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Dream machines

PIONEEr cld-v23300d, Laser disc player, With UC-108BC Barcode reader, plus A Midsummer Night's Dream or Macbeth on LaserDiscs with teaching material, Pounds 899 + VAT, Plays bought separately, Pounds 249 + VAT, Pioneer High Fidelity (GB) Ltd, Pioneer House, Hollybush Hill, Stoke Poges, Slough SL2 4PQ

Arnold Evans does his best to assure the nervous that high-tech Shakespeare need not be a nightmare.

When this first sentence contains the phrase "no experience of computers required", disappointed technophiles may need persuading to read on. But I am thinking of the English teacher who told me: "It's hard enough teaching Shakespeare, without having to teach IT at the same time."

I know what she means the high-tech paraphernalia can too easily become a fatal distraction with the teacher spending valuable time fielding tedious questions about floppy discs, malign networks, and what to do with the mouse. The lessons can quickly end up being about the technology itself and not the material it is supposed to deliver.

Well, if she has read this far, she will be pleased to learn this is one piece of electronic wizardry which honestly can be mastered in minutes. What is more, it allows pupils to find their way around a Shakespeare play with an ease that cannot be matched by any other medium. Seasoned scholars might find flicking through the pages of the text quicker but young students certainly do not. And, of course, a book only contains words, words, words; LaserDiscs offer the play in performance, reproduced with the highest-quality sound and pictures.

These two new titles contain the complete BBC productions of Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream, together with extracts from the Shakespeare in Perspective lectures that accompanied the original broadcasts, banks of stills taken from previous productions and various other teaching aids.

Using the remote control, you can as you would with a VCR "play", "fast-forward", "rewind" and suchlike. It is only when you "pause" that you appreciate that this technology is different from video tape.

The frozen frame is flicker free a perfect picture. The reason is that a LaserDisc recording, unlike tape, is composed of individual frames 30 of them a second. Each of these is numbered, and this number can be found by pressing a button on the remote control. Key in the number, and you are taken instantly to that moment in the play.

But you don't have to go to the trouble of doing this work for yourself. The package comes with a printed version of the text in which more than 200 key passages have been labelled not only with the number but with a barcode. By reading these barcodes with the hand-held scanner (it is virtually fool-proof), you can skip effortlessly through the play.

Since the barcodes can be photocopied as successfully as any other printed material, it is possible to incorporate them in worksheets. So pupils investigating, for instance, the theme of good and evil in Macbeth, can be equipped with a bank of barcodes which would whisk them to all the pertinent speeches. And the teacher does not have to do any of the preparatory work.

Each of the titles is supported by nearly 200 photocopiable pages of worksheets festooned with barcodes and obviously written by people who understand the needs of English teachers. They cover everything from basic revision exercises to quite detailed studies of Shakespeare's language and imagery.

If my friend the English teacher has not already abandoned this article in order to phone through her order, she would be wise to note a few minor reservations.

First, we are used to having a Shakespeare play contained in a single floppy, a CD-Rom, a video cassette or, heaven forfend between the covers of a book, so it is disappointing to find that this Macbeth occupies the six sides of three LaserDiscs, and A Midsummer Night's Dream fills up four. So a teacher wishing to skip backwards and forwards through the whole play needs a reliable pupil to act as disc jockey, whipping the appropriate discs in and out of the player.

Second, on the first occasion a disc is loaded, you need to press "play", and then wait for about 10 seconds before the barcode scanner will function. I found this peculiarly irritating and I did not have the added stress of a class of children in front of me stifling yawns. Perhaps I was doing something wrong, and so would advise anyone who is considering buying the equipment to take up Pioneer's offer of free on-site demonstrations and training.

Pioneer has slashed educational prices to tempt schools into experimenting with the technology. The kit, I suppose, still costs more than an English department can afford, so my friend will have to persuade colleagues that it would be a useful whole-school resource. She should start her spiel with a sentence that includes the phrase "no experience of computers required".

Pioneer High Fidelity - stand IT663

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