The world on a disc

Bridget Martyn

Bridget Martyn praises a CD-Rom encyclopedia with its sights firmly set on education. THE OXFORD CHILDREN'S ENCYCLOPEDIA ON CD-ROM CD-Rom for Windows Multimedia PC, Pounds 59.99 Oxford University Press.

At last, there is a British multimedia encyclopedia that meets the needs of the eight-to-thirteen age group. However, at just short of 1 million words and slightly under Pounds 60, parents might ask whether the new Oxford Children's Encyclopedia is a better investment than one of the American giants containing 10 to 15 times more words and costing the same or less. What is more, Compton's, Encarta, Grolier's and World Book cater not only for the upper end of this age group, but serve older children and adults as well.

The Oxford Children's Encyclopedia is a tightly defined tool that focuses on the needs of a narrow age group, and clearly it has been compiled by an experienced and thoughtful team of editors, developers, designers and con-sultants. Every feature has been written with the national curriculum and a multi-cultural target audience in mind.

Information retrieval is much easier with a well-planned CD-Rom encyclopedia such as this than with a printed version. Its 2,200 entries contain more than 7,000 embedded electronic links to topics which can be accessed through the "sniffer dog" search tool. Illustrations to the article on the Bible, for example, are found among the pieces about frescoes, illuminated manuscripts, paintings and Rembrandt.

Educationists, under the guidance of project manager Diana Forster, have trawled through every media element on the disc to group together portfolios of illustrations that range from geometric shapes and patterns to domestic dwellings and people at work.

Teachers' needs have been as carefully catered for as children's. By using the Bookmark facility, for example, a teacher can set up and label files before class begins. The Notebook enables groups to create multimedia presentations with pictures, sound clips, animations and text. The source of extracts can be recorded and comments added.

The most inspired part of the package is the Handbook for Parents and Teachers. The encyclopedia is almost worth buying solely for the Handbook's 112 ring-bound pages. The size of a pocket book, it offers practical, lucid and detailed advice on how to get the most out of the disc. The book's second half is a trailblazer that today's CD-Rom reference publishers would do well to follow.

"How parents can help" spells out the key role parents can play in using the encyclopedia. "Using the encyclopedia in the classroom" sets out, stage by stage, the targets set by the national curriculum up to early secondary, and gives guidelines and examples on how to attain these in all the core subjects. Are you looking for ways of introducing cross-curricular links? If so, page 79 of the Handbook will give you a number of suggestions.

As with all such products, however, there is room for improvement. For instance, the "hot words" (hypertext links to related subjects) in blue type are too indiscriminately scattered within articles to be of much use, and are often included simply because they have their own article in the encyclopedia. Thus, the article on France prompts you to look up "bears", "volcanoes", "shops" and other irrelevances.

Important information, such as whether an article contains maps or multimedia items, is not given anywhere. To unearth such information, you have to click laboriously down each screen to the end of the article. Perhaps version 2 will tweak these inconsistencies.

Compared to other multimedia encyclopedias, the Oxford Children's is a product that will endure, and it deserves to sell well. But in deciding to limit the text to under 1 million words, the publishers have compromised the text for graphics and multimedia, forcing us to retain the American encyclopedias already in our primary schools.

The encyclopedia lacks their versatility, and is too lightweight for really detailed project work. At the recent Parents, Teachers and Governors Show in London, it was claimed that an increasing number of schools have stopped buying CD-Rom encyclopedias, preferring to down-load information from the Internet.

If this becomes a trend, perhaps CD-Rom encyclopedias will prove most useful in the home, where parents will keep their children happy with the Oxford Children's Encyclopedia, supplemented by one of the American encyclopedias for general family use.

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