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How to make the right choice

Don't be seduced by the glossy packaging of CD-Roms, writes David Hassell. You need to assess them in terms of design, content and how you are going to use them with your pupils

This CD-Rom provides students with the latest and very best in learning resources. With over 4,000 full-colour images, 22 minutes of video, in-built Web links and 1.5 million words this title . . ."

Sound impressive doesn't it? How many times have you seen this in advertising bumph or on CD-Rom boxes? But don't be fooled by the claims, take a look yourself. For example, do those video clips actually help? Or are they only there to make the product more "multimedia"?

And have you noticed how many CD boxes have a clever cardboard contraption to hold the CD case and fill the rest of the box with fresh air? In many ways this approach to packaging is symptomatic of a whole range of CD-Roms purporting to be educational products - and you need to have a critical eye to cut through the hype. Don't forget, the bit of plastic - the CD-Rom - is only the delivery tool. What is important is the content and how it's structured.

There is a good case for multimedia. Well-designed multimedia offers many opportunities for enhancing learning across the board. CD-Roms can contain a mixture of media - text, pictures, animations, sounds and videos - that can be combined in very effective ways to support learning. Good products place the control in the hands of learners, enabling them to learn at their own pace, viewing elements as many times as they need before completing tasks or research. Even with little IT experience most titles are easy to use, with simple menus and clear aids to navigation.

Developers would like CDs with greater capacity for more animation, sound and video (they will be with us soon), but the current format still holds a great deal. Good software enables us to search and sort the huge range of text, pictures, sounds and videos, which would be very difficult by hand.

Many teachers are searching for resources to support differentiation in the classroom. The best CD-Roms, which have a range of text and resources, can be very valuable as they can help teachers to differentiate tasks, resources and support.

So what is important? We all have a lot of experience evaluating books and some suggest that it's the same process. However, a CD-Rom is often much more complex and it is important not to be seduced by the glossy packaging and "wizzy" elements, such as the video and Internet links. It is vital to look at a CD-Rom before purchasing it. Would you buy a Pounds 163.15 book without asking for it on approval?

A sensible approach is to divide up your assessment of a CD-Rom and look at design, content and how you might use it with your students. It is accepted that CD-Roms look good and provide high-quality pictures and video. However, it is important to assess how easy it is to use and move around, whether there are appropriate facilities to help you find what you want and then use it effectively. Most titles provide buttons or things to click on to move around and these should be helpful and you should be able to work out where you are in a disc at any time; with some, it is possible to feel completely lost.

Searching is helped by indexes or lists and word-search tools that should be easy to use and consistent in their approach. Once you have found something interesting, useful facilities include bookmarks and trails so you can find it again, and notepads for making notes and collecting text and graphics.

Most CD-Roms allow you to print, copy or save part or all of the text and images - very valuable when students are researching a topic (don't forget to read the copyright statement to check how the material can be used).

The content can be assessed from a number of perspectives. The material should match national curriculum needs, be at the right reading age and provide appropriate detail for your students. The materials should be accurate and up to date and should not be biased - some titles produced in the United States can have spelling and content which is too focused on an American view of the world.

Probably the most important issue is whether or not the CD-Rom can provide some worthwhile opportunities for supporting learning - does it engage and encourage students to question? A general rule is that the more flexible a CD-Rom is, the wider the range of opportunities, for example with different students and in different sections of the curriculum. The next issue is whether there are some obvious activities which use the facilities of the CD-Rom to their potential, so that the experience is better than using books, videos or other materials.

The benefits may be due to the mixture of media, the method and speed of searching or the way the information is presented and structured. Also look for support materials as they can provide a starting point for lesson ideas.

Some useful tips. Once you have found some interesting CD-Roms that run on your machines, ask for the titles on approval. If they aren't available, ask your local education authority centre or other schools if they have a copy to view. Look at as many sections of the CD-Rom as possible and ask yourself the series of questions in the panel below.

Computers are still a limited resource in our schools and we need to make best use of the technology. So if you choose quality CD-Roms which make a difference in the learning process, they will more than repay the time you spent cutting through the hype.

WHAT TO check when choosing A CD-ROM

Is it easy to use? Can you:

* navigate (find your way around the disc) easily?

* search and find the items you want?

* re-find things of interest?

* print, copy or save text and images?

Is the content appropriate? Does it: * provide a balance of quality material?

* link to the national curriculum?

* have detailed text at the right reading age?

* provide unbiased content?

Does the CD-Rom benefit learning? Can it:

* be used with a variety of students and courses?

* provide opportunities for good on- and off-computer activities?

* add something to the learning process?

* Dave Hassell is a programmemanager with the National Council for Educational Technology

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