What Stephen Heppell loves best about technology is the potential for anyone to use it - especially children. Jack Kenny reports
TEPHEN HEPPELL is that rare person who can bring a conference to life. Audiences respond to his optimism and his faith in children. When the professor stood in at the last minute for another speaker at a conference recently, he delivered a presentation that had all his hallmarks: relaxed, convincing, technically at the forefront, intellectually challenging and, above all, fun.
Anglia Polytechnic University's Ultralab in Chelmsford, Essex, is a pleasant place to visit. Ideas are the currency, and most there seem to enjoy themselves. "Our basic premise is that we come to technology from the learner's point of view. We are simply trying to make learning more delightful - not more effective or cheaper or more efficient, but more delightful. You develop the technology, figure out what to do with it, trial it. Here we try to keep to the path of righteousness. Kids only get the one chance at childhood."
Stephen seems to be doing what he was born to do. For him, life has been a series of small but important watersheds. One certainly gets the impression that he has loved technology in one form or another all his life. His father was an engineer, first in aviation and then in machine tools. He showed some of his work on BBC's Tomorrow's World. "Like him I am a doer. I like making things: building boats, websites. I carve wood, I paint with water colours. "
His first degree was in economics and one of his earliest experiences with a computer was building a model of the economy. His early teaching was in east and south London.
"Everybody then was buying Sinclair Spectrums. I remember when we got the first computer in school; it was an RM 380Z and we devised ways of building the economy again. The poorer the code, the better the prediction! The machine was put near the assembly hall and we marched the kids past it.
"I tried to incorporate all this into teaching. We had a number of good people in the school - you need the critical mass to get things moving. The Government's Micro Electronics Programme came along. I didn't really want to be a deputy so I went for that. I've never looked back. It was extraordinary. We had an enormous budget and absolute freedom. It was a great opportunity. That really was a watershed."
The arrival of the first Macintosh in Stephen's life at around that time was another watershed. He remains a devotee of the Macintosh. His first was a 128 with a 400K disk drive and the operating system came on a single disk. He could see the possibilities then and that machine enabled him to start pushing at the frontiers to show how good children are as learners. Apple is impressed with Stephen, too. He is an Apple Master, the company's highest academic award.
"We had a group of pre-school children working on Multiplan and we redefined the character set so that we had teddy bears replacing numbers. We recorded the kids on video to see how they problem solved. People could hardly believe it when they saw an infant sitting there building a spreadsheet and talking to camera."
Stephen, 48, has three children. The oldest has just started university and the youngest has just started GCSEs. "They were born into a house that was awash with computers. Initially, I thought I would keep them from all of this until I could be sure that it all worked. Three weeks later, I was sure. They've been around computers all their lives but they play music, write poetry, sail and I'm sure their lives have been enhanced."
Last year Stephen coached the UK Mirror Squad at the sailing world championships in Canada. "Some of the opposition were looking pretty quick but we had two advantages: I had a digital camera so we could analyse their rigs and attached to my cell phone was an Apple Newton so I could get weather information from the Internet. It made a difference - the Brits won!"
If there are themes that run through Stephen's work, they are about making the technology accessible and extending creativity. "In software I think that you could call HyperCard a watershed." HyperCard was introduced on the Macintosh and was a way of linking concepts together, it was the beginning of writing multimedia. "It had an amazing impact. It gave people a way to harness technology to create their own stuff. People were in control. It was part of that realisation that every one can do it. We've lost some of that and that's sad."
"We are at a watershed now. We are in the middle of a debate about whether the future will be ICT (Information and Communication Technology) or IDT (Information Dissemination Technology). There is a tension between children as communicators and producers, and children as consumers and receivers. If it is the latter, we end up with a nation of cyber couch potatoes. We will have lost. There are reasons to be optimistic: the education action zones, different visions, varying the curriculum for primary schools. The exam boards seem hungry to tackle some of the challenges of ICT."
Stephen's Ultralab is at the heart of some substantial projects, including the School of the Future in the Millennium Dome. The lab is a partner with Xemplar and Tesco in the Tesco SchoolNet 2000 project which gives all schools, all kids, a chance to contribute to a vast national curriculum resource on the Internet.
The lab has just been given 1 million ecu by Esprit to revisit and redevelop the floor turtle - a "sort of Tamagotchi meets Cray" Stephen says - and a big project is in hand to build a virtual school for the many children not in regular education - for example children who are suspended or truanting, those in long-term hospital care, travellers' children. It may be with projects of this magnitude that the real watersheds are yet to come.
THE HEPPELL FILE
1972 Economics degree (Reading) 1985 Joined Government's Micro Electronics Programme
1986 Started prototype of BT Campus
1987 Joined Anglia Polytechnic University and set up Learning Technology Research Centre which became ULTRALAB
1990 Apple Renaissance CD-Rom project
1997 Member of Labour's Stevenson committee on ICT