SPECIAL REPORT

SCHOOL TOOLS

Learning can begin with the click of a mouse

JOE CHIDLEY,VICTOR DWYER,SANDRA FARRAN September 1 1997
SPECIAL REPORT

SCHOOL TOOLS

Learning can begin with the click of a mouse

JOE CHIDLEY,VICTOR DWYER,SANDRA FARRAN September 1 1997

SCHOOL TOOLS

SPECIAL REPORT

Learning can begin with the click of a mouse

It’s that time of year again. The days are growing shorter, the nights are getting cooler—and families are gearing up for another year at school. But while many kids are gritting their teeth at the thought of math tests, spelling bees and science labs, they can perhaps take some solace because the new school year involves homework for many moms, dads—and teachers. Their mission: to navigate and research a World Wide Web packed with home pages, information guides and resource tools, and to choose from among hundreds of “educational” CD-ROMs, each purporting to be the greatest gift to learning since the invention of the blackboard. A sampling of some of the hottest—and newest—CD-ROMs and Internet sites, designed for a range of audiences from toddlers to high-school seniors:

Fisher-Price Ready for School Kindergarten Edition (Davidson). Hey, it’s never too early to get a jump on the competition. In “Kinderville,” toddlers can hone more than 30 early learning skills—including telling time, reading the alphabet and recognizing words. They do so mostly by playing games at such stops as Randi’s Wacky Word Factory and Tick-Tock’s Tower. At Clara’s Calendar Corner, children can create their own personalized calendars while getting lots of information about time, the months and the seasons. As well, some of the drills are cleverly aimed at making kids literate in the broader sense. Telly the animated telephone, while decidedly cloying, insists children memorize emergency and home telephone numbers—a feature that should help put parents at ease in more ways than one as the first day of school looms.

Orly's Draw-a-Story (Broderbund). This is a CD-ROM with attitude—Jamaican attitude, that is—that draws kids into the stories it tells. Orly, a hip and funny little girl, narrates the tales, pausing every minute or so to ask for help in sketching such objects

as trees, princesses and submarines. Children’s drawings come to life on the screen and are woven into her narrative. Older kids can create their own stories, typing the words and drawing the pictures, using more than 100 different colors and patterns. The program’s biggest fault: for all its emphasis on creativity, it makes it impossible for kids to color outside the lines. Heaven forbid.

Interactive Math Journey (The Learning Company). Many math programs teach drills. But few concentrate on explaining mathematical concepts. Interactive Math Journey is an exception. Unfortunately, it is at times a rather dryly delivered and slow-moving exception that risks losing the attention of its target group—kids between the ages of 5 and 9. But if they can stick it out, children will likely become better at arithmetic. In their journeys, students visit 10 creatively rendered “math lands,” and take part in 25 different learning activities that encompass five mathematical concepts: patterns and shapes, addition and subtraction, measurement, fractions and multiplication. The package also includes a printed Math Activity Book, plus 100 interlocking cubes and pattern blocks to make learning even more hands-on—a welcome break from the traditional unbroken emphasis on clicking to learn.

The Magic School Bus Explores the Rainforest (Microsoft). This “interactive science adventure” for sixto 10-year-olds invites players to explore a Costa Rican forest to look for things—ants, monkeys, rain and so on—that the class needs in order to complete

a model of a tropical jungle back home. This being the 1990s, the game does not let players merely rip specimens out of their habitats: kids are equipped with a device called a “bio-cloner,” which painlessly reproduces the critters for collection. (Dolly would be proud.) For young children, the controls may be a bit too complex, and at times it is difficult to see what the game is asking the player to do. But the real attraction of the program is the extras. Clicking at random points on the various screens can produce clever animated sequences. And beyond the actual puzzle is an impressive array of well-presented, entertaining information about the rain forest, its ecology and animals.

Logic Quest (The Learning Company). Billed as a 3-D learning adventure, Logic Quest is a hodgepodge of themes, styles and elements that are occasionally entertaining—if a bit confusing. The point of the game is to navigate through mazes. In the first maze, players are instructed to find panels depicting black chess pieces. Behind each correct panel is part of a robot. When all panels are found and the robot is complete, the player must instruct the robot to find a special key and unlock a door to the next level. For a logic game, the rigmarole seems to make precious little sense.

But Logic Quest has many features to recommend it good graphics and animation, a simple interface and a feature that allows players to create their own puzzles. After a while, it manages to become mildly addictive. One nagging question: will the 8to 14-year-olds it is designed for have the patience to wait that long?

ABC World Reference 3D Atlas 97 (Creative Wonders). There may never be any need to load the kids in the minivan for a summer road trip again. True, there is nothing like the real thing—but this CD-ROM makes a valiant effort. Impressive artwork lets users soar over the Earth like Superman, and space-age music sets the mood for navigating a spinning globe, zooming in for views and tours of countries, cities, lakes and volcanoes. Short videos have an environmental bent, explaining such phenomena as oil pollution, the extinction of species and the fragility of rain forests. And statistical charts provide screens of information that can be endlessly compared and correlated by country. While the program has many outstanding features, users should be prepared to sit with the manual: figuring out how it all works takes patience and practice, which may not sit well with young users.

Jr. Nature Guides: Insects, Birds, Amphibians & Reptiles (Ice Integrated Communications & Entertainment). The Canadian-made junior nature guides are among the best edutainment software on the market today. A major reason: they integrate CD-ROMs and books, providing kids aged 7 to 12 with great adventures through the wildlife kingdom. Each of the three guides comprises a veritable living bestiary, arranged according to the habitats in which the animals live. The beasties themselves have been drawn in detail, with informative descriptive notes. And a searchable database provides a list of each species sorted by size. The guide even comes with a printable field kit for recording wildlife observations from the real world. That, in the end, is what really sets the junior nature guides apart: they encourage kids to get up, get out—and enjoy the wonders of the great outdoors for themselves.

Voyage Through the Solar System 2.0 (Palo/Haklar Multimedia). Convincing kids of any age to learn more about the final frontier is not an especially hard sell. This CD-ROM makes it that much easier. And it could not be simpler to operate. The voyage begins with a vividly rendered map of the Solar System that invites users to click on planets, moons, comets, and stars and other terrestrial objects. Subsequent screens provide access to moving 3-D images that explore the inner workings of Saturn’s rings, the Earth’s atmosphere or Jupiter’s moons. Another click leads to more detailed textual information. And an audio feature helps kids—

and adults—pronounce difficult words like silicaceous. Two flaws: some of the icons do not make it clear where the next flight is headed; and the New Age music can be grating. On the other hand, this is a trip to the outer limits.

Logical Journey of the Zoombinis Deluxe (Broderbund). Remember Mr. Potato Head? That is what a Zoombini looks like. But for the most part, the resemblance stops there. This is a challenging, enjoyable CD-ROM that incorporates advanced math and logic for kids aged 9 and up. The premise: users must act as guides to the peace-loving Zoombini Tribe as it flees the evil invading Bloats. Along the way, travellers tromp through strange regions inhabited by such creatures as the Titanic Tattooed Toads and ravenous Pizza-Eating Tree Trolls. Every new adventure presents a challenging puzzle whose solution requires deductive reasoning. Kids can choose at any time from four levels of difficulty. Warning: children must have the patience to problem-solve.

The 1998 Canadian & World Encyclopedia (McClelland & Stewart). There is probably no better marriage of information and technology than an encyclopedia on CD-ROM. The 1998 Canadian & World Encyclopedia impressively marshals a wealth of information about the country—including its history, geography, and social and

artistic culture. Now in its fourth edition, the encyclopedia comes with a new Lives & Times of the Prime Ministers. For the second year, it also includes the Maclean’s Year in Review, with more than 500 articles, as well as monthly updates available on the Internet. And like any Canadian reference book worth its salt, the encyclopedia sports French-English and English-French dictionaries. However the sheer volume of information means this CD-ROM will take up a hefty chunk of most computer hard drives.

Microsoft Bookshelf 98 (Microsoft). Bookshelf 98 is a serious research tool—and a very good one. Seamlessly integrated into Microsoft’s Windows operating system, it brims with accessible, searchable information. Users can access a virtual library of reference materials, including the American Heritage Dictionary, an Internet directory listing more than 6,000 Web sites, a world atlas, thesaurus, world almanac, dictionary of quotations and an encyclopedia. Some of the entries, including a 360-degree panoramic view of Banff National Park, are stunning. Best of all, the various elements of Bookshelf are logically, smoothly linked, making it invaluable to any student from public school to university and beyond.

Math for the Real World (Davidson). Call it a brave attempt to win over a preteen crowd more often interested in hangin’ with their friends than sitting in math class. This CD-ROM does a good job of showing kids how math skills apply to problems that might confront them in everyday life—or at least the everyday lives of rock stars. To start the program, users join a band and head out on a 10-city tour. Throughout their travels, they are presented with problems that have mathematical solutions. Example: “Your guitar just broke. Calculate sale prices and percentage discounts so you can snag the cheapest replacement.” As a reward for making sound math decisions, students are given the opportunity to create their own music video. And throughout their tour, they can jam with the disc’s house band. Others within earshot are advised to grab earplugs—this program rocks.

ChemLab (I. Hoffmann + Associates Inc.).

ChemLab should get an A for re-creating the experience of chemistry class—the confusing complexity of formulas and equipment, the tedious repetition of predictable experiments, the mind-numbing boredom. The program foists the user into dully rendered labs, where would-be chemists can follow the steps of pre-set experiments or start messing around with chemicals. Either way, the results are underwhelming. Fun it is not. But can ChemLab be a learning tool? Well, there is a periodic table, and models of molecules in 3-D. And the program comes with an on-line textbook—no, not a souped-up interactive guide, but General Chemistry, looking and reading just like the real thing. In other words, what ChemLab offers is what students would encounter—in a more real and engaging way—in a high-school chemistry course. Question: why would they want the CD?

BodyWorks 6.0 (The Learning Company). Wondering what exactly a spleen does? Ever been called a pain in the gluteus maximus— but weren’t quite sure what it meant? BodyWorks 6.0 has the answers. This is an encyclopedia of knowledge about bones and muscles, diseases and digestion. Best of all, the information—with realistic models of body parts that can be rotated to give views from all sides— is stunningly rendered in gorgeous graphics. The sheer number of features is impressive: guided tours of the main physiological systems, from the skeletal to the nervous to the lymphatic; 15 video “lectures” from a severe-looking medical instructor; and a point-and-click link to a World Wide Web site that features current medical news. Parents may be happy to know the program includes a censorship option to prevent pre-adolescents from seeing the naughty bits.

Thumbnail Theater: Macbeth (I. Hoffmann + Associates Inc.) While scholars say the works of William Shakespeare are sheer genius, most teenagers could probably come up with other descriptions. Now, Thumbnail Theater’s CD-ROM primer of Macbeth promises to make the Bard accessible. The heart of this Canadian-produced program is an animated, somewhat bowdlerized, humorous précis of the Scottish play, read by program creator Michael Mills. By clicking on icons as Mills talks, users can call up printed information about Macbeth in fiction and history, and about day-to-day life in Elizabethan times. There are a few glitches—namely, some erroneous punctuation. But all the extras—including a printed ftill-text version of the play, complete with stage directions—turn this program into a real learning tool.

JOE CHIDLEY

VICTOR DWYER

SANDRA FARRAN