From genome to Geronimo... at your fingertips

5th January 2001 at 00:00
With the move this year from CD-Rom to DVD, key players in digital encyclopedias now offer a range of reference tools offering learners more access to information than ever before. reports

After the "Millennium edition" jamboree of last year, there's been something of a hiatus on the digital encyclopedia front. For the big three - Encarta, Britannica and World Book - the last 12 months have been a period of consolidation, tweaking and enhancement, rather than one of radical change.

Perhaps the most significant move in electronic publishing has been the migration from CD-Rom to DVD. As DVD filters into education we will see more titles appearing on the higher capacity disks and that can only be good news for teachers. More storage means more content, a better quality of sound and video, and an entire encyclopedia on one disk, as opposed to the half-a-dozen CD-Roms that make up Microsoft's Encarta Reference Suite.

Encarta, a previous award-winner at BETT, continues to improve. The reference suite, comprising of an encyclopedia, atlas and world dictionary, is a clear beneficiary of extensive funding, good scholarship and well nigh perfect integration into the Windows environment. It's all here from genome (the Human Genome Project, which only released a first working draft in June 2000) to Geronimo, the famous Apache chief.

New this year are Encarta News, a feature that places updated and current news from the Internet on to your home screen; Dynamic Timelines, which allow you to compare synchronous events from different cultures, and Sidebars - 800 in all - containing contemporary accounts of historical events from The Times.

The Flat Maps featured in the atlas is a response, says Microsoft, to teachers' requests "for an interactive means to view the entire world at a glance".

The Researcher - where you can assimilate information and prepare projects - has been redesigned and is now a genuinely productive tool. In fact, the underlying design emphasis of Encarta is on ease of use. Internet searches can be made from the encyclopedia interface; a Web Centre connects you to appropriate Internet sites, and you can even - space permitting - run the whole encyclopedia from your hard drive.

With excellent content that's well chosen and presented, and sensitively tailored to both home and school, Encarta has an enviable reputation. There's still, however, no Apple Macintosh version which, given Microsoft's stated commitment to education and lifelong learning - and the huge success of the iMac - is both surprising and disappointing.

Hail Britannica. It's been a slow and painful transition from print to digital. Late entrants into multimedia, their first CD-Roms were turgid, expensive and woefully uninspiring. All that has changed. Britannica 2001, available on both CD and DVD, marries authoritative material with a lively interface, well-sourced multimedia clips and the new Oxford Dictionary of English. The encyclopedia is not specifically UK-localised, but neither does it have a rampantly US-bias. Similarly, though not aligned as closely to the UK education curriculum as Encarta, it contains in-depth and quality articles.

The home screen offers six options: Timelines; Spotlights, which are guided multimedia tours; Compass; Analyst, where you can use graphs and charts to make statistical comparisons between countries;, which will take you to the Britannica website; and Ask Britannica, which is the query box where you enter searches in either single-word form or by using the natural language feature.

It's one thing having a vast repository of digital information; it's quite another presenting it logically and attractively on a 15-inch or 17-inch monitor - and that's always been a forte of World Book. The interface is clear and welcoming with an attractive set of navigation tools. Articles are carefully structured and start with a simple definition, developing in complexity as the piece progresses.

World Book pioneered many of the features which are taken for granted in today's multimedia encyclopedias: highlighting of text, on-screen notes, mouse-clicking for instant word definition and sidebars. Much of this superb technology was borne of a particularly fruitful partnership with IBM. World Book also excels in the extended video essay - the piece on Mohandas Gandhi remains a high point of multimedia exposition.

World Book editor and media director Howard Timms feels that this has been a year for, "up-dating, revising, and extending the text". There are more than 500 new articles on subjects as diverse as East Timor, the Tate Modern and, inevitably, JK Rowling. It's worth noting that while World Book does not have a UK-specific version of its encyclopedia, distributor Learning Pathways has worked with LEAs to provide additional 360-degree bubble-views of local interest. Unfortunately, neither version of the 2001 suite is available on DVD.

Children who might find the sheer volume of information on Encarta and Britannica daunting, may be more comfortable with Hutchinson's Multimedia Encyclopedia (HME), described by publisher Helicon as, "fun, easy and an excellent reference tool". The lighter feel of the HME is likely to encourage younger users and the articles, though relatively short, are informative and accurate. Among the new features this year is a collection of letters and speeches of historical importance, and a set of interactive charts that can be used to compare statistical facts from different countries in the world.

The sad demise of Dorling Kindersley multimedia and the previous withdrawal of Kingfisher's Micropedia Children's Suite gives greater validity and poignancy to Oxford Children's Encyclopedia's claim to be, "the only encyclopedia that addresses the educational needs of 8 to 13-year-olds." Although it has not updated since the Millennium edition, it remains a class act. It contains the complete text of the printed edition and some excellent animations, videos and sound clips.

Encarta Reference Suite 2001 Six-disc CD-Rom Price: pound;100 (with pound;30 cash back for existing users) Encarta Reference Suite 2001, on single DVD Price: pound;70 Britannica Deluxe CD-Rom Price: pound;50 Britannica DVD Price:pound;70 World Book Price: pound;45 Hutchinson's Multimedia Encyclopedia 2001, on CD-Rom Price: pound;30 Oxford Children's Encyclopedia, on CD-Rom Price: pound;40 BETT stands Microsoft: Stand D30 and D34 World Book at Learning Pathways: Stand G55 Helicon: Stand PZ30


On the wider front, Microsoft has released the World English Dictionary - also part of the Encarta suite - as a stand-alone product.

Clear definitions of headwords, text-to-sound pronunciations and more than 10,000 new words make this an ideal reference tool for education. The program also contains a thesaurus, a quotation section and French-English, German-English dictionaries. And, if you're planning any school journeys this year, either at home or on the Continent, take a look at AutoRoute 2001, which incorporates what was formerly two programs, AutoRoute UK and AutoRoute Europe.

Microsoft, however, is not having it all its own way. This year's surprise contender is the Oxford University Press (OUP) which belatedly, some would say, seems to have realised the huge potential of its reference catalogue.

Released this year were the superb Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition) on CD-Rom and in online version. OUP has also released the Concise Oxford Dictionary and The New Oxford Dictionary on CD-Rom. The most impressive offering, however, must be the English Language Reference Shelf. This utilises some innovative technology (iFinger), which enables users to consult any of the four constituent sections (The New Oxford Dictionary of English, The New Oxford Thesaurus, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, The Oxford World Encyclopedia) by mouse-clicking on the relevant word. Reference Shelf is designed to work within Internet Explorer and any Windows application. And, while it may lack the text-to-sound pronunciation capability of Microsoft's World English Dictionary, when it comes to word definitions, synonyms and antonyms it's a class apart.

Microsoft AutoRoute 2001 CD-Rom Price: pound;50 Microsoft World English Dictionary CD-Rom Price: pound;20 Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, version 2, CD-Rom Price: pound;200 The New Oxford Dictionary of English CD-Rom Price: pound;24 The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English CD-Rom Price: pound;20 The English Language Reference Shelf CD-Rom Price: pound;30

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