A good answer

How do the latest online resources stack up against the big three software encyclopedias? reports Hugh John

These days you can go online and find an encyclopedia of virtually anything. "The Encyclopedia of Trotzykyism" (sic), "Occultopedia", or the wonderful self-build "Wikipedia" which is being assembled by online contributors. But what if you want information that has been sifted and categorised, material that is appropriate for, say, a key stage 3 English lesson? Access to over two million curriculum-relevant resources? Or a safe environment for surfing the internet?

Then take a look at Living Library. RM's online resource is one of the longest established education services, and, with six encyclopedias, it offers more than 15,000 pictures, animations, audio clips, four national newspapers, revision guides and the excellent BBC Worldwide British Pathe video archive. With content drawn from educational publishers such as Heinemann, Helicon and the Oxford University Press, Living Library is highly recommended. (RM stands D50E50).

ProQuest (H44) provides a similar service but concentrates on secondary education. The library subscription features content from quality newspapers including The Times, Guardian, New York Times, Independent and Telegraph. The reference section, which allows users to search through the library by subject category, can be a shade flaky. Put "Beethoven" in the query box, for example, and you'll get "Chuck Berry" (Roll over Beethoven) and an account of the musician's life and times which redefines the word "compressed".

The two other sections, History and Literature, contain more detailed articles and would certainly support curriculum studies. On the history pages you'll find a well researched Holocaust feature that includes a two-minute Nazi propaganda film. The literature section has a Shakespeare glossary that gives you the chance to look up some of the bard's exotic epithets.

If you're at BETT, you'll be able to check out a range of other online providers. Espresso Education (D64), double award winner at BETT 2004, works with Regional Broadband Consortia and LEAs to produce its customised and acclaimed Your Espresso modules. Schoolmaster (C70) is described as "the leading Managed Learning Environment for primary and secondary schools", while DigitalBrain (H61) has recently announced a partnership with education ICT suppliers Promethean. At the Oxford University Press stand (B60) you can learn about its expanded online resources that now include the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford Scholarship and Oxford Reference.

With one notable exception - the inclusion of a children's section in Encarta - 2004 has been a time of consolidation for Encarta, Encyclopaedia Britannica and World Book. All three encyclopedias offer online versions of their product either as a whole-school subscription service or, in Encarta's case, as an MSN (Microsoft Network) subscription.

With ever more processing power and increased broadband speed, there are compelling reasons for schools to access reference materials online. CD and DVD encylopedias, however, remain an important resource.

So, how to compare the big three versions? It's perhaps unfair to look at just one example from the thousands of articles in each encyclopedia, but what the hell... Dylan Thomas, then. World Book (pound;50) manages three factual informative paragraphs concluding with: "Thomas died of pneumonia aggravated by acute alcoholism while on a tour of the US."

Encyclopaedia Britannica (pound;60) includes a picture of the poet at the writing hut on Cliff Walk, Laugharne, where he penned much of his poetry.

The accompanying article which discusses his writing, his American tours and his lifestyle in some sensitivity is let down by the brusque, inaccurate and emphatically American-flavoured final comment that, "he took such an overdose of hard liquor that he died."

Encarta? (pound;52) Well, you get the Times Obituary, the Times review of Under Milk Wood, a sound clip of Dylan reading Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night, an excellent appraisal of his work, four suggested books for further reading, and links to Thomas-related web pages.

World Book's lucid house style has always been its forte; child-friendly prose that is particularly easy for younger users. Unfortunately, the content shows signs of age. Add to that an interface that has not significantly changed in the past three years and you've got a product in need of an overhaul.

The depth of content in both Britannica and Encarta is impressive, with Microsoft shading it by virtue of localisation and truly excellent multimedia. And, for the first time, there's an integrated Children's Encarta that can be accessed from the main encyclopedia toolbar.

In fact, primary students and teachers are the main beneficiaries of the new season's publications with children's versions of Britannica and Encarta being joined by the Oxford First Encyclopedia (pound;30). Intended for KS1 and Lower KS2, information is arranged thematically and all text and images can be exported to Word or Textease. It's also worth visiting the Neptune stand at BETT (SW18) and having at look at their On the Farm CD (pound;26) Regrettably, there's no update to the Oxford Children's Encyclopedia this year but the OUP has released some excellent new reference titles on CD-Rom. These include the Oxford Spellchecker and Dictionary (pound;38) and the Oxford Concise Dictionary (pound;22). With 240,000 words, phrases, and definitions, including all the latest new words, spoken pronunciations for thousands of words and interactive educational word games such as Hangman, Boggle, Conundrum, and Word Maker, this is well worth a look.

And finally, if you want quality reference material at budget prices consider Focus Multimedia which has a licensing agreement with some of the best educational publishers, including the OUP and Encyclopedia Britannica.

The Concise Oxford CD-Rom with pronunciation sound files for a tenner? That's a bargain in anyone's book.

Online resources


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