Mission to inform;Software school;Interview;Chris Abbott

12th February 1999 at 00:00
She started work in the Solomon Islands. Now she's an influential electronic publisher for schools. Diana Forster talks to Chris Abbott

Teaching with missionaries in the Solomon Islands isn't the way most software publishers start their working lives. Diana Forster, electronic publishing manager at Oxford University Press, began her career with very different interests. A degree in botany was followed by what she thought would be a teaching career.

The Solomon Islands in the early Seventies were an unconventional introduction to the profession. "The children were very bright and most of the staff were young missionariesI I taught the full age-range and some are bishops or politicians now. It was very valuable - I had to work with no resources."

She did a postgraduate certificate when she returned to Britain, followed by a period researching geology as a school subject for her MPhil. "I wasreally dealing with the sociology of knowledge; geology teachers were trying to elevate the status of their subject. The problem was that at school level it wasn't an experimental subject." It remains a disappointment to her that geology still does not have the status she thinks it deserves within the curriculum.

Forster decided to go back to teaching but found that Longman were looking for someone with a science degree to work on textbooks in West and East Africa. She found working in publishing was creative too and enjoyed learning the whole process of producing a book. Foster stayed with Longman, running workshops for authors in Nairobi. "We had a professor from the university and a teacher from a rural school working together on education in agriculture. I learnt a great deal about how to keep pigs."

Back in England, but still working for Longman, she first encountered educational software when she began editing manuals in the early Eighties. "I could see the potential - even with pixels the size of a handkerchief!" She decided to find out more about computers in education and joined a teachers' course where everyone was trying to learn to program. "I was hooked after that course. We looked at a physiology program; you could change things and see what happened. I realised that I would like to do more of this."

After a move to Manchester, where she was working freelance, she got her first BBC computer and took on an editing project with Addison-Wesley and MEP, the Micro-Electronics Project, an early precursor of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA). This was her first experience of working with teachers on software: "If a teacher has written something you have to take it seriously." Unfortunately, not everyone did and the products never saw the light of day.

Looking for a job back in London, Forster wondered if the computer industry was where her future lay. "I got an interview at IBM, but I was interviewed by someone like Mr Spock and I quickly decided that this was not for me."

Instead, she became publications manager at ILECC, the Inner London Education Authority Computing Centre. She remembers ILEA warmly. "I was sick of the heavy commercial environment. With ILEA it was different: we had teachers on tap as a ready-made focus group, and good authors and consultants."

One of her first tasks at ILECC was to oversee the production of a manual for Allwrite, the multi-lingual word processor being developed at the time. "I was told we needed a book like a washing machine manual with instructions for users who couldn't speak English. We made it all as intuitive as we could."

Allwrite won a British Design Award. "That was a high point. We were up against all these household names but nobody had ever heard of us. The involvement of people from ethnic minority groups as consultants was a great way to work."

When ILEA was abolished Diana went freelance before joining Oxford University Press, where she is now responsible for all aspects of electronic publishing in the educational division. This has included managing the Oxford Children's Encyclopaedia on CD-Rom, a prize-winning title which has sold more than 30,000 copies.

Looking back, Forster can appreciate what has been lost as well as the gains. "What is needed is an ILECC now - and all the other centres around the country. If ILECC was still there it would be a focus for teachers; it's a great pity."

Like all publishing houses, OUP has had to develop new ways of working in the electronic world. "We were very fortunate to work with Bill Bonham at Sherston; our link with them has been very successful." And there are changes ahead, she predicts. "I think things will get more electronic - eventually there will be a DVD with everything. But I can't see a totally electronic classroom."

Online developments can cause headaches for publishers. "We're still producing CD-Roms. We know the Internet is very important, but we're trying to find a way to be paid for content we put on the Web. We could set up subscriptions and passwords but it wouldn't work for everyone to do that. Until we've got a financial model we can't do anything - it's a problem facing us all."

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