A prophet in open learning

13th October 2000 at 01:00
Two decades ago, Nigel Paine feared that people thought he was mad, but time has shown him to be a visionary. Dorothy Walker talks to the techological thinker who keeps on looking forward.

Twenty years ago, Nigel Paine was spreading the word about the potential of ICT for learning. "In those days a lot of people believed I was completely mad," he says. "The technology didn't work particularly well, but I was certain that one day it would. So I used to describe what would be possible in the future."

Today, the possibilities are becoming realities, and Paine himself has done much to make that happen. In the Nineties, as chief executive of the Scottish Council for Educational Technology (SCET), he was a leader in the drive to help Scottish schools reap the benefits of computers and the Internet. As chief executive of the Technology Colleges Trust, he has forged ahead with new learning initiatives which harness the power of the latest technology. And when he moves on from the Trust at the end of next month, he plans to make the most of that same technology to support an exciting new chapter in his own career.

Paine trained as a teacher in literacy and media studies, and it was in the Seventies, while teaching adults in Scotland, that he first realised how ICT could contribute to learning. He was a volunteer with the Workers' Educational Association, giving a course helping people to help their own community.

"Many of the students were shift workers or had families, and couldn't always attend, so I began writing notes to help them catch up. And they said: 'Why don't you just give us the notes, so that we don't have to struggle to come here every week?' "I realised that by packaging material you could open up learning, getting rid of the dependence on time and place. And I believed that if you could get the material on to an electronic medium, you could work with a very large group of people who could be located anywhere."

Paine pursued his belief by joining a Scottish Office research project to explore the potential of open learning in schools and colleges. He also invested in a BBC microcomputer, featuring a much-prized modem, and began a series of early experiments in communications. These included hit-and-miss attempts to employ Prestel, BT's teletext service, for sending email and distributing software. "If the software downloaded, that was rare - and if it ran, that was even rarer," says Paine. "But the potential was there."

His faith was reinforced in 1985 when a scholarship to study education took him to Australia and Canada, where he found that electronic links and networking were becoming major areas of interest. In the same year, he joined SCET. As well as offering support to teachers, SCET designed innovative educational software, and Pine recalls the arrival of multimedia as a defining moment. "I can remember seeing a movie running on an Apple Mac for the first time. I thought: 'This has changed everything - we'll be able to have sound and vision as well as text.' SCET was an early adopter of the CD-Rom, so we could store movies with ease."

The launch of Windows was also a revelation. "When I saw virtual buttons - on-screen buttons that responded to a mouse click - I thought 'That's it! Everyone will get that, and at last they will understand the interface with the computer.' I believed Windows would change the world. I could see the real learning possibilities, and I got very involved in developing content that was exciting and interactive."

The next crucial link in the chain of learning possibilities came with hypertext, which enabled people to pursue a train of thought by clicking their way around the Web. Paine says: "I saw how the computer could mirror the way my brain worked - not thinking in a linear way, but jumping from idea to idea.

"I used to use a book like that, starting at the back, flicking through, reading a chapter, and I always thought that was sinful, and that if I was caught I would be punished. Then I realised it was a perfectly legitimate way of learning, and actually very efficient. Building a knowledge base on your desktop using the Internet is a really effective way of learning."

Paine joined the Technology Colleges Trust last year, and has relished the opportunity to realign the organisation and "get motoring" on an exciting range of initiatives, including Supergrid, a broadband network which links hundreds of the specialist schools linked to the Trust. He says: "Broadband represents the next stage - rather than having to do multimedia, email and the Internet separately, you can do all of these things together, down the line."

Paine has enjoyed working on a wide range of educational issues, but now he feels it is time to re-focus his sights on ICT. "I reached an agreement with Sir Cyril Taylor, the chairman, that I needed to get closer to technology again, and that I should leave after the Trust's conference in November."

He is clear about his vision of the future. "I'd like to see an educational broadband network that allows schools, universities, colleges and the outside world to interact, and which has good material that has teachers really zinging."

With a network of international contacts, he is enthusiastic about employing technology to help him "live according to the expectations that I have raised in everyone else.

"I can imagine a world where teachers feel empowered, where they always have a good idea, always have someone who will help them out in difficulties, always have a way of finding something new and exciting."

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