"I wish I had more time to play games," laughs Angela McFarlane, when asked what comes top of her technology wish list. "If you are serious about researching games, you have to play them."
Angela is professor of education and director of learning technology at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol, and digital gaming is just one of the themes she explores in her research. At this year's BETT show, when she delivers the TES keynote address at the ICT in Practice Awards ceremony (see pp32,41), Professor McFarlane will look to the future, exploring what kind of practice might be winning awards in the next 10 years. Her own distinguished career spans two decades, and today her groundbreaking research continues to shed light on our understanding of the impact of ICT on learning.
Angela first became excited about the potential of ICT in the mid-1980s, as a newly qualified science teacher. Based at a school in Hertfordshire, she was asked by her head of department to join a Department of Trade and Industry working group seeking to establish a national database of teaching resources online. "The idea that people would volunteer to contribute content didn't work then, and it has never worked subsequently," she says.
"But I found it exciting to experiment with the technology, and through this project I was introduced to another initiative, which used computers to control experiments and capture data in science. That was what really got me hooked."
In 1988 she was invited to join Homerton College in Cambridge, to work on a software project funded by the Microelectronics Educational Support Unit, a forerunner of technology agency Becta. "We had projects going in science, art and maths. We were looking at concepts that were difficult to teach, and investigating ways of making them more accessible," says Angela.
A number of software titles were produced, some going on to become classics, and Angela relished being part of a multi-talented team. "There were people who could make the technology sing, and people who could make difficult ideas accessible to children. They worked together to create products that were very close to the classroom," she says.
Angela went on to become director of Homerton's Centre for Research in Educational ICT. Homerton was involved in every major evaluation of ICT in education in the 1990s, including research on CD-Roms, portable computers for teachers and integrated learning systems. The ImpaCT2 study, which assessed the impact of networked technologies on learning, served to heighten Angela's growing interest in children's use of ICT outside school.
"I was one of the people who argued that what children were doing in school formed only a tiny part of the picture," she says. "I still don't think we take enough account of what children do outside school."
She would love to spend more time on games, but says it is notoriously difficult to secure funding for games-related research. "The idea that playing digital games isn't a learning experience is crazy. These games are hard - you need persistence and good problem-solving skills to make any kind of progress. I believe we need more projects to look at how the more complex games could be used to support the curriculum, particularly for children who are disengaged."
Angela is about to see some of the fruits of her research once again going into the creation of software - something she admits having missed since she left Homerton. "We are working to bring in developers, so that we can use resources that have been deliberately crafted to support an educational purpose."
Angela's address at BETT will explore the need for new tools to support continuing good practice with ICT. She asks: "If we are serious about moving towards the promotion of a curriculum that best fits the individual child, then what might our technology tools look like in the future?"