Hang ups

18th April 1997 at 01:00
The on-screen instructions are unequivocal. Before embarking on this week's column, I have been told I have to spend some time thinking about my intended Audience.

I must admit I'm stumped. I don't know much about my readers. From the e-mail I receive, I'd say they are a unlikely mixture of those who care about the role of IT in education and those who are stalwart members of the National Association of Nit Pickers. They can't resist the opportunity to point out the occasional non-sequitur, to chastise me for the odd factual inaccuracy and to smugly pounce on any split infinitives.

Most of my correspondents are Brits, but ever since the electronic version of The TES found its way on to the Internet, I have been receiving more and more e-mail from faraway places with strange-sounding names - so much of it, in fact, that I feel I ought to add helpful footnotes to explain some of the more parochial words and phrases routinely used in educational circles in the UK - OFSTED, Baker Day, SCAA, cutback, nervous breakdown, etc, etc.

That's as much as I can do on Audience. But another on-screen prompt has asked me to define my Purpose in writing this piece. That's easy. I want to sing the praises of Writer's Toolkit, an ingenious piece of software that is asking me these awkward questions.

Developed by the Scottish Council for Educational Technology (SCET), it is already being used extensively by pupils in Scotland. It offers them not only a sophisticated word-processor, but also step-by-step advice through every phase of any kind of writing assignment, from scripting a play to presenting a scientific report.

Naturally, I opted for help on how to write a newspaper article. After being quizzed about Audience and Purpose, I faced a series of on-screen prompts helping me to generate a few ideas, which I dutifully keyed in.

The next stage allowed me to organise these notes in a sensible order - it is simply a matter of dragging the various items of text around the screen. Once I had established the basic structure, I moved on to stage three, where I was able to pad out the notes until the article had more or less taken shape.

Next, I drafted and redrafted the article, but did so on a stripped down version of the word processor - this ensured I concentrated entirely on content and was not distracted by day-dreams of how the final version would look. Only when I was reasonably satisfied with what I had written did I move on to the full word processor, where I could experiment with fonts, point size, flashy headlines and all the usual trimmings.

I could also check the spelling, import graphics and even hear my text being read back by any one of a number of synthesised voices.

These and the dozens of other useful functions built into Toolkit are all optional. It needn't take a teacher more than a few seconds to customise the program to suit the particular needs of individual pupils.

But this is hardly necessary as Toolkit is, above all else, remarkably easy to use. SCET, however, has left nothing to chance. It has also produced an excellent jargon-free manual to accompany the package, and a video which should convince even the most terrified technophobe that Toolkit really is child's play.

As I reach the end of my piece, the word-counter tells me I am 59 words short of the total required by The TES - so I am able to squeeze in a footnote for the benefit of overseas readers.

uFootnote: Scotland is the name given to the northern region of England, noteable only for its whiskey and for Sir Harry Seacombe. That should give the Caledonian branch of the National Association of Nit Pickers something to write about.

Writer's Toolkit for Mac. Pounds 15.99. SCET, 74 Victoria Crescent Road, Glasgow, G12 9JN (enquires@scet.org.uk)arnoldevans@easynet.co.uk

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