An abundance of riches
Less than five years ago reviewers could count the number of multimedia encyclopedias on the fingers of one hand: Encarta, Grolier and World Book were the only serious contenders in the educational CD-Rom stakes. The boom in electronic publishing has been reflected in the rapid growth of educational titles. Not only is there now a far greater choice of electronic encyclopedias, but there is also a wide selection of multimedia discs in specific areas such as art and music.
As well as the text-based heavies such as Britannica and Colliers, which is set to become a fully fledged multimedia CD-Rom early this year, there are language and literature reference discs and electronic newspaper archives, both real and fictitious. Most newspapers now publish CD editions and Dorling Kindersley's Chronicle is an imaginary tabloid account of life in the 20th century.
Unfortunately, the consequence of this abundance is that teachers need to be acquainted with an ever-growing list of titles. Where there might have been one suitable product, there is now often a choice of two or three. In a large school, a specialist information technology co-ordinator would be able to offer advice, but in smaller institutions recommendations are almost inevitably by word of mouth.
Peter Jones has taught art in secondary education in London for more than 10 years and is enthusiastic about multimedia. His own children use Encarta and Grolier at home and, of the two, it is Grolier that they find more useful for detailed information. And if Grolier is not specific enough? Then there's always that under-funded and increasingly undervalued resource - the local library.
But the screen is fast becoming mightier than the pen and in this video age many children are more receptive to multimedia information than that which is presented on the page. Animation is well-suited to understanding movement and machine mechanics, and can be particularly effective in explaining some concepts which children would otherwise find difficult to grasp. It's hard to imagine a more successful use of multimedia than the feature in Microsoft Art Gallery on composition and perspective where paintings by Caravaggio, Holbein and Uccello are overlaid with grids to illustrate the development of perspective and the use of different compositional techniques.
Recent technical advances mean that you can now rewind or advance sections of sequences at will to emphasise a particular point. This added control over multimedia material has been welcomed by teachers who have felt that some visual information is too condensed and fast-paced to be properly absorbed by students. Grolier's excellent four-minute feature on the Vietnam War, complete with maps, photographs, commentary and animation, would tax the attention span of the most dedicated student. A short video clip, carefully presented, will often have the most impact. The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, one of the most powerful film clips in multimedia selections, has a rawness and immediacy which the printed word could not hope to capture.
Teachers have to perform a delicate balancing act. The coining of portmanteau words, such as edutainment, points to the symbiotic nature of entertainment and education in multimedia. Video bites can be exciting but they often need to be integrated with more traditional teaching methods. For instance, the 1997 world edition of Encarta contains a 50-second video sequence on cricket which makes for great viewing but falls some way short of explaining the basics of the game. Colliers, though, has a lengthy, informative essay accompanied by a line drawing of batsman and typical field placement which encapsulates the essence of the sport. A well-prepared lesson would include both video and essay.
Carol Gillespie of SCET (the Scottish Council for Educational Technology) points out that teachers have to make sure that children are "not just accessing information but understanding it". Printing an article from a multimedia encyclopedia is no different than photocopying text from a book.
Teachers in special needs education take a different approach to multimedia. As classes are generally smaller than in mainstream education, there is more opportunity for pupils to have sole access to a computer. Julia Bairstow, who is head of IT at a Southwark special school in London, is in no doubt that "given the choice, kids would rather go to a multimedia source". She finds that most of her students are quick to learn navigational skills and that the most popular use of encyclopedias is to view videos and animations or to print images.
Special needs pupils, particularly those with reading difficulties, can have problems understanding the text. Fortunately, there are now two respected British multimedia encyclopedias which aim for younger students and can therefore also cater for less advanced students. Both the 1996 Kingfisher Micropedia and the recently launched Oxford Children's Encyclopedia are lively and informative without being patronising.
Search and retrieval methods in electronic encyclopedias vary from the simple - clicking on an appropriate icon or word - to the sophisticated and powerful Boolean search mechanism where users can make highly productive searches. The cross-curricular nature of encyclopedias gives children an understanding of electronic data-handling skills, which is increasingly important both in and out of school.
Where pupils are using encyclopedias for research, the presentation of information is an important consideration. Children are initially attracted to the pzazz of Encarta, but the infrastructure of World Book - where articles are accompanied by a side panel which contains a synopsis - remains a model of clarity and design.
With many of the encyclopedias now having World Wide Web sites, there has been a move towards downloading information from the Internet. Some educational analysts view this as a growing trend - which is doubtless music to the ears of network computer proponents, who maintain that the personal computer is an endangered species. There are obvious attractions; Net-based information is fresh, contemporary and exciting. Politics students following the recent American presidential election, for instance, could have visited the Web sites of the three main candidates. Teachers, however, are well aware of the contentious and unmediated nature of some Web pages.
One of the main criticisms of multimedia encyclopedias has stemmed from the suitability of their educational material. There have been suggestions that the strong American bias has made them inappropriate for British schools and particular curriculum requirements. But with Encarta now into its second World English edition and World Book set to bring out a multimedia version of its well-established British print set in March, teachers and pupils can look forward to a very educative, entertaining and localised new year.
* BETT CONNECTIONS
Britannica Tel 0181 401 7232 Colliers Encyclopedia '96, dualformat disc for PC and Macintosh, Pounds 233
ESM stand 176 (Kingfisher Children's Micropedia '96, Acorn version Pounds 90 ex VAT, Windows version Pounds 75 ex VAT)
Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia '97 PC and Mac version Pounds 49.95, from Grolier Int UK 01865 264802)
YITM stand 402 (The Hutchinson Multimedia Encyclopedia '97, Pounds 39. 99)
Microsoft stands 221, 231 (Encarta Encyclopedia '97, PC and Macintosh version around Pounds 49.99)
OUP stand C20 (Oxford Children's Encyclopedia '96, Windows version, Pounds 59)
World of Education Ltd stand C61 (World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia 96, Windows and Mac version Pounds 49.99)