History books that talk to you

31st October 2003 at 00:00
Interactive Scottish History: Wallace and Bruce and the Wars of Independence. Mary Queen of Scots and the Royal Stuarts. Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites. The Royal Mile of Edinburgh. CD-Roms and teacher's support packs. Heehaw Publishing. CD-Roms pound;14.99 each; licence for one title for 15 computers pound;85; teacher's support packs pound;35. Age range: P4-S2. www.heehaw.co.ukpublishing.

On first sight this series of CD-Roms on important themes in Scottish history appears to offer an attractive package for hard pressed classroom teachers.

Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites, Mary Queen of Scots and the Royal Stuarts and Wallace and Bruce and the Wars of Independence follow a similar format, laid out like a book with chapter headings on the main themes. The chapters in Mary Queen of Scots and the Royal Stuarts, for example, include an introduction to the Stuarts, the Tudors, the battle of Flodden, the Reformation and the union of the crowns.

Each chapter takes the form of a card divided into three sections. The first contains a map, family tree or diagram; the second, a glossary of people, places and dates; and the third, a video clip of a relevant historical figure (played by an actor) recalling events from his or her point of view. Historical content is sound, although the personal thoughts and feelings of the historical characters are open to conjecture.

The CD-Rom on Bonnie Prince Charlie includes "personal appearances" from Charles Edward Stuart, the Duke of Cumberland, Flora MacDonald and a Jacobite clansman. The standard of acting is varied. Some good acting enables the audience to empathise with the character, while other performances are amateurish, with actors rushing their words or reading monologues, which become boring. The dramatic impact is further reduced when, for example, the actor playing the prince reappears playing another character.

The teacher's packs have a hard copy of all the information contained in each chapter and can be used as a point of reference or general background reading or photocopied to enable pupils to complete the worksheets, which are basically comprehension passages based on the text.

I found these three CD-Roms disappointing. The interaction required from the user is minimal. The main activities are reading and listening and pupils will tire of the repetitive format. They are little more than animated books and could be greatly improved with a little more time and imagination.

The Royal Mile of Edinburgh is quite different from the others and is interesting and fun to use. It is a virtual walk with famous sites and buildings you can visit. It is excellent and would be particularly useful prior to a visit to Edinburgh.

There are two cards for the user to select. The first is a present day map of the Royal Mile. As the curser moves across the field, sights of interest are highlighted. Once you click on a sight, the name of the building, the year of construction and a short explanation of its use comes up. This is followed by a video clip filmed at the site showing an actor dressed in period costume telling the story of Edinburgh's history.

The second card enables pupils to select sites using a timeline from 500AD to 2000. Pupils can follow the story of, for example, Edinburgh Castle from its days as a hill fort on the sloping ridge to a fortified castle.

Excellent video footage makes this a very interesting CD-Rom.

The teacher's pack gives a hard copy of the notes on the sites, buildings or events described as well as a map and suggested walking tour. The pupil workbooks can be answered using the CD-Rom or can be used during the tour.

A list of museums and visitor centres is most useful.

I would like to encourage the producers of these CD-Roms to continue making them for schools but for improvements they would be well advised to look at other examples, such as those produced by Wollongong University for Australian schools. These are fine examples of interactive multimedia.

Allison Hillis teaches at Dalreoch Primary in Dumbarton, West Dunbartonshire

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