Bill Hicks reports on an interactive relative to CD-Rom which English schools seem to be missing out on.
When is a CD-Rom not a CD-Rom? When it's CD-i. Puzzled? Don't be - few multimedia systems are quite so immediately endearing as this cousin of CD-Rom, the compact disc interactive (CD-i) by Philips, whose "plug and play" virtues have earned it a secure place in Scotland's education system. But why are most English schools missing out on the interactive bargain of the decade?
It arrives in a VCR-sized box, bought complete with a bundle of educational software and a full- motion video cartridge for a VCR-sized price (around Pounds 300). You plug it into the television and within seconds - unlike most VCRs - you are using your nice new CD-i player to examine the finer details of a Van Gogh portrait, to improve your performance in appraisal interviews, or perhaps just to play some music or a film.
One great strength of Philips' CD-i is that it is many things at once: an absurdly easy-to-use computer that can engage one child or a whole class in interactive learning and train teachers in its spare time; a home entertainment system which plays video games, CD videos and hi-fi music, gives you French lessons or displays your holiday snaps on the TV; and now, with an add-on Pounds 100 modem pack, a cheap way of accessing the Internet. Curiously, this flexibility also seems to have proved a weakness, at least in its acceptance in the educational world.
When Philips launched CD-i in 1992, it was promoted first as an entertainment platform with educational potential. It wasn't until early 1994 that it began to address formal education, setting up the Schools 2000 operation to raise awareness and encourage joint development of software with educational publishers.
Meanwhile, educationists were being seduced by CD-Rom, and Philips, with a respectable but hardly earth-shattering one million CD-i player sales notched up by mid-1995 (roughly a quarter of these in the UK), was already developing a more powerful high-density digital-video disc format.
So is CD-i already being edged towards its space on the museum shelf? Not yet, according to Paddy Roache of Philips Media, who is working hard to alert schools across Europe to the many uses the format has been put to in more than 2,000 schools in Scotland.
"Scotland is our high ground, a model for the way CD-i could be used in schools south of the border," he says. Elsewhere too, since Philips is setting up Schools 2000 operations in the Netherlands, Germany and France.
CD-i came to the attention of the Scottish Interactive Technology Centre (SITC) almost as soon as it was launched, and, after evaluation, was swiftly adopted to deliver a series of interactive video staff development programmes the centre had produced for the Scottish Office Education Department.
"What really appealed about CD-i was its ease of use," explains the SITC's Tony Van Der Kuyl. "Whack in the disc and you're off. Also, we had been working with full-motion video - full-screen, good-quality moving pictures. If you go down the staff development road the last thing you want is nasty little postage stamp pictures."
Not that Mr Van Der Kuyl wishes to engage in a CD-Rom versus CD-i debate. "The perception that it's all a technology argument is wrong. For us, the choice was driven by a simple application issue. Around 25,000 primary school teachers were facing appraisal interviews. How could we train them all in interview techniques?" One result of this (according to Mr Van Der Kuyl) hugely successful operation was to place CD-i players in most Scottish primary schools, where they were swiftly put into classroom service by teachers already familiar with the format, as evidenced in a further SITC CD-i disc, CD-i in Schools.
Teachers found that some of the commercially-produced software, such as the Richard Scarry Busiest Neighbourhood discs and Spinnaker Software's Story Machine series, supported by teacher's notes from Schools 2000, had immediate application in the classroom, the latter discs enabling children to compose, colour and music-direct their own CD-i adventures.
More recently, CD-i use has spread into the Scottish secondary schools, a process likely to accelerate with a new Schools 2000 project to provide an Internet magazine offering, among other things, amplification of certain curriculum-specific areas of existing CD-i software.
CD-i use in schools south of the border is patchy. One of the few authorities to run a thorough evaluation of the system is Dudley in the West Midlands, where eight CD-i players were bought two years ago as part of an investigation into multimedia technology in primary, secondary and special schools. Now there are 40, with some schools using CD-i's Photo-CD mode to project themselves into the community, setting up , for example, a presentation in a local doctor's surgery.
"We've found that CD-i gets to many places that CD-Rom doesn't," Lindsey Newton of Saltwells Educational Development Centre explains. "It's an appropriate technology, robust and cost-effective."
Though Newton reports positive responses, especially from primary teachers, he thinks Philips needs to work harder still to get the message across to schools. He also feels a "massive expansion" in dedicated national curriculum-linked educational software is essential if CD-i is to become firmly established. He says: "We've had CD-i for nearly two years, and we are still waiting for the targeted software we need."
Paddy Roache does not argue with this: "We're about to publish a new Schools 2000 catalogue with 140 titles listed. That's a dramatic increase, but there's still a desperate need for more."
While publishers Harper- Collins (Routes To Reading and Space Safari), and Heinemann (Number Factory), as well as BBC Education, have all dipped their toes into the CD-i format, Roache notes wistfully "all the hype is still with CD-Rom. We still need to sit down with publishers and remind them that there's a very powerful 'TV plus' argument for CD-i." He means that with CD-i you don't need a Pounds 1,000-plus PC with the right quad-speed CD-Rom drive to access the software.
Philip Ellaway at Heinemann clearly still needs to be convinced: "We realise CD-i has an enormous potential, but it is yet to be fulfilled. The downside is poor availability of UK-specific titles. CD-i has been dogged by a strategic 'grapeshot' approach, attempting to sell to every conceivable market."
Heinemann, he said, would wait to see how well the new catalogue is received before committing itself to further CD-i titles.
Many feel that the vicious circle of low penetration and reluctant publishers could be broken if schools in England and Wales were given the encouragement from on high enjoyed in Scotland. Some wonder why the National Council for Educational Technology has appeared to ignore CD-i.
"We are not in the business of recommending technology," says NCET director Fred Daly, "But I have recently told Paddy Roache of Philips that, if he were interested, we would evaluate the software, then tell the story to schools. "
Should Philips take up the offer, Daly adds, an evaluation could be carried out swiftly, with results out in time, perhaps, for the BETT 96 technology show.
As for fears about built-in obsolescence, Paddy Roache says Philips has made a corporate pledge of backwards compatibility. That means users will be able to play existing CD-is on the next generation of players.
Philips Media, 188 TottenhamCourt Road, London W1P 9LE. Schools hotline: 0171 911 3060. ITC, Moray House Institute, Holyrood Road, Edinburgh EH8 8AQ. Tel: 0131 558 6039.