"If content is king, then the infrastructure is god"

11th May 2001 at 01:00
A brief glance at Steve Molyneux' CV shows why he's heading up the National ICT Research Centre and developing a classroom for the future, writes Chris Johnston.

Steve Molyneux groans when I ask him to start at the beginning. Nevertheless, he obliges and I soon understand his reluctance - even the abridged version of his career takes more than 10 minutes. The path leading to his position as director of Wolverhampton University's Learning Lab has been long and winding.

The common thread during his career has been computers. After six years in the RAF's radar division, the poor job market of the late Seventies took Molyneux to Germany for 13 years. A stint with American Express preceded a senior European position with Atari, followed in 1981 by a move to Bertelsmann. He developed an interest in using technology to support training and became a consultant to German firms including BMW and Siemens. That led to a similar role with the European Commission and an honorary professorship at Munich's technical university.

Molyneux's return to the UK in 1991 also signalled a return to the games field - he designed the first pub quiz machine to use digital video for an Allied Breweries subsidiary - while simultaneously keeping tabs on developments in technology in education.

A relationship with Wolverhampton University began when he developed an undergraduate course in interactive multimedia communication and was offered a professorial position to teach the programme. Its Telford campus is home to the Learning Lab, set up in late 1999 to address the "lack of awareness of what technology could do" for students, teachers, education authorities and businesses. The lab is funded by 25 technology companies including ICL, Microsoft and BT.

In December, the Department for Education and Employment announced that the lab would host the new National ICT Research Centre for five years. With Molyneux as director, it will conduct research into the impact of ICT on education, training and employability, as well as work with other British and foreign research bodies. His role as a member of two European committees that consider the impact of IT on education and training and the Learning Federation, a think-tank being given $200 million a year by the US Government to examine "the basics of education", will help the centre forge overseas links.

Just in case you think that Molyneux, 46, might not have much of an idea about how ordinary schools use ICT, he works closely with Telford and Wrekin council in a relationship that began in 1996 by devising a strategy for technology in education and local government after the council became a unitary authority. The pan saw the council use NGFL money as well as other funding to spend pound;12.5 million over five years on linking all its 87 schools, as well as libraries and other community facilities, to a very fast fibre optic broadband network.

Molyneux describes the network, which has features such as TV-quality video-conferencing and central distribution of software, as "the most advanced educational network in Europe". It is as future-proof as possible and, crucially, is owned by the council, not a telecommunications company, which intends to use it to deliver a range of other services, reducing the cost to schools. "They want to do away with the telephone system and provide voice communication as well as curriculum, support and administration - it's taking the central e-government agenda down to a local level. That's when networks become sustainable," says Molyneux, who adds that the Telford model could easily be replicated elsewhere.

"I hope that a lot of other LEAs will look at this vision, rather than just buying loads of PCs and having limited bandwidth. They need to look at infrastructure, because if content is king, then the infrastructure is god."

Molyneux is outspoken about computers for teachers - he says all new staff members should be given a laptop. While VAT relief is one action the Government ought to make, he says the IT industry has a social responsibility to help teachers. One solution could lie in adapting the mobile phone industry's model of subsidising the hardware cost in return for a subscription contract.

Along with Chris Yapp, Molyneux (a distant cousin of computer games developer Peter Molyneux) was made an ICL distinguished fellow in 1998 and is also a Microsoft professor of advanced learning technologies, working with its development labs in Seattle, Beijing and Cambridge. That connection will come in handy for his next project, working with Telford, one of 10 LEAs awarded funding by the DFEE to develop a "classroom of the future". "We're looking at building a 'learning pod' where the technology will be integrated within the physical building," he explains. "We want to take the technology that is in the lab and put it in a classroom to see what the impact is." With Molyneux in the picture, Telford can expect a very interesting classroom indeed.

The first Learning Lab conference and exhibition will be held from June 18 to 21 at Wolverhampton University's Telford campus. Day one will focus on primary and secondary; day two, further and higher education; day three, the launch of the National ICT Research Centre, with the final day looking at the corporate sector. The event costs pound;50 a day. www.learninglab.org.uk

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