CD-Recording Systems Transform Educators into Digital Publishers

Over the past five years, CD-ROM has established itself as one of the most powerful and widely applied educational tools. Literally thousands of titles aimed specifically at teaching and learning have hit the market, and countless students -- from kindergarten classrooms to university labs -- have benefited from their multi-sensory content. Most PCs these days are sold with CD-ROM drives, further fueling the interest in software development. Despite these trends, relatively few educators author their own multimedia programs. Even fewer choose to distribute information on CD-ROM, perhaps under the impression that "rolling" a disc is beyond their budget or abilities. Such reluctance may have been warranted in the past, when CD-Recordable (CD-R) drives cost upwards of $10,000 and multimedia authoring packages required sophisticated programming skills. In contrast, recent advances in CD-R technology mean small schools or even individual instructors can afford to install complete internal CD-ROM publishing systems. Although the advantages of CD Recording clearly extend to the administrative arena, this article concentrates on its instructional applications; we begin with a discussion of the hardware and software for recording discs, then examine a sampling of packages for authoring dynamic multimedia presentations. Novices should review other sources and solicit detailed literature from companies mentioned to better understand the technical terminology and logistical issues surrounding this subject. Preliminary Considerations Previously, educators who wished to produce one or more CD-ROMs had no choice but to call upon a service bureau, which generally charges at least $1,000 to produce the glass master and stamper, plus an additional $1 to $2 per disc. Some service bureaus will record a single disc, or "one-off," for $100 to $150. While this remains a viable alternative to buying all the necessary equipment, one major drawback of working with bureaus is the loss of control over a project once it leaves the author's hands. With an in-house recording solution, developers can oversee the entire production process and quickly ensure that the final product operates as planned. A successful installation results from carefully selecting a CD-R drive and mastering software that work smoothly together. Like CD-ROM players, most CD-Recorders are basically similar to each other, with the main differences in speed, accuracy and flexibility. Drives themselves cost anywhere from $1,500 to $6,000+, and connect to the computer via a SCSI port or fit inside its 5.25" disk drive bay. Again, the big news for budget-conscious consumers is the dramatic drop in CD-R drive prices over the past three to five years. And the proliferation of CD-ROM drives in schools of all sizes assures a large audience for any multimedia creation. As with players, most CD-Recorders operate at 2X or 4X speeds, with a few firms promising to ship 6X units by the end of this quarter. Yamaha Systems Technology, for example, recently added the CDR102 (internal) and CDE102 2X record/4X playback devices to its CD Expert Product family. The new units handle all standard formats including CD-ROM, CD-ROMXA, CD-I and CD-DA (digital audio). Plus, the CDR102 and CDE102 support multi-mode options such as disc-at-once, track-at-once or multi-session, in which data can be recorded in multiple sessions and read in the interim. Yamaha also lowered by 25% the list price of its popular CDE100 and CDE100 II 4X recorders, which sport a newly developed optical head, spindle motor, high-speed signal processing LSI and exclusive control technology. Avoiding Costly Mistakes Another variable among CD-R drives is cache size. Larger caches prevent buffer underruns that may corrupt a recording. CD-R systems are expressly designed to stream a smooth flow of data to a disc as it is being made; any interruption, due to either too much or too little data being fed, will cause errors. CD-R discs, which have a soft gold di-polymer layer that is cut by the drive's laser, can only be burned once. Discs cost about $15 apiece, depending on the number purchased, so mistakes do add up. Plasmon Data Systems' RF4102 2X recorder includes 2MB of internal memory, expandable to 32MB, to provide a safety margin of almost six minutes in the event of a data stream interruption. "Most organizations use a CD-Recorder the same way they use a scanner -- once a day, a few hours a week or maybe even one day a month," says Phil Storey, president of Plasmon. "They want to produce a good CD the first time, every time." Included with Pinnacle Micro's RCD-1000 2X recorder is a backup utility as well as two blank discs. Its "Predict" feature lets one simulate a recording and test the required throughput of the system creations before actually writing to a CD. While all the aforementioned products represent significant improvements over earlier models, desktop CD recording still demands some patience. Newcomers should receive training or be prepared to seek technical support. Over time, a few glitches are nearly inevitable. For that reason, Procom Technology backs its products with a 24-hour BBS, Overnight Replacement option and extended warranties. Finally, for the serious CD-ROM publisher, Kodak offers a 6X CD-Recorder as well as the Disc Transporter, which automates the loading of up to 50 discs. Other recognizable CD-R manufacturers include JVC, Philips and Sony. Keep in mind that several firms may upgrade, replace or discount current products by the time you begin your search. Some observers have already predicted that basic CD-R drives will break the $1,000 barrier by 1996. Regardless of the CD-R chosen, one will need a computer system with at least 8MB of RAM and a fast hard drive to avoid interruptions in the data stream. Luckily, many major CD-R drive manufacturers offer turnkey systems to ease the search. Software Runs the Show No CD-Recorder will accomplish its intended purpose without accompanying software. Some programs cost just as much as the drive itself. In cases where bundles don't exist, customers should proceed with caution because not all software and CD-R hardware are compatible. Most software supports the following CD standards: Red Book (audio tracks); Yellow Book (typically data); and Mixed Mode (a combination of data and audio tracks). More advanced packages allow Mac/PC hybrid discs for true cross-platform portability. Other differences lie with the methods for maintaining data flow between the computer and CD-R system. In one approach, data is transferred to a dedicated hard drive, then burned to the recorder. Another method is to create a virtual image that points to the location of each file being copied. Those who offer CD-R software have continually improved their wares. For instance, the formatting code in Young Minds' SimpliCD Release 3 has been rewritten to allow Format-on-the-Fly recording, through which data is formatted and sent to the CD-R in a single operation. Also possible are track-at-once and disc-at-once recording. SimpliCD also supports capaCD, a unique CD-ROM data compression package. With capaCD, one can compress data files at a 6:1 ratio, boosting the storage capacity of a 74-minute disc to 4GB. As more CD-Recording systems incorporate compression schemes, expect the technology to gain additional followers. Already, a CD-ROM can hold roughly 650MB of data. Doubling or tripling a disc's storage capacity allow for much longer video and audio clips, key components of encyclopedias, language tutors, etc. For cross-platform applications, CD Record Version 2.2 from Dataware Technologies boasts increased definition speed, improved memory management, and common source code across platforms. Highlights include international language support, automatic configuration and "drag and drop" disc definition. Preparing Data in Advance It should be noted that a multimedia presentation or other application may not run properly on CD-ROM unless data is "prepared" -- screened for viruses, defragmented, etc. Some programs emulate the speeds of a CD-ROM drive to permit a more realistic assessment of performance before data is committed to CD. An important consideration that some people neglect is where files are physically located on the CD. Namely, CD-ROM players retrieve data more quickly from the center of a disc than from the outer tracks. Thus, some CD-R programs allow users to manipulate the placement of files to streamline performance. One such product, CDR Publisher from Creative Digital Research organizes the underlying CD-ROM image layout while preserving all the files and directory structure of the original source. The user can then customize the disc layout, with all parameters and configurations saved for future reference. Other notable packages are Astarté Toast, JVC's Personal RomMaker and Optical Media International's QuickTopix. Those intimidated by the complexities of CD Recording will appreciate the expanded help available in most new software. A built-in "Disk Wizard" in Corel's CD Creator, for example, guides users step-by-step through the recording process. And, of course, numerous books, CD-ROMs and Web sites offer support for all skill levels. Creating Content for a CD Investing time learning how to record CDs in-house makes little sense unless one has content to put on the disc(s). Which brings us to multimedia authoring, tools for creating graphical presentations, lessons, etc. Old and new presentation packages alike promise more powerful features, accessible via innovative interfaces that eliminate the need to learn programming scripts. For example, rather than a traditional metaphor of a stack of cards, LSCI's Scene Slate utilizes a movie production environment. Originally developed for schools, the program adheres to the publisher's philosophy of freeing the teacher to teach, rather than focus on computing. Similarly, from Multimedia Design Corp. comes mPOWER, whose push-button interface resembles a bank's ATM screen. To distribute presentations, an instructor creates a self-running "player" document that will run on a Mac or a Windows machine. With Version 2.1 of mPOWER, video can be played in the background while text and graphics move on/off the screen. Plus, it now supports analog audio and QuickTime movies and other video digitized from a VCR or camcorder. In fact, one of the strengths of today's authoring systems is the broad range of media they support. The release of Microsoft Windows 95 and explosive growth of the Internet's World Wide Web promise to raise the standards for digital video and CD-quality sound. Recognizing the growing desire of educators to publish their multimedia creations, many firms include or sell distribution licenses. For a one-time fee, Alchemedia, for instance, provides the software necessary to run (but not edit) SuperLink applications on target Windows machines. Full-blown authoring systems, such as Macromedia's Authorware Professional, still carry a high price tag (as well as a steep learning curve). More mainstream products retail for as little as $100. And of course, there are many packages in between. Even students are getting in on the action. At South Central High School in Corydon, Ind., one teacher offers an "Authoring Systems" course. Students there use AuthorSoft. 3.1 from The Spirit of St. Louis Software to merge vital statistics about themselves with writings and pictures to create an electronic portfolio. Indeed, student portfolios stored on CDs is a growing interest by school reform advocates, as well as the center of some debate. Another trend of special interest to education is the ability to deliver interactive quizzes and track student performance. With Pierian Spring's Digital Chisel, templates are pre-configured for types of questions -- multiple choice, true/false, etc. Authors simply replace the "dummy" text with their own questions and answers. Final Analysis In the final analysis, a CD-Recording system is not for everyone. But its applicability to education -- for storing and delivering courseware, for archiving data, for student portfolios, etc. -- is self-evident. CD-R systems offer a cost-effective solution that's sure to be valuable, and increasingly utilized, for years to come.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.