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Much on offer, but little hits the spot

Every year brings another crop of software offering help with science teaching. And next week's BETT show at London's Olympia, the traditional focus for new releases, is sure to prompt a bumper harvest. But the word from the chalkface is that software producers only rarely get it right, and that much of what they offer really belongs in the home.

What brought the talk about was a call from the Department for Education and Employment asking for the views of organisations such as the Association for Science Education and the National Council for Educational Technology on available science software. As a result a group of teachers, mostly ASE members, met last May to talk about the quality and suitability of the software they had.

Of the hundreds of titles available, teachers said few were written for the machines they used in school, many of which were five or more years old. And even though CD-Rom software could dazzle with colour and sound, it was extremely difficult or expensive to run on a typical school suite of computers.

Most highly rated were general purpose items - software for data-logging which allows the computer to collect data from experiments was singled out. Another item the teachers liked was Claris Works, a word processor, spreadsheet and graphing program in one easy program. Not only would this run on modestly equipped machines, but it had great value as a teacher's worksheet generator, or pupil's report-making tool. Other titles for drawing graphs and upmarket tools such as Microsoft Office and Excel were much admired.

Titles with real science content - about the human body, astronomy and earth science, for instance - had clearly found uses and niches. Teachers inevitably have their own needs, likes and dislikes. Intriguingly some teachers' favourites (Sammy's Science House, Acacia's Revise, Multimedia Motion, for instance) were sometimes rated worst by others.

If there was a common focus, it was on multimedia titles that work like textbooks, with pupils clicking their way through pages of information and maybe finding some simulation that tries to explain how things work.

As with textbooks, teachers have a range of objectives as wide as the variety of pupils' abilities. The teachers said that in any one class some pupils would cope, but others would stumble. They said they wanted software they could customise to suit the way they worked. Even without that, they said software should have different entry points for different abilities.

Some of the group claimed that the ever-controversial "integrated learning systems", which claim to provide this facility, were no more than "mechanised science teaching". They wanted free-standing software with credible, dynamic material that would engage pupils on useful learning tasks - much like a science investigation would. Software producers were accused of getting it right on a hit-or-miss basis - titles invariably had their good bits, but like a music CD with only one or two good tracks, often offered little value for money.

This led to another call, for software covering smaller areas - perhaps an equivalent to the music "single" - as well as for opportunities to try out software on approval and even a national system of quality rating.

Despite the negative comment, it was clear the teachers believed the technology had promise. They repeatedly said they needed time to learn to use the software and become, in the words of one delegate, "more discerning evaluators of technology".

Roger Frost's latest book, 'Software for Teaching Science', is launched this week at the Association for Science Education's annual meeting. Details from ASE Book Sales, College Lane, Hatfield, Hertfordshire AL10 9AA. Tel: 01707 267411. He will be talking about computers in science teaching at the BETT '98 Show, Olympia, London, January 14-17

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