David Foster looks over some of the educational software that is now available for the Amstrad.
Exactly what is educational software? More importantly, what ought it to do and is any available? These were questions that I was prompted to consider when a fat parcel of educational software arrived for me to have a look at, courtesy of the editor.
I am not a full time educationalist, but I do teach computing one day a week at a local school and spend half a day a week working with the disabled and computers at a Cheshire home - a highly recommended and satisfying pastime. I also have two children aged 10 and 12, so I have had some varied experience of "educational" software.
To date, the vast majority of educational software has been produced for the BBC computers simply because it was the machine adopted by most educational authorities. As a result a lot of educational software for the BBC has been written with school use in mind, as this is where the largest market has been.
Amstrad made a half-hearted attempt at breaking into the educational market via Northern Computers (no longer with us), but the number of Amstrads actually in use in schools is very small and must provide little incentive to software houses to produce educational software. And a lot of the software that is available has been converted from the original BBC programs.
There would appear to be two different markets for educational software - use in schools and use in the home. There also appears to be some conflict regarding what actually comprises educational software. Many parents ace fondly going through life believing that because the school has computers, their children will be learning about computers and how to use them. In my experience, this is rarely the case and most are used merely as subject teaching aids.
The reasons for this are probably that most teachers are not trained in computing. And while the BBC may be a good machine, its operating system bears little resemblance to those that people will come across when they leave school and little of the software is typical of the applications software used in the real world.
From a personal point of view, I regret very much that more emphasis is not put on learning the principles of using word processors, spreadsheets and databases as part of the school curriculum, as there is little doubt that most people will come across them once they start work. And they can prove extremely useful even before that time, in further education.
What better way to do your final thesis than with a word processor? From experience I have found that even young children can learn and benefit from using such programs and what is more, they enjoy it as well.
Much of the available software appears to have been designed by teachers who wanted programs that could be used as a subject teaching aid, in much the same way as they might use an overhead projector to illustrate something, or a schools' television broadcast to assist in explaining the subject being taught. Some software has been expressly written in the form of "aids to revision" of particular subjects and a very small amount has been written to help with actually teaching the subject of computing in schools.
Unfortunately, programs that might be excellent subject teaching aids in a school are often of limited value in the home environment. The reason for this is that few of them have any staying power.
In a school this will be of little importance, as each class will probably only ever use any one program once or twice in the year and each child will only have a few minutes actually using the program. The situation in the home is very different and a program should be capable of being used repeatedly by a child without losing its interest value.
Many programs take the form of asking a question and require the answer to be selected from three or four options displayed on screen. A child will very soon learn which answer to select, without ever learning or calculating the answer and programs of this sort will soon lose their appeal unless there is a vast store of possible questions and answers incorporated into the program.
Programs written specifically to help with learning to use a computer, or as simple introductions to word processing, databases and spreadsheets are thin on the ground, particularly for the Amstrads. But luckily there are a number of simple programs, which, though not specifically aimed at the educational market, are quite suitable for the purpose.
There are a number of companies producing educational software in Amstrad versions and I received a selection from Bourne Educational Software, lernleaf Educational Software, Kosmos Software and School Software of Limerick, Ireland.
Most of the names will be well known to anyone who has used the BBC and most of the programs will be equally familiar. One advantage of this is that it may well be possible to buy an Amstrad version of the same programs that your child uses at school, for use in the home.
I shall not review each program fully, as there are too many of them, but I shall attempt to describe the type of program they are and at the end give a personal opinion of whether they might suit the needs of someone in the home environment.
Bourne seems to provide a variety of programs for children of different age groups, with those for the 3-6 age groups being mainly of the "Helping to learn to spell", "Helping to learn to tell the time" type, with those for the 5-10 or 12 year olds requiring more in the way of thought and deduction.
World-Wise is one of a number of programs where the computer learns from the user. The idea of the program is very old and has been available for many years under a variety of names. The supplied instruction booklet is small, but describes adequately how the program is used. CP/M and Amsdos versions are supplied on the same disc, which means it can be used on the PCW range as well as the CPC.
World-Wise is a geography program and you have to select from a range of features, such as river, mountain or town. You then think of the name of, say, a river and the computer asks you questions which you have to answer, as it tries to guess what you are thinking of. If it fails, you tell it what you were thinking of and describe a question to distinguish it from another answer. It adds these details to its store of knowledge for future use. The program is reasonably well produced, but is provided with very little data. It seems to go through menus needlessly every time you want to have another go.
There are two main failings with this type of program for home use. First, if you are the only person using the program, you quickly learn what words the computer knows and second, it is dependent on the correct information being entered when the program asks for details.
If rubbish or incorrect answers are entered, it makes a total nonsense of the program. Unfortunately, children frequently know the name of something, but not the details, so incorrect information is a common problem.
Answer Back Junior Quiz from Kosmos is, unsurprisingly, a quiz game. It is available on disc or cassette and Data for a number of quizzes is provided. It is described as being suitable for 6-11 year olds. I have to admit to getting off to a bad start with this program, as the initial loader is supposed to check whether a 464/664 or a 6128 is being used, before loading the appropriate version, but instead it returned to Basic with an error message when used with a 464.
Having got round that problem, the next one was that I had to load data for a quiz, but there was no way to get a listing of what the quizzes were called, or what they were about, so back to Basic again.
Having CATted the disc before reloading the program, I at last managed to get into the quiz. A graphics screen displaying a castle is presented for all quizzes and questions are asked across the top of the screen, with all answers being entered in a window at the bottom.
A correct answer results in you having the opportunity to rescue a "beautiful princess" by dropping a sandbag from a hot air balloon on to the head of a dragon that is trying to kill her.
You can opt for random questions, or they can be asked in data file order. The number of questions to be asked may be selected and whether questions should take the form of Y/N, fill in the spaces, or choose from a selection of options, answers.
Fifteen quizzes are supplied, on different subjects, each containing 50 questions and it is possible to create your own quizzes and save them for future use.
The idea of the program is quite good, but its biggest failing, apart from the slightly sloppy programming at the start, is that children have to set their own levels of answering the questions and invariably they pick the easiest so that they can save the damsel.
The Fernleaf program supplied was called the Amstrad Educational Software Selection and is a compendium of six programs. Fernleaf specialises in problem solving programs intended for use by groups of children who can discuss moves and actions before entering their decisions.
As such, they are more suited to use in a school environment than the home, unless you happen to have a house full of similarly aged children.
Having said that, the programs are well thought out and it is quite possible to use them on your own.
The supplied programs vary from The Raiders, where you have to lead a raiding party to the English Coast, deciding on where to land, camp and raid, to a mathematical program called Market Stall, where you have to decide what goods to buy and the price to sell them for, depending on the season and weather forecasts.
The programs use graphics to draw maps or pictures and at each stage you are informed of progress and have to make decisions based on this information. Each program is supplied with an instruction sheet containing details of the scenario and where necessary, a worksheet so that you can keep a note of what has happened to date.
The best thing about these programs is that there is no "Correct" answer and you could spend quite some time trying different ways of achieving the objective, or best result, with each program.
The final group of programs came from School Software, using the quiz approach, with a strong leaning to maths, but also with programs covering geography and playschool. There are also programs covering biology, physics and chemistry, as well as music.
Each program covers a specific subject and there is not a lot of variation within the programs to hold a child's attention, although some of them have music(?) and a bit of graphics fun it you get the answer right.
School Software cover a wider age group than most, with programs for the 3-8 year olds, up to maths programs for 14-18 year olds, with the Music programs being described as 7-adult.
The programs are a mixture of protected Basic and machine code and as a result they can be a little slow in operation on occasions. Some of the programs are better than others, but I am afraid that none of them really inspired me.
They follow the "select an answer from the list" route and as a result may tend to lose their interest rather quickly. Some of the programs give quite a lot of information which might be found useful for revision, but nothing that couldn't be found in a book. I would suggest that most of these are best suited to use in a school environment, rather than at home.
Of the programs I looked at, most of them - if not all - are better suited to use in the classroom, which in most cases is where they were intended to be used in any case. The decision-making programs from Fernleaf have probably got the greatest lasting power, though in many ways they cannot be compared with the others. Whilst the other programs all aim to teach you something specific, or check on whether you know specific details about a subject, the Fernleaf adventures are intended to promote thinking and discussion, an objective that they certainly achieve.
I think I would rather invest in simple word processing, database and spreadsheet programs and let my children loose on those, leaving the traditional educational programs to be used in schools.
It is amazing how popular writing "Thank you" letters becomes with a word processor. And even keeping an address book or a catalogue of stamps/train numbers in a database can be exciting. And the end of the day your child has learnt the basics of something which will almost certainly prove useful in years to come.
None of the programs I looked at are bad - it is just that I feel that they are not really ideally suited to use in the home.
Educational programs always fall a long way short of the standards set by the cheapest of games. If Mastertronic tried to sell games which were as poorly written, slow to respond and graphically unexciting as even the best educational software, they would be laughed out of court.
Just as a good game relies on content and presentation, a good educational program should be well written in addition to being well conceived.
In many ways it is the schools which are to blame for the low standard of educational programs. The demand for software is limited, which means that the prices need to be high. Yet schools are unwilling to pay realistic prices - say £100 per program.
Instead the software is pirated, with the teacher chuffed at having saved the school so much money. The result is fewer programs and much lower standards. Perhaps the best thing we can learn from educational software is that piracy kills software.