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Friday, October 8, 1999 Published at 19:16 GMT

Education: Features

What makes good educational software?

Latha Menon feels responsible for producing educative material

Latha Menon, Executive Editor of the World English Edition of Microsoft's Encarta encylopedia, answers your questions about educational software.

Latha Menon was born in Kerala, South India, and came to England to study at the age of five. She went on to read physics at Somerville College, Oxford, spent several years in research in astrophysics, and qualified as a teacher before entering publishing.

Over the past 15 years, she has worked as an editor in academic, reference, and educational publishing, including posts at Blackwell Science and Oxford University Press.

She also served for three years on the National Council for Educational Technology - now replaced by Becta, the outfit charged with implementing the UK government's web-based National Grid for Learning.

Your e-mailed questions covered a range of issues: we have selected a sample that represent key themes. Some have been edited for length.

Bharat Odedra, UK: Has the way we learn things changed, and if so how?

I don't think it's a question of the way we learn things having changed as much as those who prepare educational materials have become much more aware of the range of ways in which human beings can potentially learn. For so much of the past we relied on text and occasional images - it wasn't so very long ago that we started to have colour pictures in school books.

Now the potential of multimedia technology is such that we can use a wide range of methods. In say an area like history not just describing the past in terms of words - and let's not forget that words are amazingly flexible things - but there are many areas where you want to show an image, an early film clip, and in some contexts there's nothing to beat diagrams. And sound clips - reading about Lenin is one thing but to actually hear Lenin's voice...

Samantha Harper, UK: How do you write an encyclopaedia from scratch?

Latha Menon: I've not known of any encyclopedia that's been written from scratch - you don't start with A for aardvark, B for Blackadder ... A long time ago in the US Microsoft having decided to do an encyclopedia started by taking the text of Funk and Wagnell's which is an old, respected US encyclopedia then they built on it and added multimedia, but made so many changes in the process of converting it from a print encyclopedia.

Simon Fitzpatrick, University of Newcastle, UK: Your thoughts please on the central argument that continues to dog the development of educational technology: 'Should we, as educators, think more constructively about technology as a tool rather than as an alternative medium for delivering more information?'

The context: a great deal of poor quality software being bought by unsuspecting parents who are being lead to believe that product x will enhance their child's prospects of scoring more points/per cent.

Latha Menon: I think the point is that when CD-ROMs started you did have some software that just represented stuffing text into an electronic medium and saying OK now somehow this is going to do something magical.

I think we've moved beyond that. Moreover I think there's tremendous potential in this as a learning medium. Certainly we aim to maximise that potential.

What we think about as editors is, how do we use the range of media that's available most effectively to deliver learning outcomes? Because you can waste media. It's not about pretty pictures and cute sounds.

For example in Encarta now we have, in musical analysis, three segments from a Liszt piano sonata showing you the same theme as it develops in different contexts. You can look at the score and you can see highlighted the theme that is being picked out and see how it has a different feel. That is a very powerful tool for learning about music.

Other e-mails from various countries wanted to know how to choose good software for particular purposes, in school or in the home.

Latha Menon: I think it's perfectly true that it's all too easy to just stamp on 'ideal for GCSE' or 'national curriculum' - those magic words. In terms of parents, you must look at the software before you buy - the scope and the kind of content there. The use of the multimedia - is it to really help learning or is it just sort of add-ons?

You can have purely academic texts that have a few pictures added on and stamped 'ideal for revising', but if you don't have material that is at a level that's accessible to the students then they are simply not going to use it.

And is there anything more that suggests that work has been done with educationalists?

Penny Gibbins, UK: My children go to a primary school in the country, where teachers are nervous about computers and the computer-speak that goes with it. A number of parents want a computer club but the head teacher and senior staff need convincing.

Latha Menon: It is an issue that arises, particularly in smaller primary schools, and you often have all sorts of logistical problems as well.

First of all, CD-ROM technology is very easy, very 'friendly' - that sort of plug in and play element will help to get people started.

In using it in schools, you need to be aware that there are all sorts of ways that you can integrate it, even if you have only got one computer.

If you are doing group work you can organise an activity perhaps with one group at the computer doing some exploring, you'll have another group brainstorming ideas around a theme, another group looking at books - after all the point is this is not to replace books.

It is another form of reference, each suitable for different kinds of research - and bear in mind that the Web is another form that should be used.

I think once teachers have got started they will feel a lot more comfortable. The range is widened but the principles are not so far away.

This is not about doing teachers out of a job. All of their pedagogical experience is equally valuable. It's just another medium that's available.

Nadine Thompson, UK: Does using an encyclopaedia help us learn or would we learn better if we researched information ourselves?

Latha Menon: Bear in mind that an encyclopedia should be a first point, a starting point. This is not doing your research for you. It gives you an overview of the issues, and pointers towards further research.

The value of an encyclopedia with appropriate and carefully selected Web links is that you have a carefully structured gateway to the internet.

James Williams, Brunel University, UK: As a teacher and now teacher trainer, I see children in schools using valuable resources such as Encarta to complete their homework.

I believe there is a danger of creating what I call 'virtual homework'. The pupil simply types in some keywords, searches the database then prints off information in the belief that their homework is 'done'. There has been no processing of information, no analysis of data, no critical reflection.

How can the multimedia software producers design software that isn't just a simple database of easily reproducible information but requires pupils to read, digest, understand the concepts, principles presented to them?

Latha Menon: Plagiarism: it has always been there it's just a bit easier now - a lot easier - so human nature hasn't changed in that respect.

We had a lot of teachers saying 'I recognise bits of Encarta now'. In our case a lot of work was done on finding out how to provide a tool that would encourage good research skills.

Encarta's research organiser has virtual notecards to organise your notes and it reminds you to cite your source. You can cut and paste into it but it appears and green and in italics and says 'you must cite your source'. You should then polish it and improve it. I think that helps with developing good research discipline.

Jacqui Blanchard, UK: Are our knowledge levels as good as they used to be?

Latha Menon: I think children are as willing to learn as ever. Using modern technology will hopefully motivate them more because they are used to using it. We want them to use it more effectively.

Incidentally, you hear a lot about children using computers, and from teachers anxious about using computers there's a feeling that the children must be so far ahead, they're so confident. But often their usage is at a relatively shallow level.

I think it's more that the nature and range of the topics that are studied is different now in schools. If you go back to the 60s you find things that are taught right down in schools that were only taught at university before - you're introduced to DNA and cloning, to nuclear physics.

Of course one of the issues that people get concerned about is that there has been less of the drill and practice of learning by rote, country capitals and so on. But it's an area of rigorous debate. Particularly in areas such as technology - this was a huge issue in the national curriculum in England.

I'm involved in inspiring people to learn but you also have to deliver. That is a serious danger. It's like the button-pressing mentality - lots to press and move about but what have you actually learned?

Fawzia Nazir: I was greatly interested to hear how Latha has come to be a director of Microsoft's Encarta. I was wondering if there are many such opportunities in the educational IT industry, as I too am a physics graduate and PGCE-trained teacher with both teaching and industrial IT experience.

Latha Menon: My interests were always very broad. I loved history. I'm very grateful for the scientific training, I value that enormously. But I've always been interested in the arts.

It's been for me a move to an area where the most fascinating thing is the history of ideas and the connections between different branches of knowledge.

Find the opportunities. Make it clear. I made it clear what I wanted to work on. But as a young graduate I went out and said 'I can show you that I can do this and this'. And bring in all sorts of elements of your experience.

You can bring all sorts of rich perceptions to a job from being aware of different cultures. But use all of that. People are often not aware of how much they have in themselves.

News Online: We've been talking about technology but so many schools around the world are lucky if they have chairs for their pupils to sit on...

Latha Menon: But it's like we were talking about having one computer in a classroom and what you can do with it. I was in India recently and fascinated just watching the television.

Having just one television set and the village sitting around it means the educational potential is enormous. You can present places, ideas, images...

There are some very imaginative educators around who are beginning to use that. It's amazing how imaginative people are.

Merlin Godwin: I have a dream of a brilliant world model which will allow people to easily see and understand whatever is going on throughout the planet, the movements and trends, the underlying processes, and the interconnectedness of it all.

Latha Menon: On the one hand you want increased globalisation in the sense of being able to find out rapidly what is happening in different parts of the world. I read somewhere the idea that 'history is happening more quickly now' - because events are reported that much quicker and responses come back more quickly too. It's happening. You can't stop it.

You have to be careful because this should not be one culture dominating. Encarta in its range of different language editions is an example that that need not be so.

There are anxieties, particularly in places far from Europe, that this may mean the domination of I suppose American culture.

But I wouldn't want to see things becoming too parochial and narrow. I hope that we can encourage both using this technology.

I get a bit nervous about ideas like 'world modelling' but you do have to be careful with things like statistics - comparability statistics is a huge problem even now.

But databases are arising that we can all work with, that will enable people to make these comparisons of trends - and come to their own conclusions, as well as reading the ideas of experts.

At the end of the day of course that's important - critical thought.

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