beyond the national curriculum."
These initiatives are in response to a members' survey on choosing software. "More than 90 per cent of our members said they were bewildered by the choice they faced and wanted independent software recommendations," says Maggie Holgate. "Our approach was to take the opposite tack to Microsoft's logo "Where Do You Want To Go Today?" What our members said they wanted was the reverse: a manageable selection with a clear focus, narrow and sharp."
At the moment, only five titles have the PIN seal of approval, which points to the network's high standards as much as to the variable ones of the producers. Holgate, Disney and Mitra see the quality control issue as very much a consciousness-raising exercise for software-buying parents and teachers who, for too long, have been in the dark.
The ultimate aim is for consumers to demand more accountability of the manufacturers, to respond to their feedback, to open a dialogue for the purpose of improving the products. This is probably the only organisation trialling and recommending learning software to the public and, by doing so, "is helping to create more active consumers of these materials - and providing an enormous service to the industry," insists Holgate.
For more information on PIN, write to PO Box 1577, London W7 3ZT