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ICT - Honey, now you're talking!

Sound effects and animation are sometimes nothing more than 'eye candy'. But increasingly, interactive books can be taken seriously, as George Cole reports

Sound effects and animation are sometimes nothing more than 'eye candy'. But increasingly, interactive books can be taken seriously, as George Cole reports

Teachers and students at Coxhoe Primary School in Durham are big fans of interactive books. "The pupils find them really engaging," says headteacher Stephen Jones. "Children are using ICT at home and there's an expectation that learning should involve some form of interactivity with educational media."

Coxhoe Primary, which has 213 pupils aged four to 11, uses interactive books across the school curriculum, including literacy, numeracy, science and maths activities. "In maths, we use interactive books with stories and rhymes that get across various maths concepts," explains Mr Jones.

Digital interactive books arrived on the back of CD-ROM technology. The CD-ROM's vast capacity meant that text, sound, pictures, video and animation could be blended onto a single disc, enabling users to control what was happening onscreen.

John Trushell, a principal lecturer at the University of East London, has conducted extensive research on the use of interactive books in education. He says the best offer cued animation and sound effects, which give users the opportunity to pause, reflect and engage with what they are seeing.

"The sound and animation should supplement the text - for example, by helping to explain a character," he says. Not all interactive books offer this, however. "Some effects are merely incidental, like an object that becomes animated simply to entertain the user. This is what I call 'eye candy'."

Thankfully, though, this is becoming increasingly rare as teachers and students become more discerning users of digital media. Teacher forums and organisations such as Teem (Teachers Evaluating Educational Multimedia) also provide useful information on interactive book titles that effectively utilise multimedia. Many of Teem's evaluators are practising teachers, who provide real-world assessments of educational resources.

Even so, some teachers are still unsure about the potential of interactive books, preferring the reassurance of using print editions. But Mr Jones stresses that using interactive books is just one further way of adding variety to teaching methods.

"We use printed books as well," he adds. "Interactive books are just another tool in the educational toolkit." A well-designed interactive book, used correctly, can enhance learning and teaching. One of the biggest benefits is the ability for users to control the depth, pace and direction of their learning. Audio and video features can help improve pupil understanding and make topics more interesting or engaging.

While interactive books can still be used on CD-ROM, many teachers now use them with an interactive whiteboard for group activities. "The whole class can follow the teacher and a teacher can highlight key words or use links to display other information. It's a lot more effective than the teacher reading from a book and the pupils trying to follow the text from their own book," says Mr Jones.

He adds that the non-linear nature of interactive books also helps to improve pupils' ICT skills. "We've found that using interactive books has helped pupils learn how to use search engines."

Coxhoe Primary has put its interactive books on the school network, allowing pupils to access them individually on a computer or as part of a small group. Mr Jones says the next step will be to place the interactive books on the school virtual learning environment (VLE) so that pupils can also access them at home.

The Oxford Reading Tree series of interactive books offers audio, animations, film clips and links to extra information and users are also able to edit stories and change plots.

Scholastic's Read amp; Respond range includes photos, videos, audio clips, text extracts, interactive activities and "hot spots" in the text, where pupils can click on a word to reveal a surprise - the idea being that they are more likely to recognise the word the next time they see it.

The Pelican Interactive Big Book CD-ROMs, meanwhile, are interactive versions of its hugely popular Big Book series. Words can be highlighted, read aloud by the computer or hidden. Big Book titles, produced since 2006, offer enhanced features, such as the ability for pupils to record their own voices within the story or add different characters.

Classical Comics has launched its own range of Interactive Motion Comics. The Macbeth title offers text in three formats (original, plain text or quick, for younger users), animation and audio (characters are voiced by actors Derek Jacobi and Juliet Stevenson).

The Interactive Motion Comics can be used like an ordinary DVD and watched in a linear fashion, or viewed interactively on a whiteboard or PC. "Two or three students could sit around a computer and work at their own pace," explains Chris Bryant of Classical Comics.

The availability of high-speed broadband connections and powerful desktop computers mean that interactive books can also be downloaded online. Woodlands Junior School in Tonbridge, Kent, for example, has a website offering dozens of interactive book titles and links, many of which include hot spots and animations.

As with any ICT resource, it is only worth the investment if you can get the best out of all these bells and whistles. Experiment with a small number of titles first to see if they suit your needs


- Try to get interactive book titles on approval. This will give you a chance to examine them in detail and see how they might fit into your teaching.

- Check what you get for your money. Does a site licence, for example, mean you can also put the book on your VLE for pupils to use at home?

- Check the content - is it at a suitable level for your pupils? Is it deep enough?

- How easy is it to navigate through the options?

- How flexible is the content? Can you highlight words? Hide pictures?

- How customisable is it - can you add your own resources to it?

- Can students change the content - for example, record their voices?

- Can any of the multimedia elements be switched off?

- Is the title suitable for use with an interactive whiteboard?

- Can it be personalised for individual students?


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