The man who knew too little;Watershed;Interview;Chris Yapp

15th October 1999 at 01:00
Credited with coining the term "National Grid for Learning", ICL's Chris Yapp is seen as a guru of lifelong learning. Dorothy Walker discovers how this late starter made up for lost time through technology.

As a young Oxford graduate in the Seventies, Chris Yapp didn't think he would ever have anything to do with computers. However, he does admit that in those days, his ability to think wasn't nearly as good as it is today.

Over the course of the next 20 years, things were to change dramatically. Yapp learned about the power of information and communications technology (ICT). He set about learning how to make the most of his considerable brainpower, and a lot more besides.

And, in 1994, he came up with the idea of a National Grid for Learning, which would employ ICT to give everyone the chance to learn throughout their lives.

The first seeds of the idea were sown shortly after Yapp left Oxford. Joining the Financial Times Business Information Service as a London-based researcher, he found himself tracking down obscure financial facts and figures, using what he now describes as "clunky, museum-quality computers" and an early version of email.

Asked to chart the price of gold in francs over the previous five years, or find key statistics on the Upper Volta, he could link to vast stores of data in the US, emailing associates for tips on searching techniques.

"I became fascinated by networking and databases because they allowed you to reach all this information, no matter where you were." So fascinated that he wanted to know much more about what was possible with the aid of this kind of technology. Unsure of his ground with technical experts - "I never knew when they were pulling the wool over my eyes" - he decided that the only way to find out was to join a computer company and immerse himself in the subject.

In fact, he ran the risk of drowning as his employers, Honeywell, recruited him as a technical trainer. "The way I learned about technology was by teaching others and, although on a good day I was only a pace ahead of my students, it worked. It also reinforced my belief that it is very difficult for experts to get their ideas across to novices, or to people who are frightened of technology."

More challenges followed, including a bizarre but highly successful year spent managing the company's biggest-ever project to install a system. "I couldn't find time to attend a project management course until the project was over," Yapp says. "When I finally learned what I was supposed to do, I decided project management wasn't for me."

In 1987, he moved to computer services company ICL, joining a programme that was studying the long-term impact of technology on business, and becoming increasingly enthusiastic about the idea that companies could use ICT to "re-engineer", or re-invent themselves for the future.

And after encouragement from BT's Margaret Bell, who became chief executive of the National Council for Educational Technology and who he met by chance while speaking at a conference, Yapp began applying the same kind of ideas to the world of education.

He was convinced that the key to the future lay in lifelong learning:

"Today people have to retrain themselves throughout their lives. Those in work are able to get access to education; those out of work are not - and so the gulf widens.

"I wanted to see universal access to learning, in the same way as you can pick up a phone and get a dial tone, or flick a switch and get electricity."

The breakthrough came in 1994 when Yapp sat down with colleague Malcolm Napier, who had worked for the Central Electricity Generating Board, and talked about developing a national grid.

Together they came up with the idea of making online learning resources available to schools, libraries, offices and homes over a national network on the Internet. The technology to do it - the modern-day version of the networks and databases that had so inspired Yapp two decades before - was already available. His evangelistic zeal ensured that it could be made widely available, as part of a nationwide, government-driven initiative.

Today, as an ICL Fellow in Lifelong Learning, he cannot be directly involved in the development of the National Grid for Learning - that would give his employers an unfair competitive advantage. But Yapp says he is happy with progress and the way that learning resources are building up. "More people are saying: 'If every school is going to be part of this, we have to make our material available electronically'."

Yet he is convinced there is still more to be done than simply getting everyone online. "Just connecting every child to the Internet is not going to solve any problems. Education has to be re-engineered to support lifelong learning. We have to focus on self-managed learning, because children can't be taught everything they'll need to know in future."

Equipping students for this means changes to the curriculum - and Yapp looks back on his own eventful career to illustrate the point. "I was 38 before I learned to develop my listening skills, as part of a course I was attending. And I was 40 before it struck me that I had never been taught to think - I sought help with that, too.

"Intellectually, I can now do things that I couldn't do at 18, but I have only learned them because I am in a privileged position."

He predicts the blurring of boundaries between schools, colleges, universities and libraries, as ICT enables a whole range of organisations to contribute to a more personalised curriculum, designed "within a national framework and to international standards".

Yapp says: "Technology is breaking down barriers and it is very liberating. We are in a period when we are going to create new ideas and novel concepts, some of which may take a lot longer to happen than we might imagine. But in 300 or 400 years' time, people will look back on this as a renaissance in learning.

"I think of it as a renaissance, not a revolution. In revolutions, people often tend to shoot the revolutionaries - that is pretty worrying!".

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