We have all done it. Stood in the middle of an old ruin and asked the children standing around us to "just imagine". What was it like to be a Roman soldier, a medieval servant, or a neolithic farmer? But it's not easy, especially when the children are surrounded by modern signboards, reconstructed walkways and odd bits of 20th-century litter.
"If I find it difficult, with some 25 years of archaeological experience behind me," says Mike Corbishley, English Heritage Director of education, "then it must be nearly impossible for many of the individuals and groups who visit our sites."
It was Mick Cooper, Homerton College Education lecturer turned full-time writer, who suggested one possible solution. He had been working on similar issues with his primary teaching students and had the feeling that computer graphics could be the key.
He had some ideasI but needed the expertise. So then into the equation came Tony Wheeler, an ex-teacher like Corbishley and Cooper, and managing director of software distributor TAG Developments. His company had the wherewithal, and he had the personal commitment, to really produce something.
Making it real was the key, and "real" became the watchword. Real Romans - a book and CD-Rom - is the first product of the marriage between English Heritage and TAG. Real Castles is to follow in early 2000 and Real Victorians is slated for early 2001. Each, targeted mainly at key stage 2 history, combines the strengths of the printed page with the digital screen.
Romans was an obvious first choice for the project. Corbishley is a Roman expert and English Heritage has many excellent sites. The pack is based on three of those sites - Lullingstone Villa in Kent, Housesteads Fort on Hadrian's Wall and the town of Wroxeter. The software takes you around the sites but does not attempt virtual reality. "Points of entry" is central to the thinking.
"If the children find something that sparks the imagination," says Cooper, "then they are drawn in. The software is not meant to replace the experience, but to enhance or encourage it."
Wheeler calls the book an "eight-sided box", each side or page offering another way in. Helping to spark the imagination are games, recipes, Roman numeral page numbers, Roman toilet facilities (always a winner), Latin chapter titles etc, all quickly immersing you in the subject.
Thinking about the role of software played a major part in the early development. The experienced TAG developers put practical issues at the top of the list. Words such as "simple" and "workable" pepper Tony Wheeler's enthusiastic description of the CD-Rom. Importantly he believes that the product needs both the book and the CD-Rom. The two can stand alone but really work best together: "There is just so much you can do with a CD-Rom but you mustn't pretend to do what a book can do better." Wheeler holds up a full and busy double-page spread from Real Romans to demonstrate his point.
On practical issues the team decided that a three-way platform would best help schools with Mac and Acorn get a look in alongside the PC. "What right do we have to encourage the obsolescence of Acorn machines?" asks Wheeler. "Don't make schools spend more than they already have to."
Schools are only one market place. Mike Corbishley's educational role extends to 400-plus English Heritage sites, many with retail outlets. He has thought about installing a PC at some key sites so that visitors can use the software. The work on Real Castles is based around Dover Castle, a remarkable site, actively used from its beginning (as an Iron Age hill fort) until a secret nuclear bunker was finally decommissioned in the Eighties.
The emphasis here is on the medieval period (featuring a visit by Henry VIII), although the software does allow students to visualise the process, and archaeological interest, of continual development.
Aside from the product, the team also feel proud that theirs is an excellent, and very real, example of public sectorprivate enterprise co-operation. "Education has always had the potential for such collaboration," says Wheeler, "but to many people this just means putting a commercial logo on a piece of school equipment. What we are doing is using a major public resource to create a commercial product with specific educational goals. If the concept is successful, then everyone is a winner."
Real Romans by Mike Corbishley and Mick Cooper, TAG Publishing, pound;14.99. Orders can be placed with Macmillan Distribution. Tel: 01256 329242. The next publication will be Real Castles but TES readers are invited to suggest further titles. Call Tony Wheeler on 01474 537886.
English Heritage publishes numerous resources including Heritage Learning, a regular free schools newsletter.
Tel: 01604 781163 or visit the website www.english-heritage.org.uk