"Supporting mad artists in garrets" might not sound like an auspicious start to a distinguished career in educational research. But for Keri Facer, the experience sparked off a ground-breaking quest to understand the creative possibilities of ICT. And today her work is helping bring about a radical change in learning technology.
Facer is head of learner research at NESTA Futurelab, which opened in Bristol late last year. Set up by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) and funded with pound;3 million from the Department for Education and Skills, it aims to bring together creative minds from a wide range of disciplines to invent new kinds of learning software.
Facer first discovered the power of ICT in 1996 - her "mad artist" year. The English literature graduate was working in Glasgow helping a gifted composer friend to stage a multimedia opera which brought together traditional and new ways of making music. Performed at Glasgow's Tramway, it proved a revelation.
"It was amazing," says Facer. "There were real musicians playing alongside music composed on a computer, plus computer-generated stage effects. And in the audience, traditional opera-goers sat beside 20-year-old clubbers. I saw the potential to link digital technologies with classical traditions and create something new and exciting. I realised ICT could be creative, engaging and empowering and help challenge preconceptions."
In 1997, Facer took a masters degree in media culture at Glasgow's Baird Centre, to understand how the media shapes our view of the world. The following year she was able to pursue her new-found enthusiasm for ICT when she joined Bristol University's Graduate School of Education as a researcher on Screen Play, a project to study how children were using ICT outside school.
Screen Play surveyed 855 children and Facer was able to spend 18 months working closely with 16 families, gaining fascinating insights into their attitudes towards technology.
When children explained how they found their way around a new game, Facer realised how resourceful they were in recruiting help and creating their own learning support networks. "If they're passionate about something," she says, "they will overcome incredible obstacles to learn about it."
But the exercise also found that, typically, those youngsters without a machine at home lacked confidence when it came to using ICT at school, many believing you could only be "brainy" if you owned a computer. Others had decided that computing did not fit into their lifestyle - they were active and social, so sitting hunched over a screen was considered a waste of time.
Facer believes that today's powerful mobile phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) could hold great potential as learning platforms, fitting into energetic lives and giving more young people the satisfaction of owning and personalising the technology they use. "They need to feel they can explore it, shape it and change it to do what they want to do," she says.
Last April, Facer joined NESTA Futurelab, relishing the opportunity to take her work forward. "I'm fascinated by how we can develop resources by bringing together expertise from the media that surrounds children every day," she says. "Games environments, for example, are very different from any others. Navigation is different. You have to work very quickly and think strategically. You have to share and communicate ideas, look over other people's shoulders and copy what they are doing. In fact, to be a good games player, you have to be a good cheat!
"If this is how children are working among each other, we need to develop strategies to empower them to work like this in school. We need to respect children as individuals and develop learning as a partnership between learners and teachers."