In at the deep end;Interview;Angela McFarlane;Watershed

13th March 1998 at 00:00
When she faced her first, tough class, Angela McFarlane did not hesitate to use computers. She tells Bill Hicks why

One of the striking things about Angela McFarlane's office is that there's not a computer in sight. The director of the Information Technology Unit at Homerton College, Cambridge, may be one of the country's most eloquent advocates for information and communications technology in education. But she's equally insistent that ICT has its place, and that is not to dominate her desktop. A matching pair of laptops provides all her computing power needs.

Angela McFarlane belongs to the generation that finished school as computers were arriving in the classroom. Her first encounter with one was with a mainframe in the local polytechnic, a meeting that left her cold, if not hostile.

The first of several breakthroughs that would shape her career came in the early Eighties, when she was a trainee science teacher at the Institute of Education in London. "They had an option, computers in education I I don't even know why I opted for thecourse, to be perfectly honest, but I did."

For half a day each week, she was exposed to a lot of CAL (computer-aided learning) software and state-of-the-art BBC and 380z personal computers.

"I remember being particularly taken with a little program. By modern standards it was a tiny thing really, designed by Anita Straker. It was called Eureka." The program used a split screen: on one side, a bath, a tap and a person to put into it; on the other, a graph showing the level of the water in the bath against time.

Something told the future author of IT and Authentic Learning that this was it. "I didn't know enough then about what could be taught with this - but it really gripped me. It seemed such fun."

And, on teaching practice at a secondary school in Watford, she asked if she could use this program with what were then known as the bottom set of the second year. "They were just aghast because, at this time, they'd got a couple of computers in a maths room, of which they were immensely proud I And here was this student teacher not only wanting to use this equipment, but wanting to use it with those particular children."

"I was probably blissfully unaware of the level of disruption I was causing. But I got to use it and it was fascinating.

"These children were really struggling. They hadn't had a lot of success in the education system - not a lot was expected of them. They took to it. In the course of one lesson they developed the ability to translate events in this simulation between a graph and back again, through playing what they saw as a game.

"It really was a revelatory moment, and it has stayed with me. The way in which you could use the computer to get at the nuts and bolts of a dynamic process I and the way that you could use that then to teach people about that process."

Almost 15 years later, Angela still reckons much of that early CAL software has yet to be bettered, particularly materials developed under the Micro-electronics Education Programme, and she regrets that it's no longer available: "It was in a way ahead of its time, because teachers didn't have time to get used to this stuff before the emphasis changed, partly driven by the industry, towards the tool-based applications."

Though perhaps not of Eureka intensity, there had been other defining moments in Angela's career, first as teacher, then a trainer of teachers, researcher, writer, developer and evaluator of educational software. One such was acquiring her first portable (or "luggable") in 1989 for a lecture tour in Australia, since when she hasn't looked back. Hence the uncluttered office. A portable, she says, "completely changes the dynamic of the workspace I you can't put eight or ten desktop computers in a science lab at will - it takes half a day to set them up."

Plenty of inspiration comes from observing inventive teachers at work. Watching primary kids using multi-media authoring software as part of a drugs education project, for example, reinforced her belief in the value of the "soft media" in education, alongside the hard media of paper, pencil and the teacher's red ink.

And, she adds: "So often we actually grade kids on what in any other circumstances would be their first draft."

*The McFarlane File

1983-85 Assistant teacher, Bedwell School, Stevenage, Hertfordshire

1985-88 Head of Department, Margaret Dane School, Bishop's Stortford

1988-94 Project director, Homerton College ITUnit

1989-95 Convenor of educational data monitoring group for NCET

1994-95 Member of NCETteam evaluating Integrated Learning Systems

1994 Director, Homerton College ITUnit

1997 Editor, IT and Authentic Learning - Realising the Potential of Computers in the primary classroom (London, Routledge).

1998 A director of TEEMproject to evaluate educational multimedia in the classroom

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