Parents have to carry many burdens but one of the most stressful of these is school projects.
Searching through 312 issues of National Geographic to find a picture of peasants making Venezuelan beaver cheese is hard graft. Parents can do without projects but they know darn well that the things will never get done unless they get involved.
In the last few years, however, we have been experiencing a quiet revolution in which encyclopaedias on CD-ROM have made it easier to do research. I must confess I didn’t realise just how much easier until the arrival of Microsoft Encarta 2000 Deluxe on my desk recently.
Encarta contains the same amount of material as a 37-volume printed encyclopaedia and is published in 11 different language versions through the exertions of 1000 contributors and a permanent staff of over 200. The version I received is the World English one which is primarily aimed at users in the UK and Commonwealth.
A major new addition to the product is a natural language search facility which allows you to find information by entering a question. I found that it worked very well but entering the just the word "penicillin" worked as well as "who invented penicillin".
Looking for information is very easy but, in addition, there are a number of ways of browsing through Encarta’s contents. There are a large number of Topic Trails and Collages which are essentially both collections of links to articles on particular topics.
One of the most interesting ways of browsing is the Timeline which sets out the major (and some minor) events in world history making it easy to place happenings in their context. To think that I might never have known that the Romans invented oyster cultivation or that a certain Sergius Orata made a fortune selling them to his fellow citizens.
Many of the articles in Encarta Deluxe 2000 have links to web sites containing further information about the topic. Free monthly updates to Encarta are available via the web until December 2000.
Included with Encarta Deluxe is Research Organiser which is a useful tool for knocking out projects in double-quick time. The idea is that you use it to collect quotes, pictures and maps from Encarta, or any other source, on the subject you’re interested in.
Your average computer-literate kid will probably be able to do all the research for a project in about the same time it used to take to drive to the library. Some authorities will deplore the trend towards electronic reference tools but the information is the important thing as far as I’m concerned, not the method of delivery.
Encarta comes on three CD-ROM discs which does lead to irritation because you often end up with the wrong one in your CD-ROM drive and have to swap them. This state of affairs didn’t trouble me for too long, however, because I found out that you can copy all the Encarta files onto your hard drive and run it from there.
On the box Encarta claims to be more instructive and engaging than any print encyclopaedia could ever be. And that’s not an idle boast.
Stuff not used in the print column
My favourite Encarta feature must be the Virtual Tours which allow you to explore a number of interesting locations such as Cape Town, the interior of the space shuttle and Alcatraz. Each tour consists of a 360-degree panoramic photograph of the location complete with labels and links you can click on to get more information about a particular feature.
The Research Organiser is a cool way of putting together a project or, as the Americans would have it, a report. Each item you find on a topic is pasted into the electronic version of an index card and you can rearrange the various bits and pieces as you want before outputting the project to a wordprocessor. The project can then be tweaked as necessary and printed out to the rapturous applause of all concerned.
The only snag about Encarta is the time wasted changing discs but I made the cool discovery that you can copy the whole thing to your hard drive. It runs much faster from there that I don’t begrudge it the 1,4Gb, or so, of space that it takes up. All you do is install it in the normal way and copy the CD-ROM discs onto your hard drive into directories called, for example, Disc1 and Disc2. Then you start Encarta without its disc in the drive and hit the ‘Browse’ button when it asks you where its files are.