Intelligence gathering and all that jazz

20th October 1995 at 01:00
Bridget Martyn surveys multimedia works of reference and separates the essentials from the featherweights.

We're very excited. Very excited indeed," was a teacher's comment on the growing use of multimedia educational tools in schools. The bedrock of every school and library is its reference works and here new multimedia CD-Rom products are revolutionising our search for, and sharing of, information.

Given the choice of consulting an encyclopedia on screen or in book form, pupils will go for multimedia every time. With the publication this summer of the CD-Rom multimedia version of World Book, there are now six such encyclopedias on the market. The tremendous variation in the content and value of these encyclopedias is briefly summarised in the table below.

With the exception of Hutchinson's and the Kingfisher Children's Micropedia, these publications are American in origin and some are culturally more so than others. Compton's, based on its own long-standing print encyclopedia, has loosely-phrased, chatty entries which tend to substitute the information expected of a reference work with romanticised word-pictures such as this one on Queen Victoria which starts: "As cheering throngs massed in the streets, cannon roared, the bells of London rang, a carriage pulled up. . . the greatest Empire on Earth was paying tribute to Victoria, the queen-empress."

At the other end of the spectrum, Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopedia, based on the respected Academic American Encyclopedia, offers clear, incisive and intelligent articles which, until the publication of the World Book Encyclopedia in multimedia form earlier this year, was considered by teachers and librarians to offer the best support for homework. Grolier's may contain several million words more than Encarta, but it is marred by multimedia features spliced on to the text for users with a short attention span. Its visual and spoken commentaries on history, science and the arts are superficial and unfocused.

Teachers refer to Encarta as "the jazzy one", perhaps because, alone among these encyclopedias, it was born of a software company rather than a publishing house and has exploited the new technology to its best advantage. However, educationists have reservations about its content.

Hutchinson's, based on the print encyclopedia of the same name, is laudably British, but at half the length of Encarta and almost a quarter that of World Book, its entries are often too insular and cryptic to be of use today. It would be more realistic to view this CD as a compendium of facts, quotations and anniversaries.

The Kingfisher Children's Micropedia, based on its printed Children's Encyclopedia, is less ambitious. It offers a basic reference source for seven to 11-year-olds, with clear, lively text and an intelligent cross-reference structure. However, as a multimedia tool it is severely limited; a new edition, planned for early 1996, promises to exploit the medium to better advantage.

The way the user accesses information is determined by the structure of the encyclopedia and its interface, and it is here that the perception and cultural values of the developers and their editorial teams colour the product. Microsoft's Encarta injects a lively fare of pop culture, jazz and screen ephemera, as well as music from a broad timespan and different cultures. World Book confines itself to the performances of a few Western classical composers,but the sound reproduction is excellent and is accompanied by informative, refreshingly cliche-free captions.

Scientists unfailingly approve of CD-Rom's success in explaining complex concepts in multimedia, multidimensional form. Since we wish to know the how of a phenomenon as well as the what, it is the well-constructed animation (for example, of the Earth's crusts grinding against one another to trigger an earthquake) that is more graphic even than a video of the event. Grolier's, Encarta and World Book all have excellent animation demonstrating scientific concepts.

As befits its academic background, Grolier's has an impressive number of articles covering literary works but their brevity and lack of critical commentary make them inadequate for project work. World Book, the only encyclopedia reviewed here that has been created for the school market by an educational publisher, provides critical summaries of the world's major literary works and movements. Its closely co-ordinated articles on painting and the arts would, if taken together, fill a textbook. They provide all the information needed up to key stage 4 and beyond on literary, musical and artistic movements and their component elements and styles.

To access the information electronically in all its protean forms text, sound, pictures, videos, maps and tables demands a new kind of literacy. Users need to recognise tool bars and icons as gateways to different but related forms of information. Therefore they must be clearly distinguishable from one another and intuitive to interpret; it is here that Encarta and World Book score best, with World Book providing the more consistently intelligent hypertext links to related articles.

The prize for visual sophistication and dexterity of interface, however, must go to Encarta. Microsoft's technical wizardry delights children, while teachers generally appreciate the clear functionality of the World Book screen.

Only World Book offers the facility to print selectively from within an article. Grolier's, Compton's, and the Kingfisher come without a dictionary; Hutchinson's has a rudimentary one, while Encarta offers value for money with its dictionary, thesaurus and quiz game. World Book provides the fullest and most up-to-date dictionary and bibliographies.

Multimedia encyclopedias are relatively inexpensive to update and will continue to improve with each new edition. Updates will soon be available on-line through the Internet. In September this year, UK Online, backed by Olivetti Telemedia, was launched to offer a range of services including access to regular updates of Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia and coverage of current affairs. This summer, Microsoft announced the availability of Microsoft Network to anyone who has a PC, a modem and Windows 95. This dial-up service may soon carry similar updates for Microsoft's Encarta. Furthermore, as telecommunications technology improves, it is conceivable that entire multimedia encyclopedias could become available as on-line services.

A war is breaking out over what our children receive on screen at home and in school, with software giants and global media moguls arraigned on one side and educational publishers such as World Book on the other. It will be interesting to see whether the advertising might and versatility of the larger electronic companies or the educational standard of the product dictates who wins.

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