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ZX Spectrum 48K

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Theodora Wood
Chris Bourne


Theodora Wood considers the current state and the potential of educational software.

COMPUTERS have now found their way into approximately one in 10 British households. Half a million Spectrums alone have been sold and presumably at least twice as many adults and children have unwrapped their cartons and plugged-in their hardware. Some will have caught the programming bug, others are small business users, and a large proportion have been shooting-down the alien hordes.

Software houses were quick to supply the games market and some have provided educational software but it is only recently that the numbers of educational titles have risen, with the large educational publishing houses realising the potential of the market, complete with glossy packaging and nation-wide distribution. At present Britain lags behind the U.S. market, both in the range and number of educational programs available, and is following roughly the same pattern of development.

The biggest number of programs available, for both the Spectrum and ZX-81, are of the rule-drill variety. They operate in the same way as the most traditional methods of teaching, by showing examples of the subject to be taught and then testing, sometimes by games. They can be divided into those for the younger age group - three to nine - and those which are aimed at older children as learning packages.

For the younger children the lack of reading skill places a greater emphasis on the use of graphics, animation and sound in the programs used to teach bask skills such as letter recognition, counting, simple mathematics. It is important with programs such as those that there should be a substantial element of interaction with the computer - children love pressing buttons. The testing part of the programs provides for that in most cases and duplicates the worksheets and workbooks used in schools throughout the country in electronic form.

First Numbers - Collins Educational, 16K Spectrum, £5.95 - is a series of five programs on one tape illustrating the concept of the electronic workbook. Instead of the examples remaining inert on the page, they bound round the screen in full colour; hopping frogs, seals bouncing balls on their noses, and elephants moving across the screen, rather too slowly, to the tune Nellie the Elephant, all emphasise the numbers one to 10. A program illustrates how to write the numbers by first drawing them on the screen and then flashing arrows following the direction of the pencil, identical to a workbook, except that there the arrows do not flash.

In contrast, there is Alphabet - Widget, 48K Spectrum, £5.95 - a program to teach letter recognition which uses no on-screen movement to illustrate its point. Its use of the Spectrum sound capability is lamentable, as the reward for a correct answer is the same for every letter, and can become extremely tedious even for the youngest child. When attempting to teach letter recognition, which is essentially a sound/shape matching activity, it is important that an adult should be present, as without a voice element the objective cannot be realised.

For the younger child who has little or no reading ability, better capability of the Spectrum in the area of colour, graphics and sound make it a superior machine to the ZX-81. Moving up the age range, a considerable number of programs operate on the electronic workbook level, from junior up to 0 level and beyond, and they are widely-available either at department stores or by mail order.

The ZX-81 appears more regularly in those titles, where more on-screen text can be used and flashing graphics are not so important. That kind of program would be a valuable aid to learning for the motivated child and for examination revision. Rose Cassettes and University Software specialise in that kind of programs.

Quiz programs are an extension of the question-and-answer format, such as the ones produced by Psion - 16148K Spectrum, £6.95 - for geography and history. Time Traveller - John Wiley, 48K Spectrum only, £9.95 - extends the scope by using the format of an adventure game, complete with wild animals, soldiers and priests, at the same time testing a child's knowledge of history through having to answer questions on historical fact correctly before passing through the time warps from 2000 BC to the present. This type of quiz would obviously have more attractions than the more straightforward versions, and would be more entertaining for groups.

All the programs mentioned so far are an extension of traditional teaching methods and provide a paperless way of learning subjects as diverse as O level French revision and the history of inventions. For the younger age groups they could be a valuable aid to learning basic skills, if used for short periods, and should be compared to other hardware aids such as Speak and Spell, the Talking Computer and little Professor to assess their effectiveness.

They also provide an introduction to the use of the computer and its keyboard. In the short term a child's interest would be retained probably by the novelty value of using a computer but that may later prove ephemeral as electronic workbooks become a more familiar feature at home and at school. Older children could use them in conjunction with their studies to clarify and identify areas on which they need to concentrate.

Simulation programs present a real departure from the electronic workbook and use the ability of the computer to deal with interactive variables to the full. Simulation programs at their best place a child in a real situation, engaging attention in an imaginative way. Again, the superior Spectrum graphics and colour invalidate the use of the ZX-81 and most titles are available for 48K Spectrum only.

Heinemann has produced a package for the eight-to-12 age group, Ballooning, which is accompanied by a glossy booklet explaining ballooning, with its history, development and suggestions for further activities. The balloon moves over a simulated landscape at the top of the screen while a child interacting with information on the dials placed below - altitude, temperature, fuel, rate of climb or fall - controls the upward or downward drift of the craft.

The child can stop the action to make a decision more coolly or mark position on a graph relating to altitude and distance, thus simulating a barograph. By practising at the controls of the balloon, a novice balloonist can execute various missions set by the program, some of which are extremely complicated, and in so doing become aware of the interaction between the temperature of the air inside the balloon, its rise and fall and its limitations as a flying machine.

The variety of other activities suggested in the accompanying booklet ensures that the program is open-ended and the concepts introduced in the package explored in different ways. Meanwhile, arguments rage as to who has achieved the most number of safe landings. Flight Simulation - 48K Spectrum, Psion, £7.95 - and to a lesser extent Nightflite - 16K Spectrum, Hewson - together with a 16K ZX-81 version, are similar programs suitable for nine-year-olds upwards and continue the theme of flying a machine but with greater difficulty level. Realtime means precisely that and there is no stopping the action to assimilate the information on the dials.

Map reading and basic navigational skills are also needed to move the aircraft round the landscape in the case of the 48K version, and the impression of reality is enhanced by being in the cockpit, seeing the landmarks below, and experiencing the tilt of the aeroplane in relation to the horizon, as well as the dizzying effect of rushing towards the ground at an increasingly frightening rate.

Simulation programs prove an imaginative vehicle for the introduction of the terminology used and the concepts involved in a particular activity and accomplish it in a different way from the rule and drill programs; instead of learning by example a child learns by the consequences of actions, albeit within the limitations of a simulated micro-world.

Learning by direct experience is more valuable than learning by rote and one would expect that more programs of this kind would be available in 1984, to introduce children to a wide variety of concepts and situations.

There are also programs for both the Spectrum and ZX-81 which operate in specialist areas not covered by the rule-and-drill format. Programs such as Firework Music and Tuner - 16/48K Spectrum range for 16K ZX-81, Software Cottage, £5 each - introduce children of almost any age to the basics of musical notation, pitch and keyboard use, and are ideal for use where a household has a computer but no musical instruments as, sad to say, only a minority of children retain an interest in playing music beyond a certain age.

Bridge Software produces a program, Night Sky - 16K Spectrum, £8.90 - which shows the stars visible at any time of the day or night from the Midlands - 0°, 52°N - on any day of the year. The second program in the pack shows the stars appearing in order of magnitude, with the 20 brightest stars named. Although operating within a specialist field, this type of program is of note as it adds an extra dimension to the star maps in books; moving the time on hour by hour shows the viewer how the stars rise and fall throughout the night and their positions throughout the year.

It also gives city dwellers a chance to look at the stars which are rarely seen through the orange glare of street lights and seen even more rarely at 3 o'clock in the morning.

The state of the art of educational software for the Spectrum and the ZX-81 introduces children to the keyboard of the computer - just watch a three-year-old press ENTER - and the notion of paperless work while reinforcing the learning processes involved in gaining skills which are basic to any educational curriculum. They can also introduce new concepts in an exciting way through the use of simulation techniques. None of them however, deals with the use of the computer in the programming field.

The Microelectronics Education Programme was designed initially for use in schools and contains some programs which teach skills which are the stepping stones to logic and programming techniques, as well as the more usual rule-and-drill programs. At £24.95 per pack of seven to eight programs, it seems rather expensive for home use but its use in schools is a selling point for distributors such as W H Smith.

Farmer introduces problem-solving and reasoning to the seven-to-11 group, while Watchperson does a similar task for the eight-to-11 group and includes route planning. Mazes are a graphic way to introduce logical processes and many of them are available in the games section of the software departments of stores.

To learn programming as a technique, the most innovative and child- centred way is to use Logo, a high-level language developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, under the guidance of Seymour Papert. Instead of using the computer to help a child or young adult to learn certain skills, the user programs the computer to execute commands. Logo enables children from about nine upwards to achieve results which would be much more difficult to achieve using the Basic language common to the Spectrum and ZX-81.

By the use of simple commands, a child can instruct a robot/turtle to move round the screen or on the floor, drawing as it proceeds. Imagine telling someone to walk round a square shape; walk 10 steps, then turn right; at that point it would be absolutely essential to know how many degrees to turn through, otherwise the shape would have no chance of being a square. Similarly with Logo and it is in that way that the value of such a program can be seen, as geometric functions are learned not by looking at a text book but by practical use of them in an activity which has been chosen by the child.

Logo does much more than introduce children to geometric function, however, because by choosing a problem, like drawing a house, the child has to split the activity into its component parts - roof, windows, chimneys - and find the best way of achieving the desired result. That type of problem-solving can be applied to any number and variety of activities and the adult version is well-known as critical path analysis, involving the exploration of logistics to determine the order in which activities are executed.

Logo also introduces children to the basic concepts of programming in a simplified form - to loops, nested loops et al - and for those who have no immediate knowledge of, or affinity with, those concepts, its simplicity is an easy introduction to them. In future years robots and artificial intelligence will enter many areas of life and a knowledge of the logical way in which a programmable machine works will undoubtedly be a skill which many will need to learn.

Snail Logo - Spectrum 48K, CP Software, £9.95 - is an example of this type of program which can be used either with the Zeaker turtle on the floor or displays, if desired, a snail moving on the screen.

The documentation with the program is excellent, describing the concepts behind it and giving examples of programs to try. They lead the novice from simple routines to more complex ones involving the use of named procedures - subroutines - and variables. Although there are ample facilities to copy the program being worked on, there is no means of saving them, which is very irritating, as obviously children might wish to evolve a program in the space of days or weeks. It would be better also if the snail could be seen on the screen at the same time. No doubt other versions of Logo will be introduced in the coming year.

Looking back on the development of educational software at the start of 1984, the main impression is that the field has scarcely been explored. Two obvious areas where development is necessary for the Spectrum and the ZX-81 is a simple word processor allowing children to type-in a piece of writing and then correct it, and the interactive database program similar to that of the Tree of Life which runs on the BBC micro.

Potential exists in the simulation/adventure format and the use of Logo to stimulate children into areas of activity which would be impossible without the use of the computer. While rule-and-drill programs can be a pleasant way of learning basic skills and an introduction to the computer and its keyboard, their over-use could have the opposite effect to that desired by deterring children using computers for life.

So what developments can we expect in the next few years? Interactive video must surely be an area to be explored. Based on a combination of personal computers and video tapes or disc players, interactive video will expand the use of the computer as an educational tool by introducing real speech into the learning process and enabling children to interact with the pictures.

After that, perhaps children will learn to program holograms to dance round the room or a myriad of small independent robots will be whizzing round when fed their programs. Educational software? We have only just begun.

Bridge Software, 36 Fernwood, Marple Bridge., Stockport, Cheshire SK6 5BE

CP Software, 17 Orchard Lane, Prestwood, Great Missenden, Bucks HP16 0NN.

Rose Software, 148 Widney Lane, Solihull, West Midlands 8B91 3LH.

Software Cottage, 19 Westfield Drive, Loughborough,. Leicestershire LE11 3QJ.

University Software, 29 St Peters Street. London N1.

John Wiley & Sons (Sulius Software), Baffins Lane, Chichester, Sussex PO19 1UD.

Collins, Widget, Heinemann and Psionare widely available at leading department stores.

Not Rated