Driven by the desire to inspire

14th April 2000 at 01:00
Margaret Bell is a person who is brimming with ideas for the uses of ICT. She talks to Dorothy Walker about her drive to cut through bureaucracy and grasp the nettle of change.

Margaret Bell glows with enthusiasm when she talks about the power of ICT:

"I am fascinated by what ICT does to learning: why is it that people are so more concentrated, so much more motivated to learn when they are using a computer?" The former teacher has spent 20 years at the forefront of learning technology. In the Eighties, as a computer professional, Bell was known for her pioneering learning systems. A decade later, as chief executive of the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) - the forerunner of BECTA - she was advising the government on its strategy for bringing the benefits of ICT to every classroom.

It was also thanks to a chance experiment with technology in the classroom that Bell first realised how great those benefits could be. In 1980, while teaching at a further education college, she was also learning computer programming as part of an Open University course in maths and computing. She says: "One day a colleague was telling me how difficult it was to get across to his economics students the concept of economic formulae - how, as the variables changed, you could predict the outcomes. Full of my new-found skills, I said: 'I can do that for you!' "I wrote a program, then watched as the students changed the variables, while the lecturer talked about the economic implications. I knew then that this was a way of demonstrating difficult concepts, and giving more control to students, so they could explore and learn."

Within a year she left teaching to train as a professional programmer, intent on getting to grips with the "unerring logic of computers". After a spell with an aerospace company Bell was tempted back into education, as manager of a pilot project to provide a computer-based learning system for Coventry youngsters on youth training schemes.

She says: "The software had no sound and it was in black-and-white. But I saw how you could structure learning so that youngsters could progress at their own pace. And I saw the potential for managing learning, by keeping each student's record, assessing where they were and suggesting what they did next."

Bell went on to adapt the management facilities to support maths teaching in Coventry schools, after one teacher remarked that she spent all her time marking tests rather than teaching. "It worked extremely well," she says.

In 1986 she took her ideas into the world of adult training, joining BT as manager for distance learning. Working with vieodisk technology, Bell produced software to guide management staff through the secrets of everything from appraisals to counselling.

Being able to employ sound was a breakthrough: "People learn by looking and listening - you can't do effective learning materials without sound." And the need to train busy executives, often reluctant to leave their desks, hammered home the fact that success depended on organising more than just the technology. "That's certainly true in schools," she says. "The technology is improving every day, but it is usually not employed as much as it should be, simply because of the way schools are organised."

She took the helm at NCET in 1992, drawing upon all she had learned to promote the benefits of ICT in learning. Bell welcomed the opportunity to advise government on how to achieve success. One of the shining examples of government action, she believes, was the drive to introduce newly-emerging CD-Roms into schools - thereby bringing sound to the classroom - and to contribute to the development of commercial CD-Rom titles to stimulate the educational software market.

Her biggest challenge, she says, was working with civil servants. "They were obviously very dedicated and knowledgeable, but sometimes it seemed strange that you couldn't say: 'OK, that's what we want to do, why aren't we going ahead and getting it done?' There were all sorts of processes you had to go through to brief ministers, and protection systems to prevent them being briefed!

"Now, with hindsight, I am slightly more sympathetic, although no less impatient. But some of the things I wanted to happen would have required a lot of bravery. Throughout my career I had insights into how technology really could support people, motivate them, challenge them and promote learning. And yet the people I was talking to had none of that."

When her five-year contract came up for renewal, Bell declined the invitation to re-apply for her job, instead forging ahead as the head of her own consulting company. Belle Associates, specialising in applying ICT to learning, is working with the New Opportunities Fund (NOF) to deliver ICT training for teachers, and Bell sees it as a "huge opportunity" for the teaching profession. She says: "NOF is delivering the message: ICT is for everyone - there are no hiding places. We have waited for years for everyone to be pointed in the direction of ICT and trained, not about ICT in isolation, but about how to use it with pupils to raise standards in the classroom. We have to make this work - we simply can't let this opportunity go."

Belle Associates

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