The normal, common or garden paper atlas is pretty good, colourful, varied and, above all, easy to access. You can usually find what you want to know in seconds. While it's easy to be dazzled by CD-Rom, an atlas on CD-Rom is much slower to access and probably more expensive.
If you buy a CD-Rom atlas, make sure it provides a fresh look at the way such information is presented, creating possibilities not possible on paper.
Few CD-Rom atlases are prepared with education in mind. World Atlas Version 4 (for PC or Apple, Koch Media Pounds 46) is one of those CDs that is regularly given away with new computers. Easy to use and install, it is American and its bias is clear - but it's one which is worth keeping if it comes free.
The 3D Atlas (for PC or Apple, Electronic Arts Pounds 49.99) is an impressive UK product. It is structured around three main globes: physical, political and environmental (there are also nine others). No other atlas shows such detail in such an accessible way. There is ecological material, environmental issues and a statistical database. You can study biomes, tectonics, the geosphere, environmental phenomena over a period of time or measure distances. It also has some intriguing features, such as multimedia "flights" across the Himalayas and the Rockies - and some strange omissions, such as climate data. It could be used at primary and secondary level.
Global Explorer (for PC, Koch Media Pounds 47) has one marvellous facility: its god-like view of the world. You can hover high in the sky and then descend until you are just above 42nd St in New York or Trafalgar Square in London. Global Explorer is a computerised map of the world with street maps of 100 cities - with a great deal of statistical information. The down-side is that it is aimed at the tourist or home user, but its virtue is that it shows where places are in relation to others. However, the bias is towards the United States and some of the information on the UK is inaccurate.
The Image of the World (for PC and Apple, British Library Pounds 14.95) is more an historical tool than a reference work. It has maps across the centuries from Ptolemy up to the spy satellites. Its chief purpose is to induce a feeling of awe at the skill of those cartographers from the past who managed to get so much right. It is a beautiful and simple production and at this price is a bargain.
Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? (for PC and Apple, Br?derbund Pounds 35). This disc is infotainment writ large. Many geography teachers will throw up their hands in horror; but most children will be enraptured by a detective game that takes them around the world and captivates them with outstanding animation and sound. This is fun. Learning will take place even if it is only in finding locations. The sophistication is wonderful and the main question that it poses for teachers is why can't other educational discs have the same flair and humour?
The National Geographic Picture Atlas of the World (for PC and Apple, Koch Media Pounds 50) is really meant for home use. The detail it gives is superficial and targeted at the tourist or interested browser.
Distant Places Interactive Atlas (for PC, AU Enterprises Pounds 100) was created for education. The software is robust, easy to understand after minimal instruction and works well on a low-powered machine. The disc does not have the design gloss of the big publishers but it is made for the national curriculum, and for the teacher who wants pupils to understand their world. It enables them to make maps to illustrate the points that they want to make, and the help sheets and the worksheets are well done. A splendid production.
The "must have" atlas for schools has not yet arrived, but we are now getting an inkling of what it might be like. If it is to satisfy real learning needs it will have to be done in consultation with the educational community.
With all these CDs you will need hardware that is current. In the case of the PC it should be at least 486, an Apple should be running System 7 or higher. All will benefit from a double speed CD-Rom drive.
The Advisory Unit Computers in Education, 126 Great North Road, Hatfield, Herts AL9 5JZ. Tel: 01707 266714
Broderbund Software, Unit A, Sovereign Park, Brenda Road, Hartlepool TS25 1NN. Tel: 01429 273029
The British Library Publishing Office, 41 Russell Square, London WC1B 3DG. Tel: 0171 412 7704
Koch Media, 10 Cross and Pillory Lane, Alton, Hampshire GU34 1HL. Tel: 01420 541880
Electronic Arts, 90 Heron Drive, Langley, Slough, Berks SL3 8XP. Tel: 01753 549442