Founder of Learning Lab and all-round ICT trailblazer talks to Dorothy Walker.
"I am in all forms of education," laughs Professor Steve Molyneux, surrounded by youngsters blowing bubbles in his toyshop in Telford. Steve is best known in the field of e-learning. Two decades ago he pioneered the use of e-learning systems. Today, he is blazing a trail with new technologies that he believes could "revolutionise education".
Steve is founder and director of the Learning Lab at Wolverhampton University, which offers educators help and inspiration on applying ICT to best effect. He acts as an adviser on a raft of national and international initiatives covering everything from schools of the future to online learning for the armed forces.
Steve first became excited about the potential of ICT 25 years ago while working for games manufacturer Atari in Germany. "One of our games was Meltdown, a nuclear power simulation," he says. "You had to run a nuclear power station, producing power for a certain length of time, and then run it down without the whole power station melting. You were doing something that was relatively complex and yet there was also the enjoyment there from the interactivity. I thought: wow, this is really good - these computers really can do something!" A move to publisher Bertelsmann saw him scouring the world for educational computer games, as well as "thinking up wacky things to do". A conversation in a pub led Steve to create Superlearning software, for accelerated language learning. It employed a technique invented by psychologist Georgi Lozanov, and ran on a Commodore 64 computer linked to a cassette recorder. Steve says: "You relaxed to baroque music while all sorts of vocabulary was read out, and then you played games on the computer to relink the words with the language."
He spent 16 years in Germany, going on to act as a consultant to major companies on the use of ICT in training. In 1986 Steve became Germany's representative on DELTA, a European Commission initiative to enhance learning through technological advances. It was then that he devised the concept of the learning systems development network - one of the first virtual learning environments (VLEs), and conceived before the arrival of the internet. "The content could be shared by all learners and the system could track the individual student," he says.
Almost a decade later he was back in Britain, teaching a ground-breaking multimedia course at Wolverhampton University, when he developed another flagship VLE, this time with the help of the internet and interactive TV. He says: "The VLE, WOLF, was developed to deliver training to small businesses. We began deploying it in 1995 and it is still in use at the university today. In 1999, WOLF was licensed to Granada Learning, which sells the system under the LearnWise banner."
In 1998 Telford's local authority consulted him on how they could best support education in the borough. "I suggested they persuade all 87 schools to give their National Grid for Learning money back to the authority to fund an infrastructure capable of delivering video-conferencing and high-bandwidth material." The argument proved compelling, and today Telford's educational network remains one of the most advanced in Europe. Students are now video-conferencing with pupils in the US, linking up with the help of the US National Guard network, an arrangement brokered by Steve.
Today the technology that most excites Steve is 3D games-based software, which allows students to learn by interacting with characters in 3D worlds. Steve is a director of specialist developer Caspian Learning, which is working with the North West Learning Grid on 3D games-based courseware for the Diploma in Digital Applications (DiDA), the new ICT qualification from Edexcel. He says: "3D gaming is amazing. It has so much to offer - provided we can get away from the idea that gaming is simply "fun" and not learning. Put the technology in the hands of teachers and I am sure it will revolutionise education."