A hole-punched card was as close as Bob Rogers came to IT as a teacher. Now he's the pioneer of an online project that intends to revolutionise education. Dorothy Walker reports
For someone who was described in his school reports as "a disruptive influence", Bob Rogers has come far. He is still causing a sensation in some classrooms today but, he says with some satisfaction, that is part of his job. Rogers is an evangelist for the power of information and communications technology (ICT) in education and his latest brainchild promises to reshape the world of teaching and learning.
As business development manager for lifelong learning at Oracle, the world's second largest software company, former teacher Rogers is the man behind the recently-unveiled Oracle Millennium Project (OMP). The pound;6.5 million scheme will not only help provide every child in the UK with an e-mail address for life, it will encourage schools and clubs to broaden their circle of learning. The idea is that children, teachers and mentors throughout the country can help one another, both in and out of school, by forming Internet-based "learning communities".
"I spend my time evangelising about it," Rogers admits. And his infectious zeal is spreading. Announced in July, the project already has 10,000 new e-mail addresses making their debut in schools this term and it is fast gaining momentum.
Rogers pinpoints the moment he realised the potential of ICT in education to a career change in 1984. Undaunted by those early school reports, he had returned to the classroom and spent 10 years as a primary teacher in Essex. A self-confessed gadget freak, he then decided to make a career change and became a computer salesman, selling the recently introduced personal computer (PC) to small businesses.
The PC was a far cry from the technology Rogers had encountered in the classroom. The sole ICT project he had undertaken as a teacher was on programming and involved handing computer cards to pupils, who marked them to show where holes should be punched to create their program. The cards were sent away and days later a print-out of the program was returned.
He says: "I saw that with PCs, businesses were suddenly becoming much more effective and productive. I got really excited about the opportunities you could create if you put these machines into schools." So excited that he shifted his career into educational technology, joining Acorn Computers and then side-stepping to Xemplar Education, a joint venture set up between Acorn and Apple.
His job was to take state-of-the-art ICT and turn it towards teachers and learners and he looks back on these years as "a real delight". But it wasn't until he joined Oracle 18 months ago that Rogers reached what he describes as the watershed in his ICT career - it was, he says, when he realised the real potential of the Internet.
A giant in the world of the Internet and e-commerce, Oracle opened his eyes to the way people could work together using the latest technology.
He says: "I used to share the view held by many teachers that the Internet was a great information repository. What I hadn't realised was how it could enable learning communities to grow."
Last summer he shared his new-found enthusiasm with an old friend, Professor Stephen Heppell of Ultralab, a pioneer of many ground-breaking educational ICT initiatives, and the idea of the Millennium Project was born.
Rogers says: "The Millennium Project supports collaborative learning, which extends beyond the classroom across counties, countries and completely different cultures. You are only able to do that with the aid of technology."
Rogers is a strong believer in the value of teamwork - he works as part of several worldwide groups without ever having to leave his computer screen in his Reading office - but he laments that he was well into adulthood before he finally understood his own strengths as a team player.
Harking back to his "disruptive" school days, he says: "It was 30 years before I realised that my strength was as an ideas man. Never in my formal schooling were the things that make me good at what I do today picked up and drawn out." Internet-based teamwork, he believes, could help children play to their individual strong points.
He says: "I really do believe the Internet will prove to be as big a catalyst for changing the way people learn as the printing press was in the second millennium."
And one of the first changes Rogers wants to see is the introduction of Internet-linked computers into exam rooms. "You show how you have learned to drive a car by actually driving the car. We encourage children to use technology to help them learn, so why can't they demonstrate how it helps them when they go into the exam room?" He explains that when children use the Internet for researching, then collating and publishing their findings, they are involved in "profound, PhD-level work" and should be rewarded for it.
There is always the risk they will plagiarise material they find on the Net, but Rogers says: "We need to teach good research skills and encourage students not to pretend they invented something, but instead explain where they found it and how they have used it. That's a much more powerful way to assess learning gains than just telling them they can't use material because they didn't write it themselves."
He believes the time will come when there will not be an exam room because the growing power of ICT will enable pupils to keep a continuous record of achievements.
"Using the same kind of technology as we are employing for the Millennium Project, children's work could be captured at various stages," he says. "Teachers might ask for, say, a first draft, a third draft and the finished item. These could be stored so that children could take a portfolio of their activities right through their learning career.
"That is a much better option than testing by one-off exams in summer, when you're saying: 'This is what you didn't know at the beginning of this year and this is what you know now, except you're suffering from hay fever, it's hot and you're terrified.'"