Take me to the ice

Graham Hart

Attenborough's Antarctic. BBC Multimedia CD-Rom for Multimedia PC Pounds 29.99 (inc VAT). BBC Education, FREEPOST LS2811, West Yorkshire, LS23 7EU. Tel 01937 541001. Age range: 9+.

Exploring Bears and Pandas. CD-Rom for PC Pounds 14.99. Ransom Publishing, FREEPOST(OF2373), Watlington, Oxon OX9 5YZ. Tel 01491 613711. Age: 9+

Exploring Habitats: LandExploring Habitats: Water. CD-Roms for PC and Macintosh Pounds 39.99 each (ex VAT). Wayland Multimedia,61 Western Road, Hove, East Sussex BN3 1BR.Tel 01273 722561. Age range: 9-14.

Book publishers have always divided their organisations, and products, into trade and educational: novels or text books. Educational publishers have, appropriately, always been very sensitive about the integrity of their product, in particular the level of content and language.

Publishers of CD-Roms, possibly, don't have the same vision. Theirs is an expensive product and they don't mind where they sell it. They can supply a huge mass of information, and it may not always be harmonised to one level. Consequently many products contain a mix of information - ideal somewhere in the seven to 70 age range.

In theory, therefore, you always view CD-Roms carefully, guiding students to key areas and planning usage by relevance. Of course, you have to be confident enough of the content to allow kids to stick them in the machine and just get on with it. Children prefer this approach, and most CD-Roms recognise this.

Attenborough's Antarctic typifies the point. This CD-Rom is based on the BBC TV series Life in the Freezer. Video clips, with David Attenborough's compelling narrations, are at its core. These are interwoven with all that you expect from this style of CD-Rom: diagrams, maps, texts and photographs, all usable through clear menus and indexes. The contents support three main ways of working: via thematic "guided tours" (breeding, feeding, migration etc); through "quests", puzzles that steer you around the information in search of answers (who eats who, how do they live etc); and through "Project Maker", an easy-to-use tool kit for creating your own electronic presentations.

As for level, well 7 to 70 sums it up. The breadth of detail and the clarity of presentation - not forgetting the sheer wonder of the subject matter - make it hard to resist for all but the most advanced specialist. I want to visit Antarctica, please.

Exploring Bears and Pandas is also hard to resist - this is as much to do with the subject as the educational value. The bears and pandas, largely threatened species, are quite remarkable. As for level, I suppose "family viewing" is the best description. But at Pounds 14.99, schools could well be interested. Again, video clips are at the core with excellent toolbar menus offering easy use and wide project possibilities - or just sit back and enjoy. If nothing else you'll learn that bears are associated with Candlemas, the early spring festival on which St Blaise farted to signify the expulsion of the old winter months.

Two other CD-Roms with a similar warning message - you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone - are Exploring Habitats: Land and Exploring Habitats: Water. Both present a strongly ecological slant on their topics, although they are not unduly pessimistic. Both come from Wayland Multimedia and are clearly aimed at educational use. The claim is nine years and rising, and this is largely borne out by the contents. Much above 14 years and students might begin to feel the graphics a little too simplistic. Reinforcing their claim to educational value, they include curriculum notes applicable to Britain.

Mixed-ability usage, in the Exploring Habitats titles, is helped because the screen text is read by a narrator. This really helps the less able student to keep up with content and receive valuable reading help - without taking up the teacher's time. As for content, they are broad in scope. Urban habitats are not ignored and rivers and lakes, for schools that only buy one CD-Rom, are appropriately included in both. For IT buffs, it's interesting to note that "live" links with the World Wide Web are built into this product: information unlimited.

The Exploring Habitats CDs are a bit pricey, but it's hard to find a norm with CD-Roms. Only the 99p seems to be consistent.

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