One of my most pleasant annual duties is to review the latest version of Microsoft Encarta.
This year Bill Gates must have been feeling generous because the full Encarta Reference Suite 2001 arrived for review. It incorporates Encyclopaedia Deluxe, Interactive World Atlas, World English Dictionary and Encarta Online Deluxe.
What with my own fiddling and helping young relatives find information for projects, I use Encarta quite extensively and so it was with considerable interest that I ripped open the box to see what improvements had been made. The only complaint I have with the product is that it is not actually a suite in the true sense of the word. Encyclopedia, World Atlas and World English Dictionary are not integrated and you have to go through the installation and registration process three times which can be tedious.
The Encyclopedia Deluxe is the flagship of the suite and contains the answers to most questions that you will ever think of asking. The information is well laid-out and it is easy to find what you’re looking for. Where Encarta really shines is in the various techniques it uses to assemble information on various topics and present it to the user in form that he or she can easily work through.
In this version of Encarta the historical timeline, virtual tours, topic trails, collages and interactive media have been greatly expanded and there is also a mind maze quiz which introduces lots of interesting topics and lets you explore from there. The virtual tours are brilliant and give you a 360-degree views and information on a number of famous landmarks and such unexpected locations as the space shuttle and the bridge of a battleship.
Topic trails consist of list of articles on similar topics which remains on your screen as you navigate through them while collages are pages with links to articles on various topics. There are a number of interactive media features which teach you about a topic based on your input. One very interesting one is on photography and allows you to explore what the effect of varying the shutter speed and aperture setting on will be the photograph.
Teachers will appreciate the list of articles which tie in with the English, Scottish, Irish and Australian school curricula. There is unfortunately no mention of South Africa but there should be enough overlap to make the lists useful. There are also a selection of lesson plans included which teachers could use to get ideas about how to use Encarta.
One I saw was to get the kids to do the virtual tour of Mount Everest and then, pretending to be an explorer, write up their diary of their experiences.
Last week I started looking at Microsoft’s Encarta Reference Suite 2001 and I said that what struck me most about the Encyclopedia component was how well organised it is.
I said that it had various innovative ways of presenting information to make it easy and fun for kids of all ages to find information and learn. The Encyclopedia contains an awesome amount of information but, if that should fail you, it has links to plenty more on the web.
Encarta now incorporates its own Web interface which makes it very easy to find additional information on the Web. Click on the Web Centre button anywhere in Encarta and you’re taken to a page and given the choice of searching the list of Encarta Editor’s Choice Web sites or the Web in general.
In previous versions of Encarta was a tool called Research Organiser which helped users to pull their research together into a report or project. It has been renamed in this version and the developers have improved it in a major way.
Putting together a project is just as simple as finding the text or picture that you want in Encarta or the Web, selecting it, and clicking the Add to Researcher button.
You can change the order of the bits, edit the text, add notes and, when you’re finished, Researcher will generate the project as a Web page or MS-Word file, complete with acknowledgements, for easy editing.
I reckon a Web and Encarta-savvy kid could easily put together a major project in less than an hour and, while I don’t think that’s bad, it would probably be an idea to make them use multiple sources.
I don’t want to get involved in an education debate but some might say that the collection of information has now become too easy and that a kid could produce a good project without absorbing anything. I know of at least one school which has cunningly solved the problem by making them present their projects orally, as well as in hardcopy form, which makes sure they learn something along the way.
There isn’t much space left to discuss World Atlas and World English Dictionary but suffice it to say that they are both brilliant. The Atlas is crammed with maps showing just about everything from population densities to political boundaries.
World English Dictionary is a reference suite in itself consisting of the World English Dictionary itself as well as a thesaurus, a book of quotations, and French and English dictionaries.
The suite comes on one DVD disc or, the version I got, on six CD-ROMS which, as you might imagine, leads to a fair amount of disc swapping. If you’ve got a couple of Gb of hard drive space free, however, you can save a lot of time by copying the contents of the discs to your hard drive.
Encarta 2001 Reference Suite is already an awesome product but I believe that it could become even better if it had a single interface for all its components and there was a way for third parties to create content that could be plugged into it including information and collages, topic trails and interactive media.
The Education Department, for instance, could produce a plug-in containing all the information relevant to the local curriculum and appropriate collages and topic trails that the kids could use when studying. The ultimate, I suppose, would be if Encarta were able to administer progress tests as well.
I was recently discussing what to my buy my niece for her birthday and suggested I might get her a reference book. My mom’s comment: “What for, she’s already got Encarta”.