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Models for a mixed economy

The National Council for Educational Technology has announced the types of multimedia CD-Rom systems and discs that are going out to English primary schools in the second phase of the funding project announced by Education Minister Eric Forth in February.

For the Pounds 5 million being spent by the Department for Education, schools will get a total of 2,675 machines, some 378 more than the first phase produced last year (for Pounds 4.5 million). The numbers can be broken down for the types of computer supplied: Acorn 1,109 (1,127 in 1994); Apple 296 (232 in 1994); Research Machines 1,270 (938 in 1994). The actual models are Acorn Risc PCs, Apple Performa 630s and Research Machines 486 DX2 Multimedia PCs.

Nearly one third of England's 18,800 primaries will have been equipped under the project and feedback from the schools has been extremely positive. Further provision by local authorities and schools themselves means coverage is likely to be even greater.

While the figures do not show a massive percentage swing, they do show a discernible drift away from Acorn towards Apple Macintosh and Research Machines (IBM-compatible machines, usually known as PCs). This is despite the fact that many local authorities still try to keep to a policy laid down in the early days of educational computing by the former Department of Education and Science of buying Acorn or RM machines. This favoured UK suppliers over Apple, which at that time was regarded as a proprietary and foreign system. So for a traditionally conservative market where schools tend to follow LEA policy and swings tend to be very slow, such a measurable shift over one year is telling.

A glance at the software available for the scheme, the most important part of any purchase, indicates the main reason. The range of titles available for Acorn computers remains comparatively small. A total of 489 CD-Roms were submitted by software firms for the current scheme, of which 454 were reviewed by educationists brought in by the NCET specifically for the task (an extra building had to be leased, and computer systems set up). Of the 454 titles reviewed, 54 were for Acorn, 144 for Apple Macintosh and 256 for PCs. Schools receive Acorn machines with a suite of 10 titles, while Macs and PCs both come with 12 discs.

So Acorn's urgent task is to give its customers access to PC multimedia CD-Roms before its machines are regarded as the Betamaxes of the computer market. It is trying to do this by producing a PC processor and sound card for its Risc PC machines, but more than six months after launching these computers as giving access to PC software (hence the PC in the title), the add-ons are still not available for purchase. To add to Acorn's woes, their availability will not even guarantee future success as they add to the price and, ironically, reduce the attraction for software developers writing titles for Acorn.

Feedback from the NCET's reviewers reveals a huge improvement in the quality of discs over last year's. They felt they were viewing a new generation of discs.

The revolution in CD-Rom publishing (see pages 20-21), and the way in which early products have become outmoded, is evident from the reviews. About 100 of the discs submitted last year are no longer published, and only one of last year's selected CD-Roms (Kingfisher Children's Micropaedia) will go out to schools this year.

The fact that Acorn's share has fallen indicates more than a simple shift from Acorn. Schools are moving towards a mixed economy of machines. The message is getting through that the software is the important factor, not the box it plays on. And this is reflected in a glance at the discs reviewed.

Twelve of the discs can be played on Acorn, Apple and PC, eight on Acorn and PC and 123 on Apple and PC. Last year saw few dual-format discs. Eight of the titles picked to go into schools with the systems are common to both Apple and PC. And NCET reviewers were often confused about whether they were using some of these CDs on Apple or PC, such was the compatibility.

* For more details contact the NCET, Milburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry CV4 7JJ.

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