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Guide to 'edutainment' rates children's software

Ask 10 parents why they're buying a computer today and at least eight of them will tell you it's for the kids. Ask them what the kids will do with the computer and they'll mumble something about educational software.

There's a pervasive feeling that educational software will somehow elevate children's learning experiences to a new astral plane, or at least make up for some deficiency in whatever it is they're getting from school, from mom and dad, or all of the above.

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As a result, I get a lot of calls from people with new computers sitting on their desks who want to know if I can recommend educational software for their children. Unfortunately, that gets harder every day because the number of educational titles is increasing geometrically with the boom in multimedia computing.

The advent of cheap, powerful computers with sound boards and CD-ROM drives that can handle disks with 600 megabytes of programming, data, video and audio has created a new genre of software known in the trade as "edutainment."

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These programs are a far cry from the simple math and reading drills that bored so many kids senseless during the 1980s. They're full-scale multimedia productions designed to keep children who were weaned on TV and video games interested and entertained while the author lays some learning on them. If you've ever browsed through the educational software racks at a well-stocked computer store, you already know that the selection is overwhelming. And not every program is a winner.

If you're looking for a help finding your way through the maze, pick up a copy of That's Edutainment by Eric Brown (Osborne McGraw-Hill, $29.95), a book and CD-ROM combination that can get you pointed in the right direction.

Brown, an editor of NewMedia magazine, has written a thoughtful, intelligent and understandable adult's book about children's software that includes reviews of 100 popular educational titles.

The CD includes demo versions or commercials for 16 programs, some of which can be turned into full working versions by calling the distributor on the phone and exchanging your credit card information for a code number that "unlocks" the software.

While the try-before-you-buy feature is helpful and will undoubtedly drive sales of this package, Brown's book is the most important part. He not only reviews products, but also puts computers and software into their historical and educational context. He explains what edutainment titles do and where they fit in an educational world whose focus is changing from rote learning and memorization to an emphasis on thinking and problem-solving skills.

He delves into the psychology of learning and parenting, the stages of child development, and the kind of software appropriate for each age. Without descending into educational jargon, he discusses spatial and shape recognition, sorting and pattern recognition, problem solving, creativity, sequencing, letter recognition, phonics, strategic thinking and other issues that drive educational software publishers.

Brown provides background material on the major publishers of edutainment titles in a market dominated by a half-dozen heavy hitters, including The Learning Company, Microsoft, Broderbund, Davidson & Associates, Grolier and Mindscape. But he also notes that as of late last year there were more than 900 educational software titles on the market, with new packages arriving at the rate of 150 per month.

If you're just now thinking of buying a computer for your kids or upgrading your current outfit, Brown's chapter on setting up a multimedia system is clear, lucid and nonthreatening to the technically challenged. It covers processors, memory, hard disk storage, sound boards, video adapters and CD-ROM drives. Brown also touches briefly on the Mac versus PC debate, but doesn't choose a clear winner. With plenty of educational titles available for both machines, he recommends that parents buy the computer that makes the most sense for them at work.

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The software reviews cover the best-known edutainment titles, including Math Blaster, the Oregon Trail, the Back Yard, Reader Rabbit, Dinosaur Adventure, Storybook Weaver, Kid Pix 2, The Playroom and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? But there are plenty of lesser-known titles, too. Brown touches on some programs that are not strictly educational, such as Sim City -- the urban erector set for adults that many older children find fascinating. I wish he'd included a few more simulations, such as MicroProse's Civilization and Colonization.

In any case, the reviews provide good descriptions of how each program works, what skills it emphasizes, and how the game looks and feels. The book is lavishly illustrated with screen shots, and every program is rated according to its educational and entertainment value, ease of installation, speed, interface, graphics, video, audio, animation and content depth. Organizing all this material is no mean feat. Brown has done a superb job.

The CD-ROM that comes in an envelope stuck to the inside of the back cover is a mixed bag of out-and-out commercials, partial demos and real working versions of programs for both PCs and Macs with three-day time limits built in.

Produced by CD-Direct, an electronic software distribution company, the CD's browser provides on-screen summaries of Brown's reviews, as well as an 800 number that allows you to pay by credit card and receive a code that will unlock the program you want. You can also have the software shipped toyou, which I recommend. You should always have an original disk or CD for every program, because sooner or later your hard disk will crash.

I found the CD a bit confusing, because each program has a slightly different installation routine. Some require the latest version of QuickTime for Windows, which is on the disk but isn't installed automatically. Some create their own program groups, others don't. As a result, running a trial of everything here can leave your hard disk littered with bits and pieces of software. If nothing else, the program makes a great case for buying a Windows "uninstaller" utility.

Some publishers have provided tiny chunks of their programs. Others include the whole thing. Among the programs you can get a particularly good look at are Math Blaster, Kid CAD, Oregon Trail, Odell Down Under, Kid Works and Zurk's Rainforest Lab. Outside of figuring out how to install what, I had no problem running any of the programs, which is remarkable given the sheer number of titles.

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All things considered, That's Edutainment is money well spent. Brown has produced a terrific guide for parents -- the best title on educational software I've seen in years -- and anything you get from the CD is a bonus.

Michael Himowitz is a columnist for The Sun.


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