Adrift in the information ocean. (Knowledge Adventure software package) (Column) (Evaluation)
by Steven Anzovin
When Christopher Columbus landed on a Caribbean island in the fall of 1492, he was completely lost, though, he didn't know it. He'd set off to find the spice islands of the East Indies (and was convinced that he'd found them), but instead, he opened the way to an entirely new world. That kind of serendipitous discovery is the theme behind a new class of educational software that lets kids explore the ocean of information in the hope that they'll make discoveries as significant to themselves as those of Columbus were to the world.
Most multimedia reference software--like The New Grolier Electronic Encyclopedia ($395.00) and Xiphias' Timetable of History, Science, and Innovation ($129.95), both excellent educational tools for older kids and fun to use--is currently available only on CD-ROM. The usefulness of these packages is thus limited to kids who have access to a CD-ROM player, and the slow pace of CD-ROM makes it hard for children to sustain interest in spontaneous exploration.
A new program called Knowledge Adventure, from the company of the same name (4502 Dyer Street, La Crescenta, California 91214; 818-542-4200; $79.95), is encyclopedia in scope but needs no CD-ROM. It comes on floppies and takes up only a few megabytes on any hard disk, although it contains hundreds of text articles and scores of images and sounds on a wide range of topics. The information in Knowledge Adventure stays in compressed form and decompresses on the fly as you access it. The program's interface is slick and friendly, with point-and-click, drag-the-gadget operation. The main panel has windows for text and pictures, and as in any well-behaved hypermedia application, you can click anywhere on the picture or on any word in the text and be transported to related material. The path you take is selected by the program, however, which sometimes makes random choices among multiple possibilities. There are also two neat navigational gadgets: a timeline slider that lets you pick an era--any era--and a rotating globe of the earth. Not only does the globe spin on command, allowing you to access information about any location covered in the program's database, but you can also zoom in and out from low-earth orbit to a vantage somewhere beyond the smaller Magellanic cloud.
What's interesting about Knowledge Adventure is that it's deliberately free-form and aimless. Unlike a book or typical database, Knowledge Adventure encourages kids to wander in fields of facts, without dwelling too long on any particular topic. The program offers in-depth information about the high points of history, from the big bang to the twenty-first century, covering such subject areas as technology, art, biography, music, architecture, and natural science. While to a certain extent purposeful navigation among these topics is possible, kids will find it easiest simply to let the program take them where it will, whether for better or for worse.
Is wandering a good way to learn? Well, it is and it isn't. Exploration behavior is as old as hunger, and it follows a well-known pattern. At first, when the environment is unfamiliar, we explore randomly. Then, as the general shape of the environment becomes known, we focus on a particular goal or set out for a specific destination. Educational programs that present gobs of material to explore need to satisfy both kinds of behavior. I let my six-year-old daughter and ten-year-old son play with Knowledge Adventure for a while, and I found that their explorations followed the usual pattern. At first, they were excited to see new things and content not to know where they were going next. But then they began to complain about not being able to go anywhere they wanted or to search for a particular concept by typing it in. To get around efficiently in Knowledge Adventure, they had to know how one fact might link up with another--or needed someone who did. With Dad and Mom on hand, Knowledge Adventure stayed interesting a lot longer.
What's the best way for kids to learn? Parent- or teacher-guided exploration. Computer software just isn't responsive or interesting enough yet. Otherwise, free-form adventures in learning provide an experience a little too close to Columbus's. After all, that venerable explorer went to his grave without a clue as to what he'd found