Hang Ups

For better or for worse, the initials ILS will soon trip as easily off teachers' lips as GCSE, DFE and TGIF. Integrated Learning Systems, which are being hailed in some quarters as the best thing to have happened in education since the discovery of chalk, are the latest way of using information technology to teach the 3Rs.

SuccessMaker, an American package, has proved phenomenally effective in trials conducted by the National Council for Educational Technology. There are reports of children making 20 months' progress in mathematics after just six months with the software. The same trials, incidentally, suggest a rival British system, Global Maths (Systems Integrated Research), isn't nearly as good.

Both packages work along similar lines. The pupil is clamped into headphones, plonked in front of a computer screen and, for daily 15-minute sessions, given a string of comfortingly old-fashioned exercises to do. In the American version, smart management software monitors the child's progress, cunningly tailoring the work to meet his or her precise educational needs.

The approach worries some educationists in this country who have always insisted that the computer shouldn't be treated merely as a "teaching machine". Instead, they argue, pupils should be using IT creatively for word processing, desktop publishing, multimedia and such like.

But there is no denying that ILS comes as a timely reminder that whatever other uses a computer can be put to, it is the perfect medium for giving pupils individual help. It is infinitely patient, non-judgmental, offers instant feedback and never makes mistakes. It lets children progress at their own pace, doesn't squirm when they commit howlers, and won't go ratting to their mums if they mess around.

SuccessMaker has taken 25 years and millions of dollars to develop and this is reflected in the price to equip one workstation costs a terrifying Pounds 1,500.

The advertising literature left me with the distinct impression that it's undoubtedly thorough, ingenious, revolutionary and well just a little bit boring. That's not a criticism, of course it would be a bit much to expect one program to create a class of Carol Vordermans and be as exciting as Donkey Kong.

There are, however, plenty of packages on the market which do manage to combine the thrills and spills of a video game with bashing home the basics. Take for instance the 10 out of 10 suites of programs. Each disc or CD-Rom in the series contains a compendium of games designed to enhance a specific area of the primary curriculum. To improve their spelling, for example, pupils have to pilot rockets, drive go-karts, drill for oil or, as quick-witted goalies, grab the correct letters as they fly past.

The programs automatically record the individual pupil's progress and relate it to national curriculum attainment targets. This information is displayed on-screen in the form of a colour-coded grid. Pupils can see their best performances recorded on a High Score Table as they might in a real arcade game and can print out fancy certificates which confirm just how good they are.

If the NCET's researchers ever got round to assessing the impact of giving pupils a daily 15 minutes with 10 out of 10, they would surely discover real improvements in maths and spelling. It might not be as good as SuccessMaker, but, on the other hand, it's a fraction of the price. So schools choosing to use it instead of ILS would save a lot of money which they could then spend on buying packages that will enable pupils to use IT creatively. Ultimately, these will provide them with a lot more fun than even the slickest video game.

10 out of 10, for Acorn, PC, Amiga and Mac. There are 12 packages covering everything from primary maths to preparing for the driving test. On disc or CD-Rom for the same price: Pounds 25.95. Further details: 10 out of 10, 1 Percy Street, Sheffield S8 8AU SuccessMaker, Research Machines, Hitchin Court, New Mill House, 183 Milton Park, Abingdon OX14 4SE Global Maths, SIR, 4th floor, East Mill, Bridgefoot, Belper, Derbs DE56 1XQ.

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