Believe the hype and every computer is a must-have product. So where do you seek advice if you want to buy? Hugh John sifts out the best from the information overload
PSST! WANNA buy a computer? CD-Rom? Educational software? You don't want the kids to get left behind do you? It's a merchandising jamboree out there, everybody wants to sell you something. Staying in won't help either. Junk mail, telesales, TV adverts, junk email, instant credit and nothing to pay for six monthsI it's never been easier to spend money - lots of money. And that old legal maxim caveat emptor - let the buyer beware - has never been more true.
During the Christmas period, the multi-million pound computer and games-related industry was in full sales swing and one of its main targets was the aspirational parent. But how do you know which must-have "educational CD-Rom" is suitable for your child or which computer system - many costing upwards of pound;1,000 - is appropriate?
For many parents the first port of call will be personal recommendation and that usually means a teacher or fellow-parent. It's worth remembering though that the requirements of school and home, while overlapping in some areas, are not identical. School computers are increasingly tied to a network, need to have workhorse robustness and will probably have a network connection to the Internet. If the school or local authority is a part of the Wintel (WindowsIntel) hegemony there will be added pressure to buy a PC configured for Microsoft Windows. The Apple option, however, is not one that should be discounted lightly. As the astonishing success of the iMac demonstrates, what many users want is an uncomplicated machine that plugs in and is ready to go. If you are thinking of going down the Mac road there's useful advice in MacUser or MacWorld magazines.
Ironically, while specialist computer publications have - thanks largely to the interest generated by the Internet - seen their sales increase in the past few years, many homeschool education titles have folded, most notably Parents and Computers and PC Kids. Pam Turnbull, former editor of Parents and Computing and now education editor of PC Home, believes that the success of the games market has relegated educational software and hardware reviews to the back pages.
Mindful of their readership, most magazines in the high street tend towards the nerdy male of the species with an emphasis on power, size, speed and performance. The honourable exception is Computer act!ve which, since its launch 18 months ago, has become the best-selling computer magazine in the UK. Published fortnightly, it has a readership of over 300,000, almost 20 per cent of whom are female. Editor Jim Lennox believes Computeract!ve is successful as "we've kept it simply written and kept it practical".
The magazine has two regular education pages that feature software reviews, interesting websites and a hands-on project. Technical terms used in the publication are highlighted and explained in a "jargon buster" sidebar. Complete computer systems from the likes of Dell, Evesham, Tiny and Time are evaluated and compared and the conclusions drawn are invariably uncomplicated and helpful.
There are magazines that cater for specific educational needs and are more attuned to curriculum requirements, such as The Times Educational Supplement, obviously, but also publications such as ECamp;T (Educational Computing and Technology), which is a mix of information and communications technology resources for schools, revision aids,software reviews and practical advice.
Maggie Holgate, of the Parents Information Network (PIN), says that most educational software coverage veers towards the superficial with many reviews not subjecting programs to adequate scrutiny, but the exceptions include PC Home. PIN itself has wo helpful and regularly updated guides. She says Buying a Computer and Printer (pound;14.99) is intended "to empower parents to become more confident and discerning purchasers". Advice is given on warranties, after-sales support and choosing the appropriate machine to suit needs and budget. The Educational Software Handbook (pound;19.99) contains more than 150 evaluations of home learning software that encompasses literacy, numeracy, science, music and graphics (for more information call 09001 633 644 or for orders call 0870 604 0231). PIN's program reviews can be found on Learnfree, The TES's online education service.
Keep a lookout, too, for specialist consumer magazines that sometimes focus on ICT. Which? magazine, for example, often publishes a round-up of computers for the home. Most of the broadsheets now carry a weekly supplement devoted to computing and the Internet and these often contain reviews of educational material. Even the catalogues of many educational suppliers can be a useful source of information. Firms such as RM, Xemplar, Ricketts and TAG include software reviews, some actually written by teachers and parents, which are often very helpful.
On the Internet, the problem isn't so much the scarcity of educational coverage as the surfeit. If search engines such as Lycos are unable to include every relevant website in their trawls, what chance the man on the Clapham Omnibus.com? The huge unmediated mass of information and opinion that is the Web may be a cause for celebration but it can also be a labyrinthine nightmare for the undirected traveller. Entering "educational software" into the AltaVista search engine brings up 57,217 hits - rather too many to inspect.
The development of the National Grid for Learning (NGFL) means many educational resources can be reached from one launch pad - museums, galleries, libraries are only a few clicks away from the homepage. Similarly, the excellent BBC education site hosts a wide range of activities, including Megamaths, Teletubbies, the GCSE Bitesize revision site and a collection of articles from the Computers Don't Bite series. Special educational needs are particularly well served with a section on the NGFL site and comprehensive and sensitive coverage at www.semerc.com and www.home.freeuk.netspecialneedsuk Many print publications now have an online alter-ego free of charge. Look for sites that give you access to their archive material and will allow you to enter key-word searches. The TES online archive, for instance, contains a huge depository of advice for teachers and parents.
For specific software reviews it is worth visiting the excellent TEEM (Teachers Evaluating Educational Multimedia)website. There are also educational suppliers' online catalogues, but like the print versions, one has to remember that they are sales-oriented.
More than a quarter of the eight million Internet users in the UK are now online shoppers with some 16 per cent spending over pound;1,000 annually. Improved encryption techniques and the success of online firms such as Amazon.com mean that online purchasing is, after years of hype, finally taking off. Two of the largest, most rampantly commercial but informative sites for hardware are CNET and Tucows.
Printonline resources: The Times Educational Supplement www.tes.co.uk PC Home Computeractive www.computeractive.co.uk ECamp;T (Educational Computing and Technology) PIN www.pin-parents.com Online resources: www.learnfree.co.uk
Jack Kenny's reviews are at www.becta.org.ukmagazine