THE CLASSROOM KEYS
Theodora Wood assesses teaching programs for older children.
AS CHILDREN pass into their teens the limitations imposed by lack of basic skills are no longer applicable. Programs therefore can be produced with a far greater proportion of written text. Following from programs designed for younger children, many packages rely on the demonstration and examine formula and there is far less emphasis on the entertainment aspect. This month, I shall look at programs which are complementary to school work up to O level. Some incorporate games, some are straight revision packages, others are demonstration models.
Astro Maths - Spectrum 48K, ZX81, Scisoft £6.95 - illustrates how software houses have mixed games with learning, appealing to the games player by offering a reward for correct answers in the form of zap-the-alien-ships. Unfortunately, although the graphics of the spaceships seem exciting when first shown, the game is a pale shadow of games available. The ships do not appear on the screen and the player is presented with an X to move over an invader which is only a square. Control of movement by means of a cursor is also rather shaky and slow.
The bulk of the program is concerned with testing in two areas - decimals to fractions and percentages. Parameters range from easy to difficult and the time-span for answering the questions can be as little as 20 seconds to as much as five minutes 20 seconds. Fractions to decimals deals with questions such as "Type-in the following fraction as a decimal - 20/41 = ?".
The program notes suggest that calculators could be used and for this kind of fraction a calculator would certainly save a great deal of time spent in long division, though obviously it provides practice in it. Percentages tests knowledge in this area is such questions as "What percentage of 200 is 14?". The game is the same and also the parameters, which unfortunately cannot be changed without relOADing the program.
By contrast, Mathskills II Spectrum 48K, Griffin, £9.99 - is a no-nonsense revision package aimed at complementing courses up to O level in mathematics. The subjects dealt with are areas, perimeters, simple equations, percentages, sets and Venn diagrams. Operating rather like a textbook, instructions are given at the beginning of each section, and even when attempting the questions there is a help facility in case the formulae have been forgotten - a useful revision aid.
After each question has been answered there is the game, different for each section. It is in the form of a ball reaching a goal if five correct answers are given, as in the case of percentages.
Although not really a game in the interactive sense of the word, that diversion breaks up the tedium of answering questions, giving a short break between each one. When the student has completed a section, a certificate is displayed giving the number of questions answered correctly or incorrectly, also expressed as a percentage.
The section on sets and Venn diagrams is especially clear and would certainly be an aid, not only to students, but also to parents whose own school curriculum did not cover these concepts.
Sequencing - Spectrum 48K, Chalksoft, £6.95 - demonstrates the textbook formula by providing examples of sequences, halving, Fibonnacci, prime, square, triangular and multiples of three and nine. Two or three pages of explanation precede each sequence being displayed on the screen. Unlike Mathskills II, which uses the computer to act as a marker, thus pinpointing areas of the subject which need more revision, this is a demonstration tape and has no inherent advantage over a textbook, except that the student sees the sequences built on the screen rather than being presented with the complete set of figures on a page.
For a complete teaching package, Angle - Spectrum 48K, Chalksoft, £11.25 - attempts an introduction to the concept of angle. Four programs are included in the package. Program A demonstrates the concept graphically by showing circles turning through quarters, halves and full turns, and when that has been done the idea of degrees is introduced.
Then follows a program to test these ideas based on a multiple-choice format. Program C moves into a demonstration mode to explain the use of a protractor to measure angles with graphics demonstrations. The testing mode in program D, however, reveals how closely a textbook format has been followed and the user has to hold up a protractor to the television screen to measure the angles. Come back pen and paper, all is forgiven.
Arnold Wheaton's Angle Turner - Spectrum 48K, £13.95 - covers the same ground but has strategies for testing which are not so tied to the conventional. Designed originally for use in the classroom, it is a thorough exploration of the concept embodied in its title. Two tapes and a users' handbook are included.
The demonstration package operates on a menu. The user has a choice of quarter turns, right angles, 45-degree, 10-degree and one-degree turns, The practice mode is designed "to reinforce the concept of angle as a quantity of turn" and test on each of the demonstration models, identifying such aspects as how many right angles?
For more complicated options of 10-and one-degree units the computer draws an angle and the user is asked to estimate the angle. The margin of error can be fixed at the beginning of the program, as can the number of incorrect attempts before help is given in the form of calibrations round the circle so the pupil can count. Calibrations also reinforce a correct answer. After eight questions, or whatever number set, the mode changes and the pupil has to stop the circle being drawn when it reaches a given angle.
The tutorial program draws a shape and gives the number of degrees in digital form at the side; the child has to study the shape and then it is re-drawn; pressing any key will stop the drawing process at the desired point. There is a danger that children will just match the reading given in a box to the one required but pressing T will hide the shape readout and prevent that. The packaging is excellent and although that is no guide to the quality of the program, good design is always a delight, no doubt reflected in the price.
Another area which is susceptible to rote learning and testing is that old chestnut of French irregular verbs and their changes through the tenses. Tense French - Spectrum 48K, Sulis Sottware, £9.95 - would be equally useful at home or in the classroom. Once LOADed there is a menu with choices of change of tense - the program starts in the present tense; a list of verbs; tests on meanings; test on one verb; and a test on all/some verbs.
The choice of tenses covers the range, including the subjunctive. Once a tense has been chosen, either of the two testing situations can be chosen. When choosing one verb the user is presented with the verb of his choice and has to type in the correct form of the verb after the initial preposition has been given. A score out of eight is built at the side of the screen and at the end of the exercise there is a choice of analysis or the menu.
The analysis option is useful, as it shows the correct forms of the verb which have been entered incorrectly by use of a bar of colour, thus highlighting the forms which need revision. Accents, circumflexes and cidillas are obtained by entering graphics mode and pressing the appropriate key.
The list of verbs shows all the verbs to be tested and the tests on meanings does precisely that, from English to French or vice versa. Tense French covers that area of revision in a thorough way and would certainly help users to concentrate on those forms of verbs where they had a weakness, even into the realms of the past historic.
Buying commercial programs can prove to be expensive, however, and for keyboard wizards there is the alternative of writing their programs. Educational Uses of the Spectrum, a Sinclair computer guide, by Tim Hartnell, Christine Johnson and David Valentine - John Wiley, £6.95 - would be of great assistance in writing programs such as those reviewed.
The first five chapters deal with basic programming, which would be superfluous for anybody who had worked through the Spectrum manual. The section on using the Spectrum for advanced mathematics includes routines to cover series, square roots and quadratic equations, as well as graphics sections to cover such concepts as sine design and tangent curves for demonstration purposes.
Testing routines are also supplied and there is a useful section on primary school work with the Spectrum. The book is designed for parents and teachers and, although the price is high compared to works of fiction, it is about average for a computer publication, and the savings would be considerable if the routines were used in place of commercial software.
Examples of software produced for the older child for the Spectrum have an immediate advantage over traditional methods in the immediacy of feedback to the user, and programs such as Mathskills II and Tense French would not only save hours of classroom time spent in testing but also be of assistance at home to identify and revise areas where a pupil was having difficulty.
It has to be said, however, that there is a relative dearth of secondary software produced so far. The market in the field has been dominated mainly by the smaller software houses, as the larger educational suppliers have been producing mainly for the school market, mostly for the BBC micro and the Research Machines models.
That is likely to change as software houses 'Spectrumise' programs previously available only to schools. Heinemann has started the trend by adapting programs such as Car Journey, Ballooning and Special Agent for the age range up to 13 from a suite of programs produced by a team of teachers working at Dudley, called The Dudley Programs, and tentative plans are afoot to adapt more titles. Understanding Your Weather, Dairy Farmer and Town Planner are three of the possible candidates. Arnold Wheaton is inclined to do the same.
There are many titles available in the games section which are educational without relying on the demonstrate-and-examine formula. Programs such as The Hobbit develop problem-solving skills and encourage a logical approach, without being specifically educational packages.