To the non-specialist, choosing (and, more to the point, using) a piece of modern educational software can be a daunting task. The vast amount of material available and the worry about how relevant and "user-friendly" it is, can produce mild to severe panic in those of us who are less than whizz-kids on the computer. If interactive learning is to be incorporated, with confidence, into all teachers' lessons we must have help in choosing, and mastering, the appropriate software.
Trying to forget about my inability to control the dancing Frenchman in the Tricolore software, I headed for the Scottish Council for Educational Technology (SCET) to discover how it can help to familiarise teachers with some of the vast amount of software available to complement the Scottish curriculum.
Located in the former Notre Dame teacher-training college in Glasgow, SCET's technology centre incorporates a resource library, which houses almost 4,000 pieces of their own and other publishers' software, and a training suite.
In the library (an appealing room in bold primary colours) the resources are arranged according to curriculum areas and target age groups. Teachers, parents and other interested parties are encouraged to visit, on either a "drop-in" or a pre-arranged basis, in order to preview any software they are considering for purchase and to have their questions and problems addressed.
With more than 4,000 visitors per year to the centre, the staff are more than familiar with the software on show, and are very willing to spend time demonstrating packages before leaving visitors to try them out for themselves. Because of their close involvement with schools and teachers, they are also an invaluable source of impartial advice and feedback.
As well as advising individuals on their choice of resources, the centre's education team also runs in-service training on software and word processing, either on-site or in schools, for groups of teachers or specific departments. Parents' nights are also organised in order to allow parents to try out various resources but, although individual children are welcome to accompany their parents, specific children's groups are not catered for.
I was shown around by SCET's marketing executive, Kim Conway, who introduced me to a selection of software ranging from a CD-Rom designed to develop colour and shape recognition in nursery age children to staff development and management packages. SCET's own program Writer's Toolkit, which is widely used in primary and secondary schools to encourage pupils' writing skills in all areas of the curriculum, was particularly interesting.
Detailed help is given with various types of writing, and graphics can easily be added where necessary. My favourite feature was the speech facility which allows pupils' finished work to be read out in any one of 32 possible voices. As well as the entertainment value, this also helps to highlight any punctuation or spelling problems (although an optional spell-check is available).
The complexity of this program demands rigorous staff training before use, so SCET has produced accompanying teachers' notes and staff training videos, and also delivers in-service on its integration across the curriculum.
I also experimented with the CD-Rom Storybook Weavers, in which children can make up their own storybook by adding music, background, characters and objects to the picture on the screen to build up a story which they can relate orally as it progresses. Because of its immediate link between visual and aural stimuli, this package lends itself beautifully to the storytelling section of foreign language study in the primary school, as well as to English language work.
My favourite resource of the day was Makers of the 20th Century, in which the user can pursue detailed studies of people and institutions from six different "worlds" (design, mind, body etc). As the program progresses, various "flying facts" appear on the screen. If you've ever wondered where pupils pick up some of the intriguing pieces of knowledge with which they often astonish us, this could be a possible answer. I came out with more miscellaneous facts and figures at my fingertips than a TV quiz-master.
The SCET catalogue (a helpful resource in its own right) states that the council is "committed to building the confidence of teachers and pupils in acquiring the skills and competencies to exploit fully learning through technology". From what I saw just in one afternoon, during which time various people came in to experiment with software, the centre is certainly living up to its claim.
Working with the major software publishers means that it has one of the biggest and most competitively-priced collections of educational software in the country, which in turn helps teachers to make the best choices.
The expert training, advice and support provided by the SCET staff encourages the full incorporation of new technology into the curriculum, and enables teachers to use it with confidence. In fact, I think I could just be about ready to challenge that Frenchman again.
* Scottish Council for Educational Technology, 74 Victoria Crescent Road, Glasgow G12 9JN, tel: 0141 337 5000. Open 8.30am-5.30pm, Monday-Friday. Visitors are advised to telephone in advance if they wish to see a specific range of software.
* Writer's Toolkit (for Macintosh) published by SCET; Storybook Weaver (CD- Rom) published by Softkey; Makers of the 20th Century (CD-Rom) published by News Multimedia.