The glib lines of text on a CD-Rom package rarely give a clear idea of what's in store. But there's now a panel of teachers who can do just that. Dorothy Walker reports
For the past six months, the nine-year-olds in Barnes Adams' classroom have been taking part in an exercise to improve their reading skills, with the aid of new CD-Roms. Their teacher has been learning as well - the most important skill he has acquired is knowing how to read between the lines.
When he picks up a box of software claiming to be "packed with excitement plus lots of educational content", or that helps "children learn the importance of ecology while sharpening their English skills", he now knows how to put those, and other claims, to the test - in his own classroom. The results of his work are published on the World Wide Web for the benefit of the whole profession.
Adams, from Bourne county primary school, Eastbourne, is one of 60 teachers throughout the country who have signed up as evaluators on the Teachers Evaluating Educational Multimedia (TEEM) project. Aimed at building a database of rigorous software evaluations for schools, TEEM will come to the aid of all teachers who have ever despaired when they've had to stake their hard-won ICT budgets on a four-line description in a software catalogue.
Four-line descriptions are not the stuff of this scheme. Armed with a list of criteria that runs to hundreds of questions, at least two teachers work independently for three months putting each CD-Rom through its paces, producing extensive reports for the TEEM website.
Angela McFarlane, of Homerton College, is one of the brains behind the project. She is at pains to stress the difference between a software review and a proper evaluation. "A review might comment on anything from impressive, whizz-bang graphics to how the software supports an aspect of the history curriculum - but there is no way of knowing the author's ground rules. An evaluation is written against an objective framework which is known to the reader."
Together with educational consultants Anne Sparrowhawk and Ysanne Heald, Angela first hatched the idea and drew up the TEEM evaluation framework two years ago. With funding from the DFEE and The Guardian, and the backing of an advisory panel including the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) and the Office for Standards in Education, a pilot scheme to assess 80 CD-Roms was launched last autumn. Although the software is wide-ranging, there has been special emphasis on how it can be used to support literacy.
After an introductory training course, teachers receive a pound;75 fee for each evaluation (which is why software publishers have to pay to submit their products), and their schools keep the software. But for those who volunteer to work late into the night, producing reports that would put many research firms to shame, the biggest bonus has been the boost to their professional development.
Adams says: "This has helped me focus on exactly what a piece of software needs to do, and to judge software much more clearly. It's difficult to get these skills any other way."
The choice of CD-Roms is determined by software publishers, who pay up to pound;300 to have a product evaluated. In return - and for much less than it would cost to hire a consultant to do the job - they receive an in-depth assessment of how it performs in the classroom, together with any suggestions for improvements.
McFarlane would like to see that approach change in the project's next phase, currently under discussion with the DFEE. "We would prefer to be independent, looking at things we think would be useful, or things people already find valuable."
For teachers who don't yet have freely-available access to the Internet, she would also like to make the TEEM database available on CD-Rom.
But she says there is no plan to award kitemarks. "You can't simply say that software is good or bad. Assuming it is technically competent and morally appropriate, everything comes down to context. We put up a considered evaluation, but teachers will make up their own minds in the context of what they are doing."
McFarlane is a past contributor to another fund of information, BECTA's CD-Rom Titles Review, a spin-off from several schemes aiming to equip schools with technology. Although projects such as Multimedia Portables for Teachers did not specifically set out to review software, BECTA recruited a cross-section of professionals - some in schools, others from advisory bodies - to review CD-Roms before they were purchased.
The result is a database covering 800 titles, available on the Web. Like the TEEM website, this publishes the detailed criteria used by the reviewers. According to BECTA's Andre Wagstaff, the site's most successful feature is a simple one - each review is accompanied by three screen shots showing what the software looks like.
He says: "Teachers tell us the shots are enormously informative. They can see immediately that the way the text is presented is not right for their children, or that the approach - which might be perfect in a home setting - is too razzamatazz for their classroom.
"Some titles are very aggressively marketed, and schools buy because everybody is talking about them. Yet their reading age is often way beyond that of the pupils. Our reviewers don this stern pair of educational spectacles, and say: 'Never mind the surface attraction, how well does it fit into a classroom?.'" Showing off the school's gleaming computers to parents prompts the inevitable question to teachers - which software should our children be using at home?
CD-Roms that perform well in the classroom aren't always such a success in a more relaxed home setting, where there may be much more time to use the computer but much less specialist knowledge on tap.
The Educational Software Starter Pack, pound;19.99 from the Parents Information Network (PIN), is a useful publication to have on hand at parents' evenings. A collection of software evaluations aimed at parents, it covers early years, primary and secondary learning, and focuses on topics such as literacy, numeracy, reference, testing and revision.
Each title is reviewed first by teachers, who rate its educational value, before it is put to the test in a family setting. Deserving software is awarded PIN's quality mark.
PIN's Jacquie Disney, herself an ex-teacher, says: "We publish the evaluations in snapshot form, so as not to overwhelm people. Most teachers welcome this, for themselves as well as the parents they talk to."
Although the information is currently only available in print, PIN is working on raising funds to provide a Web-based evaluation service.
Parents Information Network 0171 357 9078 www.pin-parents.com Teachers Evaluating Educational Multimedia (TEEM) www.teem.org.uk BECTA www.becta.org.uk