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Ripples of knowledge

Geography and history come vividly to life if you use the growing range of CD Roms. Simon Womack selects the best of them.

At one time it seemed that, as you unpacked your bright and shiny new computer and rummaged through the dealer lists and manuals, you would always find a large green notice, for optional attachment to the monitor, which confidently stated that erring is only human but complete foul-ups require computer assistance.

If this myth has resulted in your giving information technology a wide berth, now is the time to think again. Today, the world of IT is full of robust software, a range of applications that can be readily applied in humanities and powerful computer hardware. Getting started in information technology couldn't be more straightforward.

One of the simplest ways to use IT in the humanities is to run a CD-Rom. There is an ever-growing range of these machines available. Atlas CD-Roms, of which there are several aimed at both primary and secondary pupils, provide a very good way to start. Looking at different types of maps or finding places rarely requires any IT knowledge. Their reliability often quickly imbues the confidence to try the more ambitious of their features, such as designing and saving a "trail" of pictures and maps for use with a specific topic.

First establish what type of computers you have available at school. Then you can begin to select appropriate titles. And it's not the hit-and-miss affair it might at first glance seem to be. There are several publications - including CD-Roms for Geography and CD-Roms for History - that give reasonably up-to-date and comprehensive listings with short reviews. You can also consult the education press, subject journals and hardware specific magazines such as MacUser. The National Council for Educational Technology has published an extensive range of CD-Rom reviews, which are also available on its World Wide Web site.

You may find that the publishers will provide discs on approval - but check with your IT co-ordinator that the computer with the CD-Rom drive has enough memory to run the disc. You don't want to be disappointed before you even start.

To branch out from commercially produced CD-Roms, think about using the CD as a store for your own photographs. If you can use a point-and-click-camera, you can use the Kodak Photo CD system, which has the advantage of producing ready-digitised images for use in desktop publishing or multi-media displays. Take the slides or negatives from, say, your recent trip to an industrial museum to a branch of a well-known high-street chemist and ask to have them put on to a Photo CD. The CD-Rom comes with the facility built into it for you to view the images on your computer - but they can also be imported into word-processing, drawing and presentation packages. The result is a ready source of images that the pupils who went with you on the visit can now use in their accounts of the development of 19th- century public transport.

If starting with CDs isn't feasible, then an alternative is to look around and see what good quality software you already have in school and to devise tasks that enhance the teaching of geography and history through its use. Good ideas, as well as examples that can be worked through, are to be found in all three of the publications from the Geography IT Support Project (at the NCET). Investigating Aspects of Human Geography, the latest in this series, looks at ways in which pupils can examine the relationships, anomalies and patterns of development through the use of data-handling and spreadsheet software. Examples looking at such questions as "Is there a north-south divide in Italy?" and "Can development be measured?" are supported by ready-made data files for most common databases and spreadsheets used on Acorn, PC and Apple computers.

In the same publication there is a good section on organisation and management, which sets out the IT skills needed to undertake the activities. But don't expect any publication to lead you by the hand in using a particular database or spreadsheet. You will have to learn the basics of searching, sorting and graphical display of the software used in your school first. If you need help at an absolute-beginner level, try digging out a package like the "Water Excel Project" which has step-by-step guides.

Alternatively, history teachers could have a first stab at multi-media by creating timelines with Chronicle which is aimed at both teachers and pupils. Timelines can include text, graphics, sound and movies. Using multimedia in a prepared framework is likely to be simpler than trying to go it alone in designing a display with a specific multimedia package.

The Internet is not be the most obvious place to start using information technology. But it is important to remember that getting into to the Internet gives unprecedented access vast sources of information, and if there is anything that geographers and historians love it is information. So it is worthwhile persevering in learning how to use a Internet link and putting up with the odd hiccup in making connections or downloading data. If at this stage you don't quite feel up to navigating the Internet yourself but can persuade someone to do that part for you, here are two locations worth having a look at. "What Happened This Day" is a daily list of events that happened in previous years on the day of the month you visit it, including births and deaths of the famous.. Using the information from this site provides an ideal little light-hearted addition to any history lesson. Talking about people from the past is always fun and always a chance to reminisce about your own past. Please sir, who was Freddie Mercury?

More seriously, the British Library has a complete copy of the Magna Carta on its site with a translation - a good introduction to the many museum and library net locations.

Old jokes, green notices and horror stories aside, if you have never used IT, then there has probably never been a better time to start.

* "CD-Roms for Geography" available from either NCET 01203 416994 or The Geographical Association 0114 2670666."CD-Roms for History" available from NCET 01203 416994.Information on "Kodak Photo CD" available on 01442845710."Investigating Aspects of Human Geography","Investigating Weather", "Shopping and Traffic Fieldwork"and "Water Excel Project" available from NCET 01203 416994"Chronicle for Windows and Macintosh" available from SCET 01413375051 locates "What Happened This Day" locates the British Library site -use the menu on screen to go to "New on Portico" where you will find the Magna Carta.

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