"You don't have to be a techie to do really good things with ICT," says Chris Pim. "But you do need perseverance."
Chris is leader of the Portsmouth LEA Ethnic Minority Achievement Service National Grid for Learning (NGfL) project; an award-winning initiative that uses ICT to promote ethnic minority achievement and race equality. The project has produced a wealth of online resources, most famously Bears Ahoy!, the interactive story of a teddy bear's adventures in Portsmouth, which has proved a hit in classrooms as far away as Australia. Now, with the project under threat through lack of funds, Chris's perseverance is being put to the test, as he looks for a way to continue his work.
Back in the 1970s, it was an adventure story that first sparked Chris's enthusiasm for ICT. "My father bought a Commodore PET computer, and I tried to write an adventure program," he says. "The machine ran out of memory before I could finish, but my imagination was captured - I could see how good it must be to write software and give it to other people to enjoy."
He went on to take a science degree and qualify as a teacher, but had little contact with computers during his studies. It was not until the late 1980s, when he was teaching science at a London school, that Chris bought his own PC and began using ICT in his classroom. He spent his free time creating tools to help bring science alive. One was an interactive map of sulphur dioxide emissions - clicking on a country not only showed how much of the gas was produced by that nation, it also revealed the countries that lay in the fallout zone. He says: "I realised there was the most amazing potential to develop creative tools that really stimulated children."
In the mid-1990s Chris spent two years teaching science and ICT at an international school in Hampshire. There he revisited the world of adventure games, through an exercise to create a CD-Rom introducing the school. "Students were engaged in the creative process, planning how they would produce content" he says. "The game Myst had just been released, and that gave us the inspiration for building the tour. We allowed users to explore at their own pace, clicking on an entrance or exit to reveal a new view. I saw how games could provide powerful ideas for use in the classroom."
Chris joined the Portsmouth LEA Ethnic Minority Achievement Service in 1997 as a specialist teacher. A year later, when he was working with schools to develop a teddy-bear story for bilingual children, he hit upon the idea of producing it on CD-Rom, so that youngsters could both read and listen to Bears Ahoy! in their first language. Schools opted to fund more ICT developments and Chris went on to create a website where online versions of the story have been joined by a raft of other resources, from interactive picture alphabets to intercultural lesson plans. All have been developed in collaboration with schools and families, and most are free. Aimed primarily at children with English as an additional language, they're designed not only to provide access to the curriculum, but also to celebrate pupils'
achievements in their own language.
"ICT has enormous benefits for learners getting to grips with English, and there are many tools on the internet to help," says Chris. "Translation engines are far from perfect, but running text through an engine can provide basic pointers."
Funding for development ceased earlier this year. A lifeline was extended in March, when the project was named as winner of the Collaboration category of the RamesysTES Learning Environment Awards. The pound;3,000 prize has funded some work, but Chris is now urgently seeking a sponsor. He says pound;10,000 a year would continue to support the kind of innovation achieved so far.
"I wish more companies realised how much benefit relatively small amounts of money can have," he says. "It shouldn't just be about assessing what a company gets out of it - all executives have been children themselves, and their children are probably now in school."