‘We think an effective way in which you can use an encyclopedia is as a gateway to the internet.’

In 1994, Microsoft
bought the rights to adapt a certain US encyclopedia with the vision
of creating a role model for encyclopedias of tomorrow. Today, Encarta,
Microsoft’s multimedia encyclopedia meant for learning institutions
like schools, colleges and the home is available in numerous country
editions including an Indian one. The World English Edition has
sold 200,000 copies and a key aspect of its global acceptance has
been the realization by Microsoft for the need of localization.
Today, a team of 40 in-house editors based in England and numerous
consultants, mull over the ten million words present in the current
edition and ponder country specific enhancements.

A key individual
working behind the scene since 1994 has been Latha Menon, Executive
Editor of the global team responsible for the World English edition.
Latha has been responsible for the overall direction and development
of Encarta and commissioning of external contributors and consultants
to work on the project. Previously, Latha was the Senior Editor
of science and technology at Oxford University Press and a member
of the National Council of Educational Technology, UK. Latha, graduated
from Somerville College, Oxford and lives there.

How would
you describe a multimedia encyclopedia?

I do not think quoting numbers of words is appropriate. I think
you have to consider issues. First of all what are you trying to
achieve through an encyclopedia? I can tell you in the case of Encarta
our purpose is not to produce something that contains a hundred
thousand words, which are written by experts for other experts.
In some of the older and traditional encyclopedias this was something
you could see.

We believe that
encyclopedias should be an introduction to the lay person. But on
the other hand we are not going for the superficial-the equivalent
of the one volume encyclopedia, where you have a quick reference
and a few lines on any particular topic. What we are trying to find
is a balance. When it is a complex subject you want to point out,
this is not simple and there are many levels to understand and so
on. That means you may have an article of 1000, 5000, 10,000 and
15,000 words-and that feels about right for certain subjects.

And then we
would want to direct them to other materials-we direct people outward
by carefully selected web links. We have over 5000 web links in
Encarta and this is interesting because you may find some reference
works quoting hundreds of thousands of links, which is very easy
to do. But we have deliberately chosen not to do so, because we
think one of the effective ways in which you can use an encyclopedia
is as a structured gateway to the internet. With the internet being
essentially a mess of good and bad stuff, I think it would important
and useful for people to be led through the knowledge structure
of an encyclopedia.

What is the
significance of monitoring the web links in Encarta?

We have a couple of people who focus entirely on the internet and
they have a series of criteria that a particular web site has to
fit into before it is linked. It has to be authoritative, reliable
and safe-because of pornography and so on. We want to make sure
that we are directing people to sites that we regard as helping
content development. In addition, there is a short introduction
to each site and the value of that one line is that it enables us
to say where the site is coming from.

Is Encarta
based on any particular print encyclopedia?

Yes. Originally, it was based on an encyclopedia called Funk &
Wagnall’s–a respected US encyclopedia of 29 volumes. Microsoft
bought the rights to the text in 1994 and then overhauled it to
create the first World English Edition in 1995. Since then some
2 million words have been added.

What is the
process of localization?

I think it is important to realize that for some years now Microsoft
has been developing local versions of the Encyclopedia. In 1993,
there was an American version of the encyclopedia typical of many
encyclopedias that have been developed in the States. It had more
content on American issues than on other parts of the world. Initially
there was a lot of interest in the UK, the next country that had
a lot of PCs, in the encyclopedia because young people loved the
multi media content. But it was quickly recognized that the content
was America focused.

Increasingly
in the UK and other parts of the world people are not happy by material
that is essentially dominated by American content. So with that
in mind, five or six years back, Microsoft asked a British publisher
called Adrian Webster to create a team. He is an independent British
publisher with considerable experience in reference and in particular
in adaptation of reference works. So he was an ideal person to set
up this team and that is how a number of us joined.

We were given
seven million words within structures, categories and sub-categories
and so on, and asked to do whatever was necessary to make it reflect
the expectations of the commonwealth audience. UK is obviously the
key market but places like Australia, India and South Africa are
getting considerable importance. We set up a network of consultants
and contributors and every section was reviewed about how we should
refocus the content.

What are
the changes made in Encarta with country localization? Are we talking
about complete country specific encyclopedias, with local language
interfaces, in the near future?

There are certain historical ties amongst the commonwealth countries
and that means there is a certain style and approach that all these
countries would like to see in an encyclopedia. What we really want
is not something that is so tailored to local information that you
are not giving the rest of the world any importance. In a country
like India, it is important to have access to knowledge and images
of other parts of the world, particularly for many children who
may not be able to get out and see some of these things. I think
the whole perspective is very important. What we are trying to do
is balance local sensitivity and what we have done for India is
add more content specifically of Indian interest than you would
normally see in a general encyclopedia.

Is there
a common repository for all the country editions?

A year after we started, Microsoft started a French addition and
an Italian addition. Now they have got a whole range including Brazil
and Spain. So it is an Encarta world family. We all use the same
database, which is highly complex with so many thousands of images
and we can all look at each other’s content. As an example, we have
chosen a video from the French version, which we thought was rather
good, likewise the American team might say we would like to look
at this article and maybe adapt it to our edition. So that is the
kind of sharing and discussion that takes place.

How do you
compare the learning from instructor and class-room education with
CDROM based education?

There has been quite a bit of research on learning with CDROM for
example in places like the Open University. I think you will find
that many people who did not grow up with computers initially find
it difficult to read text on the screen. I think for a start that
is beginning to change because young people are much more used to
reading text on screen. But one thing that has come out of this
research is that people learn by a range of methods. The written
word is particularly subtle, versatile and very little can compare
with it. For long we have relied on that and maybe the odd image
and diagram. But the great thing about multimedia is that it taps
into other ways of learning, which maybe appropriate for some people
and for some topics.

Take for example
the treatment of sound in Encarta and in the start you have an incredible

selection of music. So when you are reading about Beethoven or Karnatic
music you can hear a clip of their music. There are also other ways
in which sound is used, such as historic speeches-to actually hear
the voice of Lenin or the voice of Gandhi. Especially for the new
generation, I think it is fascinating. Another aspect is the 360-degree
view. You can read about Prague but to stand in the middle of the
Town Square and look around you, that immediately enhances it.

How are computers
and computing being integrated in school curriculum in the west?

First, teachers are feeling threatened when there is absolutely
no need for them to feel threatened. There are also concerns about
how the computer would be used within the classroom. Originally,
the way that computing came into the curriculum-you went there and
you did something that felt unnatural, a new kind of language whether
it was BASIC or another. Then you went away and did all your other
learning. It was artificial and separate.
Now the whole feel everywhere is to make use of computers as a natural
part of the whole curriculum. It is another tools along with pencil
and paper and everything else. Of course, even in many schools in
the west it leaves a wide variation in the nature of resources.
Some schools may be very well equipped, others may just have a few
PCs. But I do not think that it should stop people using them effectively.
Another approach has been to introduce IT much more into teacher
training so that the new generation teachers are going to be more
comfortable.

Is Encarta
supposed to be a role model for Microsoft multimedia technologies?

I think it represents the leading edge. The level of innovation
and creativity is what makes it so exciting to work on this product.
We work closely with the Microsoft team at the Reference Division
at Redmond.

Other than
bandwidth are there are any other technological limitations inhibiting
online education?

At this stage, it is not just technology issues. It is about developing
structures within that. It is almost like publishing structures,
if you like. As you can see the internet has a lot of content but
how do you access that in an effective and meaningful way. That
is where publishing and editorial approaches are going to apply,
where somebody has gone and selected a series of sites within a
learning structure.

Is this equivalent
to building a learning portal?

In effect, it is a portal approach but it may be more than that.
It maybe portal plus content-but what you need are structures to
move forward. Without structures, you have anarchy and you do not
get any learning. The structured gateway approach or portal is typically
a way of constructing order. But you have got to have structures
that are enabling not constraining. That is the challenge-to not
build structures that trap you into a particular and limited vision.
For those of us who are working in education technology, it is a
tremendous challenge to create such structures. I think in future
you are going to see a range of alternative structures for different
purposes like education and training.

There is one
other kind of technological development that is beginning to impact
learning environments and that is increasing portability. This means
that students can use laptops to maintain continuity between home
and school or college. Combined with improving screen technology,
the ebook is a more viable mass-use product of the near future.

Arun
Shankar

in New Delhi

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *