Passionate about technology

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
Computers are better for our brains - and the bottom lines of most businesses, a Ufi board member explains to Fiona Leney

Donald Clark puts a powerful case for e-learning over traditional means of delivering further education. "In traditional education, the solution to bad schooling is more schooling - except it isn't. The internet, the most significant development of the 20th century, can be that solution."

Get him started on the topic and you're in for a thrilling ride through the benefits of multi-player computer games for autistic kids, the brain-sharpening effects of life online and the unique possibilities e-learning can offer people with special educational needs.

And his punchline is powerful. "I am very, very passionate about how the computer can massively increase learning and productivity. It's a fact and it's happening now."

It is hardly surprising that he argues his case so convincingly. In 1983, Clark founded Epic, one of the first companies in Britain to develop e-learning, fired by a conviction that it was the way to take education into the new millennium. In 1996, the business went public and last year he sold it for nearly pound;23 million. But he continues his passionate advocacy of e-learning, sitting on the board of Ufi, as well as talking and writing on the subject.

Despite his ultra-traditional academic background - he read philosophy at Edinburgh - Clark has little doubt that informal learning, available in ever-more varied formats via new technologies, is the way forward. "Email, broadband and other technological advances are leading to the large-scale, cheap democratisation of learning," he says. "Its value has been unrecognised only because education and training professionals are stuck in fixed, formal techniques."

Mr Clark believes that what makes learndirect radically different from other FE providers is its roots in computer learning, with the flexibility and informality that brings. It amounts to a difference in culture, he says.

"I learned at university that the lecture system is an inefficient way of teaching. You learn what you learn in the quiet of your own room and the library." While on a scholarship to a US university he first saw what computers could do for students. He returned home to Edinburgh, and decided to try and write his own computer-learning program - one to teach himself the Cyrillic alphabet in time for a holiday in Russia. It worked, and from this was born a conviction that computers could change the way we learned.

He argues, intriguingly, that the rise in IQ scores in developed nations, which have been improving since the 1990s, increasing by as much as three points per decade, is linked to the rise of computer technology and popular media. "Research proves playing computer games and learning to use sophisticated technology like mobile phones and MP3 players exercises our brains," he says.

"This is e-learning, in the widest sense, and it is already benefiting our children. An adult has to discover how to use the computer before they can use it to learn. But that in itself is indirect - and valuable - learning.

The future of education may well be in the hands of a fruitful combination of technology, entertainment and e-learning."

It is broadband that has hastened this revolution, he says. "Traditional learning was so very text-based. If people had problems with that first time around, they would be reluctant to face it again as adults, but if you can deliver audio-visual learning and moving images, think what a difference that makes."

Clark has been impressed by the way Ufilearndirect has moved forward under Sarah Jones, acquiring a distinctly private-sector dynamism. It has to do so, he says, if it aims to continue delivering high-quality e-learning.

"Technology is always changing, you have to be fleet of foot to keep up with it."

That said, he believes learndirect has finally established itself as an institution alongside the Open University. "Those are the only two exciting innovations in education in 100 years," he comments, ruefully.

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