Liverpool: city of learning

10th November 2000 at 00:00
"If I were Education Minister for a day, I would focus on practical skills rather than just abstract concepts. Today the emphasis is on teaching you how to be clever, but not how to be successful."

So says Daniel Brown, who speaks from experience. The highly successful 23-year-old, who works under the title of "creative technologist", has carved a fast-track career in the world of digital design, winning accolades for his software and websites.

He went to "one of the best grammar schools in the country", but Brown admits that he hated the school system. His creative genius was sparked in his spare time, which he spent working with a group of software developers at John Moores University (JMU) in his native Liverpool.

As a teenager Brown knew the group as the Learning Methods Unit (LMU). Now its work is being continued by the International Centre for Digital Content (ICDC), which opened its doors in Liverpool earlier this year. And one of the aims of the ICDC is to build links with schools, so that like Daniel Brown, youngsters can be encouraged to add another dimension to their education, exploring new avenues of creative opportunity through ICT.

Brown arrived at the LMU at the age of 14, introduced by Roy Stringer, a family friend and himself an award-winning software designer. "I was fascinated by the kind of computers that designers like Roy use," says Brown, "but they cost pound;5,000, so I hadn't been able to afford one."

Brown arrived for a spell of work experience, but loved it so much that soon he was spending all his school holidays working alongside the software professionals. "My friends thought I was mad, and that I should be playing games with them, but I believed this would be better for me in the long term."

He discovered just how good it was when he went on to study multimedia at university, where, in the first term, his course tutor asked Brown to help out with lectures. Flattered, but finding it difficult to remain motivated, Brown left at the end of the term to pursue a career in London with Amaze, one of the country's leading digital media companies and itself a corporate spin-off from the LMU. He says: "My schoolfriends got better A-Levels, but the LMU helped me make the most of my talent."

With the help of EU funding, the new ICDC was created as a centre of expertise in training, research and development for all digital media, including film and television. It is a collaboration between John Moores University and Mersey TV, whose chairman, Phil Redmond, is the writer behind TV serials such as Grange Hill and Brookside. Redmond, who donated pound;500,000 to the centre, took a degree at JMU as a mature student, in a self-confessed attempt to make up for the fact that he had not realised the importance of education while at school.

The LMU established a track record for working with local education authorities to develop software for schools. Earlier this year the ICDC went one stage further, with an illuminating project called Child's Play, in which developers and youngsters worked as a team to bring the pupils' own ideas to life in multimedia.

The project was the brainhild of ICDC's Tony Hughes, a TV and film specialist, who says:"We wanted to develop children's products with children as well as for them. We were also planning to launch a post-graduate course in computer games design and development, so we linked the two ideas together, to find out how children perceived computer games, and how they themselves would choose to develop them."

The lucky children, winners of a local competition, turned out to be a group of 13-year-old girls from an all-girls school - lucky for the centre, too, as it provided a fascinating alternative to the stereotypical gamer, the teenage boy hunched over the screen in the bedroom.

The first of nine two-hour working sessions was organised as an ice-breaker, with the entire team constructing a story on giant sheets of paper on the wall. "But one day I will do itI" read the first line, and one by one, everyone contributed, each adding a line in turn.

So pleased were the girls with this exercise that they suggested scrapping the ideas they had brought along with them for games, and turning the collaborative story into an animated production on the computer. The following sessions saw them involved in every aspect of the production process. They made characters and scenery from modelling clay and other art materials, and each girl took responsibility for a particular scene, scripting it, setting it up and saying her own lines as it was recorded on video. The final computer-based version was screened by the girls at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts in June, with the girls working enthusiastically at home and school to complete the production.

Their enthusiasm, says Hughes, stemmed partly from the fact that they hadn't realised computers could be used for creative activities like this. "They liked strong characters and storylines, and this allowed them to visualise their ideas on screen. Some of them said they wanted to be artists or designers, but hadn't realised they could do it with computers. In fact, they said that it was only when they met Sarah and Karen, two of the staff on the team, that they realised girls actually worked with computers.

"The only problem was that they couldn't work out which school lesson it fitted into - was it English, art or computers? They learned how to construct a story, about characters and progression. But really this was about giving them an insight into the potential of these technologies - what you can do with them and how we use them, not just about how you would use them at school."

Hughes is planning similar exercises, and is working to establish formal links with schools that will give more students an insight into the digital world. One such opportunity will come with the build-up to Liverpool 2007, now being planned, in which 2007 children will work with all sections of the community to build a virtual history of Liverpool.

Dorothy Walker is a freelance writer, and was BT's Technology Journalist of the Year in 1998


International Centre for Digital Content:

John Moores University:


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