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Invitation to interact

What are the possibilities for schools using CD-interactive? Roger Frost visits a pilot project in the Midlands to find out what a well-resourced system is capable of delivering

Do you remember the technology battle of the Eighties - VHS or Betamax? Today CD-Roms and Philip's CD-interactive are just two of the technologies shuffling for a place in school and home, but while CD-Rom is almost everywhere and almost proven, CD-i, with one million players already sold, is almost unheard of.

Those who have tried CD-i tell of their surprise at how incredibly easy it is to use. The player quickly plugs into a television and its shiny-disc software is ready in seconds. Unlike CD-Rom, there's no need to install it or call an expert.

That may well be because this is also a domestic product. And the bonus is that you can play music, see your holiday snaps and watch movies with it. You simply drop in a music CD, a photo CD or a video CD. Note that the video feature needs a digital video add-on. But unlike a video, where you use the remote control to hit "play", CD-i demands more.

There are encyclopedias, dictionaries and activities which ask for some thought. Then there are stories, not just to watch but to interact with - to skip back, to answer questions, or even, in the case of branching stories, to choose a path to take through them.

Some 18 months ago, the local education authority in Dudley in the West Midlands ran a pilot CD-i project. A handful of schools were equipped with players and asked to explore the system's possibilities.

At Greenfield School, IT co-ordinator Jane Underwood used Soundtrap, a science disc that explains how musical things work. In her Our Town topic, she used The Berenstain Bears and Richard Scarry's Busy Town. And because this multimedia software talks, even the key stage 1 children could look things up in Compton's Encyclopaedia, a feature which Jane Underwood finds invaluable. "They don't have to do too much reading. But they can tell you what they've found, which they couldn't do with a book."

At Peter's Hill School, they report similar experiences and have bought in three more systems. One of their applications has little to do with curriculum software; instead it uses the CD-i player to show photographs they had developed on to photo-CD discs. So Year 3 took photos of a summer-term visit, selected their favourites and recorded a slide-show presentation on to videotape.

This slide-show idea cropped up again when a secondary school used it as a marketing tool. Pupils took lots of photographs of the school and, with the help of a portable CD-i system and a video projector, they made very effective presentations at their feeder primary schools.

Mrs Anita Wheeler, the head of Greenfield Primary School, also sees a marketing use for CD-i but this time the target is their Home School Association. "We would like them to see the breadth of the school, seeing us not just as an academic institution but the whole-child bit," she said.

So, with the quality presentation offered by photo-CD, they are setting out to record and show their achievements. There's the nativity play and the summer fair, the things the HSA bought for the school and even the children playing in their sports kit.

Mrs Wheeler says: "It's just wonderful. I don't feel schools fully appreciate the use of CD-i."

Not having seen and used the technology is a barrier to the take-up of CD-i. And that is the thinking behind Philips' offer of a CD-I system on half a term's free trial.

With so many technologies on offer, many seem to be waiting for a clear winner before parting with cash. But there may not be a clear winner; we've seen how competing technologies like Apple, Nimbus and Archimedes can co-exist.

Or as Lindsey Newton, who led Dudley's CD-i project, put it: "We've tried not to compare CD-i with CD-Rom as they have different applications and strengths. I think we're moving towards a pluralist system where different tools to do different things. People are going to choose the applications that work for them."

* Details of a free CD-i trial offer, software titles and local viewing centres are available from: Philips Media, School 2000, 188 Tottenham Court Road, London W1P 9LE. Tel: 0171 911 3060. Stand IT20

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