Walt Mossberg

New Microsoft Program Offers Homework Tools But It’s Clumsy to Use

In many American households, homework is a big problem. Teachers often load up students with far more of it than I recall from my own prehistoric school career. And parents, squeezed for time by dual careers and rusty because of rapidly changing curricula, find it is hard to help.

Also, today’s students often have so many after-school activities that even with the best work ethic, it is a struggle to get through hours of homework and still get enough sleep before the absurdly early start time at many high schools.

Taking note of this daily homework battle, Microsoft has decided to help — or at least to see whether it can make some money by addressing the problem. The software colossus has just introduced Microsoft Student 2006, designed to make it easier for middle-school and high-school students to attack homework efficiently by gathering homework resources in one place on the computer.

Microsoft Student, which runs only on PCs equipped with DVD drives and Windows 2000 or Windows XP, is priced at $100, though it is less expensive at places such as Amazon.com, which sells it for $80.

I have been testing this new product over the past week, reliving the sheer joy of solving algebra problems, crafting book reports and trying to string together two sentences in French.

My conclusion is that, especially for students who struggle or who need help getting started on assignments, Microsoft Student can provide some aid. Still, it is confusing and clumsy to use and disappointing in some respects. It is really a thin veneer thrown over several existing Microsoft products, rather than an integrated program designed from the ground up.

Under the covers, Microsoft Student relies heavily on the company’s existing Encarta encyclopedia, on Microsoft Office and on its Internet Explorer Web browser. And one of these key elements, Office, isn’t included in the box. If you don’t own Office, which includes Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, you will have to buy it.

Microsoft Student has several main features. One, called Learning Essentials for Students, is a set of templates and help files for Word, Excel and PowerPoint, designed to assist students in developing good-looking reports and presentations. The templates don’t include any content, just designs and tips for how to organize and create school papers. This feature also includes special templates for writing in German, French and Spanish, including a handy way to insert foreign characters.

There also is a slick virtual graphing calculator, sort of a software version of the complex scientific calculators parents must buy their children in better high schools. Another module is an online math-homework helper that uses problems similar to those in the most popular math textbooks to show students how they are solved.

Microsoft Student includes the company’s Encarta encyclopedia, with free online updates good until October 2006. There is a Web-search companion that pops up Encarta results alongside any Web search the student performs, so the student isn’t relying on the often-random and sometimes-inaccurate content that litters the Web.

There also are summaries of many great books that include suggested topics for reports on the books; a database of famous quotations; and sections grouped by subject that attempt to gather all the program’s resources for each area of study. These include “how to” articles on getting started doing various kinds of reports.

The weakest part of Microsoft Student, in my tests, was the encyclopedia searches, including the “companion” searches tied to Web searches. The search function is dumber and far less precise than Google or even Microsoft’s own MSN search engine.

For instance, when I searched on Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and a pioneer in religious liberty, I did get a relevant Encarta article, but I also got articles on baseball pitcher Roger Clemens, the film “Roger and Me” and various counties and islands called “Williams.” Putting quotation marks around the search term, a well-known technique for improving results, didn’t help.

In the Web companion, when I searched for Joseph Reed, a Revolutionary War figure who was a top aide to George Washington, Microsoft Student came up empty, with only a barely relevant article on the Articles of Confederation. Instead, it offered material on Joseph Lieberman, the modern-day senator; the movie “Airport”; a map of Florida; and a musical clip of Glenn Miller playing “In the Mood,” which was written by a man named Joe. Google did much better, showing me a couple of Web sites about Reed.

Beyond that, the program is a hassle to use. It makes you jump between its main module, Office, Internet Explorer, the graphing calculator and the dictionary, all of which are separate programs, with different interfaces. Just using the Learning Essentials requires you to dig out your original Microsoft Office disk, if you can find it, to install the Student templates. You also have to install the online math helper and an Encarta toolbar for Internet Explorer, and register for the online portion of Encarta.

For desperate parents and struggling students, Microsoft Student may provide some homework relief. But it is confusing to use, and the search function needs a major overhaul. Microsoft should have done better.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at walt.mossberg@wsj.com


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