PETER FOWLER had a reputation as a Luddite about 20 years ago. "I was anti-technology," he says. "From my perspective, computers were there to be broken."
Today he enjoys a rather different reputation, as a leading authority on the use of ICT in teaching and learning. His keenness to challenge conventional ideas has contributed much to his success. As head of the new International Centre for Digital Content in Liverpool, he is now building on years of experience in applying technology to learning in ways that truly work.
It was in 1984 that Fowler first realised the power of ICT. Trained as a teacher, he had taught a wide range of subjects in schools and colleges, and had just begun giving English courses to adults with special needs at a Further Education college in Cheshire. A keen fan of rock music, he spent much of his spare time writing for leading music magazines. When technology was first introduced into the rock world, Fowler had felt it would ruin his enjoyment of music, but then he put some of his reservations aside and began using a word processor to produce his articles.
The turning point came when he tried out word processing with his students. "It was inspirational," he says. "The word processor is completely non-judgemental. You can change whatever you want, whenever you want, and the end result looks the sameI "That experience completely changed my perspective on the use of ICT, and I quickly became a strong advocate for it."
The following year he pursued his new-found enthusiasm by joining the Council for Educational Technology (CET, the forerunner of NCET, now BECTA), initially to manage a project investigating how computers could benefit FE students with special needs. He was drawn into a whole range of ICT initiatives in the special needs community, including management of the CET software development centre in Manchester. The way people worked together there was a revelation. "Programmers worked hand-in-glove with teachers - it was an equal partnership between people with different skills. At every stage, the software was trialled with students.
"I believed that model was absolutely right. If a product we developed was really useable, and it enhanced the curriculum in the right way, then it was employed not only for special needs, but right across the spectrum of mainstream learning." Some products, such as the My World word processor, are still to be found in schools today.
In 1991 Fowler accepted the post of head of open learning at John Moores University in Liverpool, relishing the opportunity to develop earning materials for university students. And when he met and recruited Roy Stringer, a software designer, an awardwinning partnership was born.
The big breakthrough came in the area of biomedical sciences, with the development of Cytofocus, a multimedia package to help technicians in cytology laboratories understand the complex process of working with cervical smears. Funded by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the software was created with two consultants from local hospitals working alongside the developers.
The centrepiece of the software was an interactive guide to the long sequence of chemical reactions that a smear undergoes in the laboratory before it is studied under the microscope. Many people loved it. Cytofocus went on to win a string of awards, including overall Gold Medal at the European Multimedia Awards (EMMAs) in 1993, when it beat five Microsoft consumer software titles, including Encarta. Still used in 40 British hospitals, Cytofocus is now selling well in the US.
Fowler's group, now called the Learning Methods Unit, was deluged with commercial orders to produce software. And when he found it impossible to hire skilled developers, he decided to "grow his own", by launching an MA course in multimedia design, aimed at arts graduates.
Earlier this year the LMU joined forces with Liverpool-based Mersey TV, to found the International Centre for Digital Content (ICDC). This fosters close links with schools, and produces educational software.
He says: "I believe that what you can do with multimedia is open up one or two areas, looking for little things that might help someone understand a concept better. I also believe that pupils should use ICT as a creative tool, rather than as something which somehow forces them to do fractions."
His beliefs are reinforced by his experience as an evaluator, visiting local schools to suggest ways they might try to employ ICT. "When I first went into classrooms a few years ago, I saw integrated learning systems, and they really gave me the creeps.
"Seven-year-olds sat at the screen working through maths tests, and I began to think back to the Fifties, when I was at school in a working class community. When they started school, most infants could read and write, they knew some rhymes and knew the etiquette of the classroom.
"Now it's not like that - many kids may not have two parents, or their parents are shift-workers. The last thing these children need when they arrive at school is to be parked in front of a computer screen. They need to talk, and have human contact - they need a real, not a virtual world.
"The technology I am involved in should never replace the real need, which is for human beings to teach human beings."