If it looks good, play it
ABLAC Learning Works South Devon House, Newton Abbot, Devon TQ12 2BP.
Tel: 01626 332233
Trying to run a successful software company which produces purely educational material is not an easy task. The market is small, and companies don't tend to make the necessary investment into development, leading to a shortage of software for schools.
I visit many primary schools where much of the software is years old. Such software may well be educationally sound, but the quality of the graphics and sound is such that computer-literate children are put off. ABLAC Learning Works, a Devon software house, is trying to bridge the gap between the polished graphics and action of the arcade game and the requirements of education.
Mega Maths Blaster is the latest in its Maths Blaster series, and covers the same curriculum areas as Maths Blaster 1: In Search of Spot. This new title is only available for Windows 95 and Power Macs, which has meant that more memory is needed for improved graphics, but the earlier titles are still available.
Mega Maths Blaster uses an arcade game format which is sophisticated enough to satisfy the expectations of most children. The characters are reminiscent of those in American sci-fi cartoons. The software begins by setting a familiar scene - unfriendly aliens need to be conquered and to do this the player must collect tools by succeeding in five games.
The games ask arithmetic questions, from the four rules, through fractions, decimals, percentages and estimation, to number pattern recognition. Each subject area can be tackled at six different levels and - very importantly - a child can be wholly successful within the level set for them. A "Help" section is available for each mathematical area.
Some of the game formats are difficult to manipulate and the program occasionally waits too long before supplying a hint. In some cases, I didn't understand the hint itself, and the manual was of little help. The target audience was similarly puzzled: Siu is eight-years-old and found the format difficult, though the mathematical content was appropriate. For Paul, a 13-year-old IT sophisticate, the games were challenging enough but the maths too facile. Herein lies one of the problems with the package. The manipulation skills required and the arcade game format are probably too advanced for children working at lower mathematical levels, yet older children with those skills don't need the reinforcement of basic arithmetic facts. There may be a role here for the software for the less able 9 to 13-year-old.
The mathematical content is pure drill, with no explanation or hint provided if the child was given too difficult a level at the start. Also, most children use strategies, mentally or on paper, to work out what they have not memorised, . This is an essential part of the learning process, yet the speed of some of these games makes this impossible.
Teachers know that reinforcement and practice are important and this pack could be useful on these terms. Parents, however, need to understand that their child will not learn anything new from Mega Maths Blaster, but will practice what they already know in a polished, fun environment.