Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 168 / SEPTEMBER 1994 / PAGE 62

Back to school with multimedia. (multimedia educational software) (Multimedia PC) (Buyers Guide)
by Scott A. May

For the first time in generations, something new and exciting has been added to students' typically boring back-to-school shopping lists: CD-ROMS. From preschoolers to postgraduates, today's multimedia educational software is changing the way we learn.

But is it truly a new way to learn? Or is it simply a new twist on old audiovisual teaching tools? Any way you look at it, there's no doubt that multimedia makes learning fun. Students love it because it lets them advance at their own pace. This new technology can also be a teacher's best friend, easing the load in overcrowded classrooms. Though never meant to be a surrogate parent or teacher - or a replacement for textbooks - multimedia software gives students dynamic one-on-one instruction that they might not otherwise get.

What follows is just a small sample of multimedia's growing number of educational titles. By combining traditional text with elements of sight and sound, these CD-ROM titles help make learning more fun and rewarding.

Early Explorations

Most people agree that the first few years of informal learning are crucial to a child's educational development. Little minds are like sponges, eager to absorb the sights and sounds of the world that surrounds them. Children respond immediately to cute and colorful characters, interacting in settings they can identify with. Once a personal connection is made, the door swings wide open to new worlds of learning.

Introduce preschoolers to a miniature world of interactivity with four titles based on the work of renowned children's author Richard Scarry: Busytown ($49.95) and How Things Work in Busytown ($59.95) from Paramount interactive (418-813-8055), and Busiest Neighborhood Ever ($49.95) and Best Neighborhood Ever ($49.95) from Activision (800-477-3650). Busytown is designed for children 3 to 7 and contains 12 discovery-oriented areas in a cartoonlike town. The program's 13 original songs are tied directly to the activities the children see on the screen. While Busytown teaches children how to perform individual tasks, How Things Work in Busytown shows them how to combine tasks to create a working community. Children learn to count, recognize words, and solve problems by participating in a variety of activities, including harvesting wheat and assembling machines.

In Busiest Neighborhood Ever and Best Neighborhood Ever, kids 3 and up are once again encouraged to discover the animated avenues of Busytown, where characters work and play in a flurry of friendly activity. Shops of all varieties open their doors for close, hands-on inspection: bakery, doctor's office, TV station, music store, produce market, art studio, and many more. Included here are memory exercises, music appreciation, problem solving and creative thinking, and simple math and geometry. Language comprehension and word recognition are also heavily stressed, using expressive verbal reinforcement. Just as important, the programs help kids grasp basic social concepts and how people - or dogs, cats, and pigs, in this case - can live and work together as a community.

Learning to Read Simply put, learning to read

with multimedia software is a match made in heaven. Expecting a child to launch into books on his or her own isn't fair, but let's face it - some families find it difficult to devote enough time to this extremely important stage of development. CD-ROMS, on the other hand, are tireless readers and thrive on the repetition kids need to learn word association, pronunciation, sentence structure, and story forms. Toss in colorful animation, speech, music, and sound, and you have the makings of some powerful teaching tools. The following are excellent examples of what educators call whole language learning.

Take a solid first step toward reading with Sound It Out Land 1 and 2 (Conexus, 800-545-7677, $49.95 each), a pair of early learning software titles for Windows, aimed at preschool- and kindergarten-aged children. With its carnival setting and friendly cartoon characters, each program gently introduces kids to the basics of consonant, vowel, and whole word pronunciation. The first volume sticks to simple three-letter words, while the second tackles slightly more complicated four-letter words, with an emphasis on enunciation. Your tour guides in both titles are Vowel Owl, Singalong Sam, Reading Robot, and Tucan Read, who reinforce their lessons with songs and interactive games.

Who Wants Arthur? (Media Vision, 800-684-6699, $39.95) is just one title in an extraordinary series of early learning software called Professor Gooseberry's I Can Read Club. Here, you'll meet Arthur, a lively but lonely little brown dog, who will try anything to find a loving home. Children navigate the story in one of four modes. Look and Listen reads the story out loud, without text or interactivity. Read with Me adds onscreen text and slows the narration, allowing kids to better follow the words, pronunciations, and story flow. Think About the Story presents an interactive exercise in word recognition, association, and meaning, as kids advance the story by filling in missing words. Finally, You Read lets you read alone, with optional spoken assistance for difficult words and phrases.

Another good example of whole language learning is Sitting on the Farm (Sanctuary Woods, 800-872-3518, $59.95), a multicultural Windows product with your choice of English, French, or Spanish. Written by Bob King and illustrated by Bill Slavin, the whimsical short story tells about a little girl's picnic that's disrupted by a wacky parade of hungry farmyard animals. In addition to the standard Listen-Along and Read-Along play modes, the program offers something unique: Sing-Along, a mini karaoke-style feature that lets you record and play back your voice - using a microphone plugged into your sound card - accompanied by the audio-CD musical soundtrack. The program's most advanced section, Write-Along, lets kids modify key words of the existing story and then encourages them to create their own tales set in one of six exotic locations.

Perhaps the best-known collection of multimedia reading products is the outstanding Living Books series for Windows from Broderbund/Living Books (800-521-6263). One of the top picks of the bunch is The New Kid on the Block ($39.95), a sensational introduction to poetry, featuring the offbeat verse of Jack Prelutsky and delightful illustrations by James Stevenson. From leaking babies to dancing bananas, the disc's 18 poems will have you laughing so hard that you might not realize you're learning sophisticated word associations, rhyming patterns, and narrative structure. Other first-rate titles include Just Grandma and Me ($39.95), based on Mercer Mayer's classic Little Critter books and featuring narration in English, Spanish, and Japanese; Aesop's The Tortoise and the Hare ($39.95); and Arthur's Teacher Trouble ($49.95) by Marc Brown.

Let your imagination run wild with Wiggins in Storyland (Media Vision, $59.95), a creative writing tool for Windows that lets kids produce their own illustrated books. Wiggins the Bookworm guides you through the step-by-step process of choosing animated backgrounds, characters, and props, each available in dozens of mix-and-match varieties. Once the setting is depicted on the right-hand page, the Word Duck offers suggestions for descriptive nouns, adjectives, and verbs to use in constructing your story on the left-hand page. Having trouble getting started? Writer's block is no problem in Storyland - just click on the Idea Light Bulb for help with opening sentences. There's even a recording studio where you can add personal narration to the story. Books can be printed in a variety of fonts, with the option of rendering pictures in high contrast to produce a coloring book. Expertly constructed, the program delivers an exciting hands-on, multimedia introduction to grammar, story structure, and creative thinking.

Discovering the World

It's a big world out there, filled with more interesting people, places, and things than most of us could fit into five lifetimes. When curiosity beckons, today's multimedia software answers the call, with dynamic presentations of sight, sound, and informative text. The following titles attempt to fully address a particular topic of interest and are suitable for middle-school-aged kids to adults.

Visit the world-famous San Diego Zoo with The Animals (Software Toolworks, 800-234-3088, $59.95), a firsthand look at more than 300 exotic exhibits. The program's colorful 3-D overhead map makes park navigation a breeze, dividing species among their natural bioclimatic zones, or biomes: tropical forests, deserts, grasslands, savannas, polar regions, islands, and more. Each biome contains dozens of exhibits, featuring photographs, authentic animal sounds, movies, and text. Just like the real San Diego Zoo, this disc is exceptionally well organized, encouraging both sequential tours and random information safaris. More than just a collection of animal pictures, the program strongly promotes global ecological responsibility.

In a similar vein, although slightly less ambitious, is Mammals: A Multimedia Encyclopedia (National Geographic Society, 800-368-2728, $99). Choose your subjects by name or order from the mouse-driven menus. Each listing summons an animal fact sheet, with information on the animal's habits, population status, average size, average weight, and average lifespan, as well as the food it eats. The disc contains hundreds of lo-res photos, maps, animal sounds, and 45 full-motion video clips from National Geographic's TV specials.

Take a multimedia plunge into Oceans Below Software Toolworks, $49.95), a fascinating tour of our underwater world. Visit key coastal areas around the globe - from the Fiji Islands to the Red Sea - in search of exotic fish, mammals, and plant life. Keep your eyes peeled for shipwrecks and buried treasure, too. The MPC presentation is breathtaking, featuring hundreds of video clips (ingeniously framed by a diver's mask), colorful photos, and informative narration.

Turn your CD-ROM drive into a time machine with Microsoft Dinosaurs (Microsoft, 800-426-9400, $64.95) and Prehistoria (Grolier Electronic Publishing, 800-285-4534, $69.95), two equally stunning multimedia expeditions for Windows. Both titles offer detailed descriptions and beautifully drawn illustrations of hundreds of prehistoric creatures, sorted into 11 time periods and seven species - and cross-referenced. Tongue-tied by those colossal creature names? Both programs feature onscreen audio prompts to et you hear each name clearly pronounced. Dinosaurs offers narrated guided tours but encourages spontaneous browsing via "hot" words and phrases that provide links to related topics. Grolier's effort is far more academic and perhaps more useful as a reference source. Both allow you to copy text and dinosaur pictures to the Clipboard or save them to disk. Though Microsoft boasts the better audio and video quality, Grolier is the hands-down multimedia winner, with more than 60 minutes of fascinating videos and animations, many hosted by renowned paleontologists.

>From weird to wonderful, Science Adventure 11 (Knowledge Adventure, 800-542-4240, $79.95) offers a nearly perfect example of edutainment. Coauthored by the late Isaac Asimov, this is easily the publisher's best title to date - a mind-expanding tour de force of science fact and fiction, augmented with superb narration, video clips, and cutting-edge graphic animation. Designed as a virtual-reality science laboratory, the program includes Dr. Zoom's Jail of Bogus Science, a multimedia microscope, a science theater, and numerous interactive experiments. Beyond the program's inherent educational qualities, its greatest success is its ability to spark imagination and encourage further exploration of its diverse subject matter.

Picture Atlas of the World (National Geographic Society, $99) is your passport to a multimedia journey around the globe. As you'd expect from its source, this DOS-based title is packed with over 1200 expressive photographs, along with more than 800 interactive maps, ethnic music, and speech samples of more than 100 languages. Ideal for social studies, the disc presents updated statistics for each nation's population, economy, religions, climates, industries, and more.

Experience "the most sublime form of communication" with Multimedia Mozart: The Dissonant Quartet Microsoft, $64.95), the third offering in a series that takes you behind the scenes of the world's most timeless music. Working from the theory that modern listeners can't appreciate what they don't understand, music scholar Robert Winter hosts an interactive journey through the life of Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, using his String Quartet in C Major as the musical centerpiece. The product is informative and surprisingly entertaining, successfully conveying the passion of the man and his music.

Passion and whimsy of a different sort come alive in Twain's World (Bureau of Electronic Publishing, 201-808-2700, $39.95), a celebration and study of American author and humorist Samuel Clemens. Included here are the complete works of Twain, both fiction and nonfiction, as well as various biographical pieces describing his life and inspirations. You'll also see rare film clips of the author, narrated passages from famous books, and a slide show of his colorful characters.

To gain sharper focus on more current events, turn to Newsweek Interactive (Software Toolworks, $29.95 each), an ongoing series of electronic publications that archive three months of Newsweek magazine - 12 issues - with full text and topic search functions. This DOS-based program utilizes Super VGA graphics to create a stunning multimedia presentation, including more than four hours of radio interviews, videos, and even commercials. It's all extremely well designed and perfect for classroom instruction. Multimedia features in the first issues include Unfinished Business, a lively discussion of worldwide ecological problems and solutions; Globocop, an interactive look at America's latest role as global peacekeeper; Behind the Screens, the art of Hollywood special effects; and What Ails Us, an in-depth look at the current healthcare debate.

Preparing for College

When CD-ROM technology emerged, one of its top selling points was its potential for interactive, multimedia reference guides. With data storage exceeding 600MB per disc, we imagined how smart we'd become, with volumes of sights, sounds, and text at our command! Guess what? This vision not only has come true but, in many cases, has exceeded our wildest dreams. Combined with Windows' multitasking and datasharing capabilities, the following MPC titles are invaluable tools for research and reference.

Leading the pack, in terms of sheer quality of presentation, is Microsoft Encarta (Microsoft, $99), a multimedia encyclopedia bursting with style and vitality. Based on the Funk & Wagnalls 29-volume reference library, the package dazzles the senses with more than eight hours of 16-bit sound, hundreds of film clips and animations, nearly 8000 Super VGA photographs and illustrations, charts, a dictionary, a thesaurus, an atlas, time lines, and full-length updated articles. Almost any text or graphics can be printed or copied to another Windows application. Multiple search engines let you pinpoint articles or topic groups in a flash. The program encourages thoughtful browsing, however, with a branching display structure that caters to our natural curiosity.

Another solid choice for college-bound students is Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia (Compton's New Media, 800-216-6116, $149). Like the previous title, Compton's product makes outstanding use of multimedia bells and whistles, featuring hundreds of high-quality video clips, animations, sound files, and slide shows. Based on the publisher's own 26-volume hardcover encyclopedia, the CD-ROM boasts several innovations unique to the genre, including Info Pilot, a sensational topic search function that automatically finds three levels of information subsets for each primary topic. Another terrific feature is Virtual Workspace, which, depending on your computer's available memory, can simulate a desktop area a few dozen feet square - like spreading a stack of open books on a large library table. Also included are a world atlas, graphic time line, dictionary, and thesaurus, all integrated with hypertext jumps, intelligent searching, and full Clipboard support for outside applications,

A third comprehensive reference source is New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia (Grolier Electronic Publishing, $395). Though it lacks the visual panache of its peers, the program earns high marks for blazing speed and depth of information. The bulk of the material here - based on the publisher's 21-volume Academic American Encyclopedia - unfolds as a series of cascading text windows and deeply nested topic trees. As a source for encyclopedic research, this product may be the most academically pure, with full print and Clipboard support for external applications. Beneath its rather austere facade, however, lurk some surprising multimedia gems, such as the full-length Knowledge Explorer audiovisual essays and animated Multimedia Maps, as well as hundreds of video clips and sound files.

If any title merits must have status for college-bound students, it's Microsoft Bookshelf '94 (Microsoft, $99), the ultimate multimedia reference collection. Just a listing of its seven integrated works - all recently updated - is enough to sell this impressive package: Roget's Thesaurus, American Heritage Dictionary, The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, Hammond Intermediate World Atlas, The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, The People's Chronology, and The World Almanac and Book of Facts. Bookshelf functions great as a stand-alone reference library or integrates seamlessly within almost any Windows application. Multi-volume searches are extremely fast, with full Clipboard support for both text and pictures. Multimedia features include more than 80,000 spoken pronunciations, dozens of audio clips, national anthems, animations, and full-motion video. An invaluable tool - and quite a bargain. It just doesn't get much better than this.

Turn your PC into an instant literary archive with Library of the Future, Third Edition (World Library, 800-443-0238, $149.95), featuring unabridged text from over 1750 titles. A showcase for CD-ROM's incredible storage capacity and database functions, this latest edition features the complete works of Aesop, Hans Christian Andersen, Aristotle, William Cullen Bryant, Lewis Carroll, Arthur Conan Doyle, the Brothers Grimm, John Keats, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Allan Poe, William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and dozens more. Despite its size, the CD-ROM performs speedy searches using as many as eight different criteria. Text can be read onscreen, printed, or copied to other applications. New to the Third Edition are movie clips based on literary classics.

If you love books, you'll also enjoy reading between the lines with Monarch Notes for Windows (Bureau of Electronic Publishing, $79.95), a multimedia study guide to the works of 226 famous authors. included are critical essays, detailed biographies, notable excerpts, synopses, and bibliographies. Multimedia embellishments include hundreds of narrated passages, author photographs, and some of the best-quality video clips of any product mentioned here.

Whether you're out to write a best-selling novel or simply your next term paper, good typing skills are essential. Learn from an expert with Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing (Software Toolworks, $59.95), a celebrated computer tutorial available in an MPC version. Once you determine your goals and set your pace, follow Mavis's suggested lesson plan to develop speed and accuracy. The program automatically generates bar charts to track your progress and pinpoint weak areas needing more practice. Appealing to all age groups and abilities, this program is essential for students preparing for college, as well as for anyone needing an edge in the competitive job market.

Earning Your Diploma

As you can see from the variety and depth of these titles, educational and reference CD-ROMs can be an excellent supplement to a formal education - beginning with preschool and kindergarten and continuing all the way through college and postdoctoral studies.