The picture of the growing digital divide between the technology haves and have-nots in American education kept surfacing as I reviewed...

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The picture of the growing digital divide between the technology haves and have-nots in American education kept surfacing as I reviewed Microsoft’s new and undeniably powerful education software product, Student 2006 DVD.


Even though this software is geared for students in middle and high schools — institutions that this reviewer left during the Eisenhower administration — I found marvels at nearly every turn as the $100 software worked its magic.


Think of it as a homework helper on steroids.


The heart of Microsoft Student 2006 is a masterful collection of templates and add-on programs for the various modules of business-strength Microsoft Office, especially Word, Excel and PowerPoint.


Sometimes the tools hold a user’s hand while navigating through the complexities of writing an essay in French.


They add a floating menu of language tools in an out-of-the-way corner, and a sidebar of tips drops down a skinny pane to the right.


Other times, the software offers a package of templates for a PowerPoint presentation of concepts as diverse as a beginner’s book report and a set of intricate screens analyzing major historical events.


Student 2006 DVD


Offers several features that help students …

Research and brainstorm term papers


Create charts and diagrams


Produce documented research papers


Design classroom presentations with PowerPoint


Learn scientific and mathematical analytical skills


Learn foreign language skills


Then there are tools to capture the imagination of the math-challenged or to create dazzling graphics that illustrate such complexities as quadratic equations and statistical progressions.


For learning about the sciences, the software has templates for the Excel spreadsheet that teach how to use formulas to compute complex questions like geometric population growths and astronomical movements, or just how to make an attractive bar chart comparing guns to butter in this year’s federal budget.


Perhaps this helter-skelter description points to why Student 2006 is getting tepid and sometimes downright antagonistic responses from some educators and others.


It’s well worth emphasizing, as these critics have, that there is a notable lack of cohesion. A huge array of tools and services is presented in a scattered fashion for the user to somehow grasp and organize.


But isn’t that what life and education are all about?


Learning comes best from doing, and as one does each project in this powerful package, there are plenty of help screens and tools for enlightenment added to familiar software like Word/Excel/PowerPoint.


Students and teachers can buy a special version of Office 2003 for $149.


Microsoft Student 2006 also recruits future full-price customers for Microsoft Office.


There is an almost cultlike inundation of things Microsoft as a Student 2006 user moves from the treasury of templates for Office and into the other parts of the package, which are based on Microsoft’s huge Encarta database, covering areas like literature, history, psychology, geography and even astronomy.


The product is built around a Premium subscription to Encarta 2006, which requires a Microsoft .NET sign-on name and password.


One must then use Microsoft Internet Explorer and complex operating system add-ons known as the .NET Framework and ActiveX.


Soon, one’s computer experience seems to be all Microsoft, all the time.


Yet therein lies one of this product’s strengths.


All of the material a budding scholar will acquire through Student 2006 has been vetted by established experts, thus delivering a confidence and accuracy missing when one attacks homework using the wildly inchoate World Wide Web.


Whether it’s getting a famous quotation correct via Student 2006’s version of Bartlett’s or retrieving rainfall statistics for Dubai, the Microsoft resources confer credibility that parents and teachers should appreciate.


The software includes great language tools for French, German, Spanish and English, and it boasts a spoken-word translation feature.


Science tools pop up for instant reference while one is working in Word, for example. They include an interactive periodic table of the elements that displays details of each atom when the symbol is clicked, and an equation editor that allows insertion of algebraic formulas and symbols into an Office document.


For those of us with qualms about Microsoft’s dominance of the business-application software market, Student 2006 is yet another company effort to push its product ever deeper into our lives.


None of us has to like it, even if we can afford it.