It's cyber salesman on a PC near you;Sofware store

8th January 1999 at 00:00
Nigel Paine wants all Scottish schools to benefit from the products made by his organisation, SCET. He tells Chris Abbott how the market is moving online.

For Nigel Paine, computers first made an impact in 1985 when he was shown a BBC B machine. Soon after that he was involved in taking one to Scotland on a plane: "We were very worried it wouldn't work afterwards - no one had done that before," he says. "But it did, and that first computer really hooked me."

Although he had used a Commodore PET and an Apple II before, it was the "stunning graphics" of the BBC B that fascinated him, Paine recalls. "And it was so easy to plug things in, and you could start doing serious word processing. I soon got involved in Prestel and downloading software, even at those slow speeds."

The Prestel online service was ahead of its time, Paine says. "The concept was brilliant but the marketing was hopeless, and it was far too expensive."

After the BBC B, Paine migrated to an Apple Macintosh. "In some ways this was a step backwards; it was user-friendly but not good at communications at that time. But I just loved laser printers at first sight."

After taking his English degree, Paine worked in adult education, lecturing for the Workers' Educational Association. "My interest then was in the concept of packaging learning material," he says. "People sometimes missed a session and then never came again. I tried producing materials because of this; then I discovered I no longer needed the course!" Work with the Open University followed, when by chance he got involved in a further and adult education project sponsored by the Scottish Education department. Three years after joining that project, Paine arrived at the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, where he was assistant director before becoming chief executive in 1990.

An important moment for Paine was seeing Apple Quicktime launched in Edinburgh; the next stage was getting online. "I was one of the first subscribers to Apple eWorld - and one of the last to go when it closed."

Paine became more interested in Apple computers when the LC model was launched and colour was introduced. When he joined SCET, he found it was one of the last organisations still creating programs for the BBC, but he soon switched the team over to programming for the Mac and PC.

SCET has been involved in software distribution for a long time - it was originally funded by the Scottish Office to do just this. Today it is an important distributor and developer, although it still receives a grant - now amounting to less than 25 per cent of its turnover - from the Scottish Office, which is now reviewing SCET's role.

Paine is clear about the national focus for what SCET does. "Our role is to find a gap; a Scottish focus but not exclusively so. But our software is not designed for the home market; it needs a teacher to intervene."

SCET's latest innovation is what Paine calls deconstructed software, designed for the growing numbers of teachers aware of information and communications technology who want easy access to texts and images so that they can use them in the production of their own learning materials.

Paine is sure that there are changes ahead for large products such as integrated learning systems. "We will see ILSs split up so that people can buy what they want; it will have its place but it's not all there is."

He adds: "We will definitely see the unit cost of software dropping - and we had our first online sales this year. We have to hope that making downloading easy will mean that people choose to buy more. People want things networked and they want it now: all we can do is work with that. We want to be the first people in the game, not the last."

ther projects SCET is involved in, such as the production of The Herald newspaper on CD-Rom, are big developments for Scotland and have uses outside education. Putting activities online has long been a big part of Paine's plans for SCET. "For a lot of people in Scotland, SCET Contact, our first online service, was an introduction to this area."

SCET is now involved in hybrid publishing, with products such as SCETNet on CD-Rom and online. The Cyberschools pack produced a while ago to provide an offline introduction to the Internet was used by more than 7,000 teachers, and helped a lot of them to become confident at using Web browsers.

SCET manages the Scottish Virtual Teachers' Centre together with the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum. Paine sees the benefit of having separate virtual teachers' centres in regions of the United Kingdom, but also argues for more co-ordination. "We're talking to Wales and Northern Ireland about this, but we don't just want to develop as a Celtic fringe; we need all the UK VTCs to work together."

SCET is also involved with training teachers in ICT, and Paine foresees big advances. "Training online will astonish people by the speed at which it takes off.

"We also want to develop cyber accounts for schools to purchase software online - 78 per cent of Scottish schools use us as their main conduit for software.

"Our fervent belief is that education remains multi-platform: ultimately that means Apple and PC, since Scotland is still very loyal to the Mac."

Paine, now also a visiting professor at Napier University in Edinburgh advising on flexible learning, is looking forward to an online SCET - and a connected Scotland.

Chris Abbott is a lecturer in education at King's College, London.

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