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Multiple spin-offs

Jerry Wellington raises the issues worrying teachers as the use of multimedia expands. Space, the periodic table and the human body have emerged as the favourite target areas for the growing range of science CD-Roms. But the use of CD-Rom, and multimedia generally in science raises many questions. During the courses I have been running for teachers for the GEST programme managed by the National Council for Educational Technology, six main issues have emerged. They have all come from teachers either in discussion or while using and trying discs.

The first four issues face teachers in their daily use of multimedia or in their longer-term planning for it as part of the curriculum. The fourth and fifth are more general.

Which platform?

There are three main platforms in use with CD-Rom: Apple, IBM compatibles, and Acorn. Among my limited sample of 150 teachers, the IBM systems are most common in secondary schools, with Acorn way below in second place (this may be because most multimedia systems appear to be sited in library and other resource rooms rather than in subject areas). Similarly, most discs for science seem to have been produced initially for IBM (some running from DOS, most from Windows) with future versions (which seem to take an age to emerge) being produced for the Acorn. Exceptions include The Chemistry Set (initially for Acorn, then made for Windows) and Redshift (starting on the Apple).

The range of hardware and the seemingly idiosyncratic choices of disc producers present huge practical problems for teachers. Which hardware should they plump for? Do subject teachers have different purchasing preferences from, say, librarians and resource managers? How can teachers use the disc they want if it does not run on "their platform"? How long can they wait for a certain CD-Rom to become available in "their version"?

Price At present the adage "you get what you pay for" does not apply. Prices vary from around Pounds 25 to above Pounds 200 inc VAT - price has no correlation with quality. "Market forces" are not yet in play with multimedia. What effect will the pricing of discs for home use have on educational prices? Will the cheaper discs from the United States affect UK pricing?

Reviewing The third issue relates to the first two: how can teachers evaluate or review discs before they splash out with a few hundred pounds? This difficulty is probably one of the causes of the illogical pricing and is aggravated by the variety of hardware and the mystery which often surrounds the question of whether a disc is available for a certain system and when. Without the ability to study a disc before purchase and perhaps even try it with some guinea pigs, how can teachers make sensible decisions, especially with the demise of so many science teachers' centres and advisers? When will all CD-Rom producers allow an approval system?

How should multimedia be used?

Once teachers have a CD-Rom for science which they are happy with and have planned it into their schemes of work, and even into specific lessons, they have overcome the first phase of the latest IT obstacle course. Unfortunately they are only half way up the slope. The next stage is to be able to manage its use: Will it be part of a circus of activities? Will it serve as a multimedia "blackboard"? Will they be able to use it with a whole class at once? Few teachers are yet experienced in managing multimedia in the classroom, the lab, or IT room.

Even when they are, there still remains the issue of how learners should use multimedia in the school setting. At home people just get the disc going and get on with it. But this mode of use seems to be a problem for teachers. They raise issues such as: should pupils be allowed to adopt a "free-reinsurfing" mode of use or should teachers insist on structured learning with worksheets? Without such structure, some argue, who knows where the pupils might be going with multimedia? How can we be sure they have learned what's in the syllabus? (Heaven forbid they learn some things not in the syllabus!) Even more "dangerous", as some teachers have put it, is the question: is this just entertainment or are they actually learning?

How is CD-Rom interactive?

Many CD-Roms for education are entertaining and attractive but require little or no action from the user, other than moving a mouse, listening or reading, watching or pressing a few keys. Perhaps with the excitement of working with the audio, animation and video clips, CD-Rom producers can be excused for neglecting the interactive element. But this interactivity, or just plain activity, has been a feature of "good software" which we now need to look for and ask for.

Teachers should ask: does the program allow the user to move things around on the screen; change variables in a simulation; site probes to measure, say, temperature at different points; place marks on the screen and make measurements; carry out virtual experiments? In other words, does it seek some input, thought and activity?

Home-school links An issue which has been seriously under-researched in IT in education is home-school links and liaison. Do computers at home give children an advantage at school or, conversely, a disadvantage if they do the "wrong" things with them? How can pupils and teachers make use of home computers? Can work at home be transferred to school, and vice versa? Despite the huge numbers of home computers we have barely begun to address important questions.

But with multimedia systems entering homes almost as quickly as schools, we will be forced to consider links and liaison. This is given more urgency by the growing number of publishers now producing CD-Rom titles for both the home and school markets. How will the organisational structures of the school (timetables, bells, teacher-centredness etc) manage situations where pupils may know a CD-Rom inside out from using it at home? Will pupils be able to use school discs at home, and teachers use home discs at school? How will teachers be able to keep control of children's learning as they do now? Will teachers be flexible enough? How can we hope to create equal opportunities? Will pupils be as motivated by the school discs as they are by those in the home?

The questions are limitless but teachers are certain to face them as the number of multimedia systems at home overtakes the number in schools. We must think about them as we go along so that we can shape the future of multimedia in education rather than just letting it happen.

Dr J J Wellington is senior lecturer in the Division of Education at Sheffield University.

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