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Points of reference

Hugh John journeys through the wealth of reference material that is available both online and on CD-Rom

RM was one of the first UK companies to exploit the potential of online learning. Living Library, (pound;185 per school per year) was launched in 1997 as a compilation of high-quality multimedia resources closely linked to UK education requirements. Content providers include the Oxford University Press, Corbis, World Book, Helicon and the BBC, whose Pathe News Collection is stunning.

Available at primary or secondary level, Living Library benefits from being an exclusively educational online service. Information is clearly presented and accompanied by a selection of classroom activities and ability ratings to ensure that pupils access the appropriate material.

With such an excellent resource as Encarta at its disposal you'd have expected Microsoft to be in the vanguard of online education development.

You'd be wrong. Encarta Online lacks a clear identity; hardly surprising perhaps as there are, in effect, two Online Encartas. There's the free Encarta and the subscription model, suitably beefed up, which is offered as part of the MSN8 package (pound;60 per year). Put "Beethoven" into the online search box and the first two hits of the free service will return The Beethoven Hotel, Amsterdam and the Ludwig Van Beethoven Hotel, Berlin.

The first two hits on MSN8, however, yield two excellent articles; one on Beethoven and the other on the development of Western Music. It's a very unsubtle point that Microsoft is making here and not one that enhances its reputation.

The Britannica Online School Edition (from pound;175 per school per year) adopts the same approach as the Encyclopaedia Britannica DVD, allowing users to search for information at different levels. Intended to "provide educators with research and teaching tools that work easily in the classroom", the content is extremely good but occasionally let down by its strong US bias.

World Book pioneered many of the technical innovations that are now integral to CDDVD encyclopedias and its house style set a benchmark for well written education articles. The company's partnership with UK education publishers Heinemann has resulted in Heinemann World Book Online (from pound;250 per school per year) which contains every article from the 22-volume print set, 10,000 pictures and maps, and over 800 videos, animations and sound files. Heinemann promises that the online information will be updated every month.

Even with a broadband connection online multimedia can take time to download which is why CD or DVD encyclopedias are still an indispensable resource. So what's new in the 2004 editions?

Encarta (Premium Suite pound;70) has added more than 29 Discovery Channel videos and a Visual Browser; a carousel of images intended to refine the selection and browsing process. Click on any of the images as they spin round and a new carousel appears with more choices.

The Discovery Channel videos are a real asset. Expertly filmed and with well written accompanying text, they could easily form the basis of a lesson in primary or early secondary. The collection, each segment is more than two minutes long, covers Earth Sciences, Life Sciences and Physical Sciences.

Recent introductions include the Book of Quotations, more than 20,000 of them, indexed by name and subject. Together with the Sidebars feature, a collection of articles from The Times and the Literature Guides form a rich source of information.

Encyclopedia Britannica (Ultimate Reference Suite pound;60) has again produced what is effectively a three-in-one edition available, unlike Encarta, on both Windows and Mac platforms. Entering a query in the search box and clicking on one of three tabs - Britannica, Student or Elementary - will give you definitions and articles of differing complexity. Generally, this tripartite set up works well, and it certainly makes the encyclopedia more accessible to younger users.

Britannica's strength has always been the depth and breadth of its print legacy. More than 100,000 articles, 20,000 photographs, 800,000 combined dictionary and thesaurus entries and essays from famous contributors give it an authority that only Encarta can match. Regrettably, both in quality and quantity, the multimedia content does not measure up. The selection of videos and images needs a major overhaul.

For a very different perspective on world affairs, look at The World Guide CD-Rom. (pound;30) Claiming to be an "alternative reference guide", this CD contains not only the usual geo-political, historical and economic analyses but also more than 150 Amnesty International reports.

Additionally, there are stimulating, well-argued and unashamedly opinionated essays on Fundamentalism, Child Labour, Gender and "the Geopolitics of Dress".

You won't find a Hutchinson 2004 CD-Rom Encyclopedia again this year, but publishers Helicon, now part of RM and content providers for Living Library, are hopeful there will be a 2005 version. Welcome news indeed as there's a dearth of CD reference titles for younger students. The Oxford University Press stand at BETT will be featuring one of those titles - the excellent Oxford Children's Encyclopedia - alongside a comprehensive range of CD-Rom dictionaries, reference titles and a growing collection of online reference resources which includes Oxford Reference Online, the Oxford English Dictionary and newcomer, Oxford Scholarship Online.

Some excellent minority interest CD-Roms have been released this year: among them, a clutch of astronomy titles including version 5 of the much acclaimed Red Shift (Focus pound;30) and Astronomy Plus and Starry Night (pound;20 and pound;40) from Guildsoft which will be showcased at BETT.

You'll also find new products from TAG (Visual Thesaurus pound;30), Granada (Letts ICT Electronic Dictionary pound;30), Neptune (Infant Reference - on the Farm pound;26), Kartouche (In2ArtsOpera pound;50) and Kahootz (integrated CD and online resource) In fact, if you're at BETT and reference material is on the shopping list, bring a comfortable pair of walking shoes, and a packed lunch - there should be a lot to see.

Reference @ BETT

Encyclopaedia Britannica LR9 Tel: 020 7500 7800

Espresso B82 Tel: 020 8237 1200

Granada Learning E40F40 Tel: 020 8996 3632

Guildsoft Z116 Tel: 01752 241465

Heinemann PZ35Y10 Tel: 01865 888 064

Immersive Education D70 Tel: 01865 811000

Kahootz SW84 Tel: +61 3 9419 8800

Microsoft D30D34 Neptune Computer Technology PZ43 Tel: 01935 891 892

RM D50 Tel: 01235 826000

Tag Learning F50 Tel: 0174 537886

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