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Virual teacher begins lessons;Early learning software;Early learning software;Education

The makers of a new educational CD-Rom claim it matches work with a pupil's needs - just like a teacher. Roger Frost reports

Just out are the UK editions of Microsoft's My Personal Tutor CD-Roms, a pair of titles with the claim to be the first educational software that matches its work to a child's needs, just like its tutor would.

This new software for children aged 3-7 puts more brains into the machine and offers practice with shapes, counting, reading, addition and subtraction. Each has hundreds of activities involving choosing, sorting, stories, songs and games, in addition to short lessons that explain say, how to count, subtract or "sound" a letter.

As children work at it, a technology called TutorAssist assesses their progress in the background. It not only makes the work harder or easier, but if they're making mistakes, it can drop into a teaching mode to show and practice the idea.

A first glance reveals that these essentially home-learning titles offer enough activity to cover weeks if not months of play time. Covering an ambitious range of concepts, they could soon be among the ones that schools recommend to parents or even use themselves. While lots of on-screen animation and talk allows children to work alone, what needs an expert eye is a progress report feature that scores every turn of a child's progress.

The software also allows you to get under its bonnet to set a target - such as "finding the missing digit in a subtraction" - and see how the child copes. Most, I expect, will leave the spanners alone, and let the TutorAssist machinery choose the work to suit the child.

If this is what you expected of learning software, then what's remarkable is how long it's taken for anyone to use this approach in earnest. And, if you take that idea for a spin, it's more remarkable we have put such trust in making children cleverer with a machine as dumb as a computer. In fact, were OFSTED to inspect software, you can imagine how patchy the report would be.

Learning software has been great at motivating but, while it shows promise as a tutor, it's never been as flexible as a teacher. Their points for concern would be on how well it handles its subject and learners: software is a duffer at progression and, as for differentiation, it has yet to even learn the word.

Even though My Personal Tutor has still to prove its worth, it is an important development to us in education. It's several stages along from the talking software that appeared on CD-Rom and, at last, has cued the youngest children through what computers had to offer.

Like surprisingly few titles today, it is very plug and playable: there should be no need to call a capable adult to install the software, press the correct button and get through screens of writing before you can use it. If you ever meet this in software that is supposed to teach you to read, you have really got to laugh. But there are good landmarks from the past to here - the Living Books series, including Little Monster at School which reads to the child, is one, while above-average activity programs, such as Iona Software's Sammy's Science House make another.

Intelligent titles though these may be, they simply offer practice but no built-in teaching or intelligence. For this we need to come up to date. So while New Media's Electrochemistry is for the other end of school, it shows how software can teach the subject, build up from the basics, drip-feed and practise ideas on the fly. And if that's a progression landmark, look at Random House's Jump Ahead Pre-school for an example of how software can adapt to the learners. As they run the gamut of sorting and counting activities, Jump Ahead watches the child's progress and then hikes them up or down a level.

So that's progress and in the light of it, maybe we are expecting too much. New Media's David Tymm puts it frankly: "As far as teaching software is concerned, we are still at the stage of the 'talkies' in cinema." With CD-Rom software just a few years old, we can only celebrate how far it has come, rather than how long it seems to be taking.

Microsoft My Personal Tutor is two twin-CD packs for the PC. Typically, they cost pound;29.99 each including VAT from shops or on mail order.

The Pre-school title includes shape, size, colours, numbers, upper and lower case letters and sentence building. Primary School (Years 1-2) includes subtraction up to three figures, rhyming, blending letter sounds as well as 100 maths objectives practised using arcade-style games.

Others:Living Books, Random House, Iona Software from TAG 01474 537886 New Media 01491 413999

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