When Fred Daly took a break from academic life, he expected his move into policy making to be no more than a brief interlude. Fifteen years later, as he prepares to leave his post as director general of the National Grid for Learning (NGfL) next month, he has played a major role in shaping national policy on educational ICT. "I became hooked," he says. "There were just so many interesting things going on."
Many of these "interesting things" were landmark projects of his own devising and Daly has probably contributed more than any other individual to helping schools harness the potential of ICT.
He first discovered that potential in the late 1970s. A former research scientist and engineer, he already had extensive knowledge of computers and had designed systems. But it was only when Daly began a teaching and lecturing career that he became excited about their future in education.
"There were so many possibilities - not only in science, but also in areas such as music, fine art and design," he says. "Computers enabled students to get to the root of things in a way that wasn't possible with conventional educational technology."
In 1979, he organised a conference that brought together like-minded professionals to explore how ICT could be applied in education. "It really crystallised my excitement," he says. Three years later Daly accepted a lecturing post at Homerton College, University of Cambridge, where he was later to become a reader specialising in information technology. He put together teams of educators and programmers to create software for subjects ranging from maths and science to art and history.
In 1989 he joined the recently formed National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) as its technical director, relishing the opportunity to influence the policies that would shape the future of ICT in schools. Daly focused first on CD-Rom technology, which at the time was as an affordable way to store large amounts of data.
"The storage capacity didn't mean very much in itself. The real potential was for introducing children to multimedia, which was a major advance," he says.
After two years of discussions he secured Department for Education funding to pilot CD-Roms in schools. That meant working with suppliers to create CD-Rom-based software, which jump-started the market by convincing computer manufacturers that there was a future in building CD-Rom drives into machines for schools.
Daly next turned his attention to portable computers. He recalls reading in the early 1990s that, in Japan, portables were selling as well as desktop machines. "It was only a matter of time before they came here," he says.
"So the question was: is there something in this for education?"
A series of pilots giving teachers portables began in 1993, and four years later the strength of evidence convinced the newly elected government to award pound;23m for portables in schools.
In 1995, as part of the education departments' Superhighways Initiative, Daly led the evaluation of the internet's potential on behalf of the UK's education departments. The report served as a vital source of evidence for policy makers, and paved the way for the NGfL. Launched in 1998, it was managed by the NCET's successor, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta), which appointed Daly as NGfL director. His best-known NGfL project was the creation of the world's largest educational web portal, at www.ngfl.gov.uk, although he is most satisfied by a less publicised scheme setting national standards for ICT equipment in schools.
Looking to the future, Daly sees the advent of broadband networks as a great step forward, but questions whether today's educational applications are yet making the most of the technology.
He says the breakthroughs of the next decade will be new kinds of software.
Meanwhile, he believes education is still undersold as an area for research. "Science and maths are seen as difficult areas for research, but, due to these exciting new technologies, education is now a lot harder than either of them. That is the challenge," he says.