When I talk to parents who are considering their first computer purchase, I often ask them why they plan to make the leap into the digital world. The No. 1 answer I get back is: to help the kids with their schoolwork. So then I ask them exactly how the computer is going to help their kids with schoolwork. This usually stumps 'em.
The truth is that there are all kinds of software out there that can help your kids learn a specific subject--say, reading or math. However, in my opinion, perhaps the most valuable use of a computer for any student is as a research tool.
For the last several years, a number of companies have been offering what are billed as multimedia encyclopedias. These are CD-ROM-based programs that take the textual information you'd find in a printed encyclopedia and add things like live-action video, animation and sound clips.
For example, you can go to a print encyclopedia to read about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. But that doesn't have nearly the impact as hearing his voice deliver those famous words right from your computer speakers--or better yet, seeing him deliver them right on your computer screen.
The top contenders in this area are Microsoft Encarta 98 Deluxe, Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia 1997, the 1997 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia and the World Book 97 Multimedia Encyclopedia. Each one of these packages has its own fans, and with all of them priced in the $40-to-$60 range, I'd say it might be worth the expense to invest in a couple to see which you like best.
The one thing you should know is that all that multimedia comes at a cost. Because of the media-rich content, there isn't enough room on one CD-ROM to include all of the information you'd find in a print encyclopedia.
If you're looking for a CD-ROM encyclopedia that stresses substance over multimedia style, you may want to consider the Britannica CD 97, from Encyclopedia Britannica. It contains everything that's in the print version of the venerable tome and lists for about $300, although I've seen it offered in the $150 range--not that bad when you consider the cost of the printed version.
While a good encyclopedia is the cornerstone of any student reference library, electronic or otherwise, you still might want to add a few more titles to make the collection complete. The obvious next choice is a dictionary. So why not look to the name that means dictionaries to just about everyone on the planet. I'm talking about good old Merriam-Webster.
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Deluxe Electronic Edition on CD-ROM contains more than 214,000 definitions. Plus, there's a built-in thesaurus that offers 130,000 synonyms, antonyms, related words and contrasting words. You can use the software as a stand-alone product or activate it from inside any Windows application. This package lists for $24.95.
If you're concerned about correct pronunciation, you may want to consider spending the extra money for Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Deluxe Audio Edition. At a list price of $49.95, this CD-ROM has the same features as the one I just mentioned, plus it offers spoken pronunciations of more than 100,000 words.
Perhaps you're interested in an all-in-one reference title. If so, take a look at Mindscape's Student Reference Library. This $35 package, available for both Mac and Windows, combines an encyclopedia, a dictionary, an almanac, a thesaurus, a dictionary of quotations, a style guide, an American history primer and several atlases. Best of all, when you perform a search, the program searches all of the various resources on the CD.
Many reference titles, including those I mentioned earlier, offer online editions and/or periodic updates via the Internet. The Student Reference Library takes a little different angle on Internet interactivity. On your command, the software can connect to the Internet and convert the current article title into keywords for an online search through Yahoo or Lycos. That's pretty powerful stuff.
If your student has interests in a particular subject, look for a more specialized reference title. For example, the Eyewitness Encyclopedia of Space and the Universe, from DK Multimedia, covers just about any extraterrestrial topic you can imagine, from the big bang to astronomy to manned and unmanned space exploration. This CD-ROM lists for $39.95 and is available for both Mac and Windows.
These are a few quality reference titles, but it's important to remember that there are plenty of other CD-ROMs out there, as well as some stinkers. The hard part is telling one from the other. I suggest you ask around to see what your friends like and don't like. Even more important, ask the teachers and your child's school. They're sure to have a few favorite picks of their own.
Kim Komando is a TV host, syndicated talk radio host, author and entrepreneur. You can visit Kim on the Internet at http://www.komando.com or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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