It's all in the blend

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
What's better than a book? A book that has software attached, says Gerald Haigh

The book is a highly convenient, manageable and easy-to-use way of presenting children with an array of tasks and information. But there are some things a book can't do. Its pictures don't move. The sentences don't talk aloud. The number lines don't magically stretch themselves across the page.

The answer is to package some software along with your book that will do these things and more. In fact, when you think about it, there's no limit to what you can do by way of extending, illustrating and explaining.

So why do you sometimes get a CD-Rom containing just a set of downloadable worksheets also provided in photocopiable form in the back of the teachers'

version, instead of Pythagoras himself explaining his theorem in song with geometrical patterns danced by the Radio City Rockettes?

It's because publishers have to balance innovation against providing what's practical and familiar. They simply can't run too far ahead of the game. As Stephen Fahey, editorial director for maths, science and ICT at Harcourt Education, puts it: "We've always tried to move the teaching and learning on without going too far and are using the same approach to our electronic resources."

He sees blended software as a painless way of improving teachers' use of ICT. "It comes packaged with something they're familiar with," he says.

"It's a way of easing them into using ICT. It's better than installing some complex program and just telling them to use it."

Part of the challenge is to convince teachers accustomed to book-based teaching that there are benefits to installing and getting to know the CD-Rom - or the associated website - that comes with a scheme, and then tackling the organisational problem of putting children and computers together at the right time.

"As publishers we're getting better at this," says Stephen. "We try to say: 'If you do it this way, you will see a benefit.' The key points are: where does it add value and how can we make it easy to use?"

From the writer's point of view, the option of adding software comes as a bonus. Heinemann's Explore Science scheme comes with interactive software that, as well as providing worksheets and planning documents that can be edited, also has a range of still and video images. Primary science writer John Stringer, editor of the series, says: "It was great to be able to write this knowing that children could use high-quality images."

At the same time, as he points out: "Everything that's on the software is in the books. We had to think both of teachers with whiteboards and those without."

Much the same caution applies to the supporting websites that now come with schemes of work. Oxford University Press (OUP) has lots of supportive sites for its schemes. Heinemann has a cross-curricular website, Explore, that covers its courses, and each of the various primary and secondary subject courses from Longman usually has at least one website in tow.

The one for Exploring Science has tests, updates of government initiatives, cover lessons for when teacher is away and notes for technicians. Look carefully, though, and you'll see that much of what's on offer is material intended for downloading and printing rather than for working with live.

But it's no less helpful for that, and what's offered is usually lively and professional and capable of saving valuable teacher time.

The restraint is there, of course, because there are still lots of schools where internet access is plagued by unreliability and slowness, which is presumably why OUP sites wisely offer "text only" alternatives to some animated pages. What the website can do, though, is provide a quick response to teacher needs. As Elaine Waterhouse of Longman explains: "If teachers are asking for something, or there's a curriculum change, we can react quickly."

Clearly it will be some time before a published scheme appears where the software or the website is indispensable. The exception seems to be where the resource touches on ICT skills. Cut, Paste and Surf for key stage 3 history, from Nelson Thornes, comes with a CD-Rom you actually need.

Nonetheless, even within the constraints of available hardware, there's still room for progress, and it's driven in part by the increasing use of whiteboards and data projectors. A piece of software producing a "one hundred" number square that highlights different patterns in colour as the teacher, or a child, makes the connections and suggestions, is much more powerful as a big projected image than it is on a computer screen.

That's why we're starting to see software that packages some of the content of a scheme as a presentation for whole-class teaching. Heinemann's Metro French scheme, for example, is now supported by Metro Electro a "Teacher Presentation Package". The handbook leaves nothing to chance, providing clear hand-holding instructions for the ICT-wary teacher.

Similarly, the same publisher's primary Explore Science has a "Teacher Interactive Pack", with material intended for whole-class teaching. There's no doubt that whole-class access, whether via a whiteboard or by giving every child a networked Tablet PC, will provide a huge boost to blended software.

Looking at blended software

* When you look at schemes, always ask about the software. At the very least it will help you produce professional, customised worksheets and planning documents.

* See if it helps you with whole-class lessons on your whiteboard or data projector. If so, can you preview and personalise the lessons on your own computer?

* Does it add excellent animations or video that motivate learning and explain concepts?

* Does it provide material for individual learning?

* Is it easy to load and run?

* Do you have (or are youplanning to have) the hardware in school to make the most of it?

Contacts for BETT

Harcourt Stand Y10

Tel: 01865 311366 Longman X34 Tel: 0800 579 579

Oxford University Press B60 Tel: 01865 556767

Nelson Thornes PZ32 Tel: 01242 267287

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