So you believe the brave new world of online education is already upon us? Roy Stringer thinks you ain't seen nothing yet. Chris Johnston reports.
He's bald, looks like Uncle Fester of The Addams Family and says he gave up on school at the age of 12. Not likely to have amounted to much is he? Yet spend 10 minutes with Roy Stringer and you realise nothing could be further from the truth.
Rather than him giving up on school, it was more the other way around. Teachers said he asked too many questions and had too many ideas. It's all his mother's fault - she got him hooked on Open University broadcasts at the age of 12, the age when Bill Gates wrote his first program, he says.
However, Stringer hasn't done too badly himself. He has worked in interactive multimedia for 15 years and is now creative director and chief hypermedia architect of Liverpool-based Amaze. He has a long list of award-winning multimedia productions to his credit, including CytoFocus, a CD-Rom for training cervical cancer screeners that he co-developed while working with the learning methods unit of Liverpool John Moores University in the early Nineties.
What sets apart the productions he helps develop is their use of three-dimensional structures called navihedrons that make it easier for users to find their way through complex or diverse material. For example, using an icosahedron, which has 20 faces, any bit of information is only ever three steps away from a number of different starting points. In a conventional linear design it could be many more clicks away and, worse, there is only one way to get there. This concept has been used for clients like the Western Australian transport department, which wanted website visitors to have easy access to the information they needed from 20 divisional sites and thousands of pages.
With more and more information being presented on the Web in a non-linear manner, Stringer believes students need to know how to write for these new mediums. But that is not by any means his only opinion about education. He is confident that within 10 years every child will have a handheld, wireless device that offers high-speed browsing, video streaming and voice recognition technology. This will give huge access to information and children will take advantage of their drive to learn about a range of topics not covered by the curriculum.
Stringer says: "The challenge will be making the curriculum relevant to what they're interested in looking at so teachers will have to become leaders and not be afraid of kids knowing more than them." We will also need to encourage children to become "experts" at an early age, as in the future workplace an individual's value will come from unique skills and knowledge, not conformity, he says.
Britain's educational information and communications technology (ICT) initiatives are steps in the right direction, he feels, but adds that the National Grid for Learning is largely a portal to the infrastructure of education, rather than to learning materials.
"We need a vision about creating content - I don't think even Silicon Valley really understands the value of content. They're still focused on connecting you to someone who can give you the education, rather than putting the educational process itself online."
However, Stringer was heartened by a meeting with e-minister Patricia Hewitt about providing online content with lasting value. "That is a first step to recognising the strategic importance of putting great quality educational content online," he says.
A judge for the learning category in last month's British Academy of Film And Television Arts Interactive Entertainment awards, Stringer says that many entries were "mediocre in most respects". He also believes educational software in general leaves a lot to be desired, particularly what he calls "shovel-ware" - turning books or lecture notes into CD-Roms. "It's completely wrong-headed. An online learning environment isn't a lecture or a book." He warns educational institutions developing such materials that the design of a website or CD-Rom is just as important as its content.
Some of Stringer's other predictions may be hard to believe, but he says parents in 2005 will buy a domain name for their newborn children before naming them, because "your online identity is your identity to the world". A side-effect will be more inventive naming, along the lines of rock musician Frank Zappa's children Dweezil and Moon Unit (Stringer plays in a Zappa tribute band).
He also believes just three brands will dominate the globe in every area of the online world - education will be no exception. Yet he says Britain's reputation as a quality education provider and its "fabulous brands" such as Eton, Oxford and Cambridge are such that if it puts good educational materials online, the world will buy them.
It would cost, Stringer calculates, about pound;50 million to put the national curriculum online in a well-designed, educationally sound way and make it available not only to users around the world but to every British school as well. "The proportion of the Government's investment in building online educational products is totally disproportionate to the investment we're making in bricks and mortar education," he says. "The first country to aggressively make that switch is going to be the place where others go to buy their education. We have the opportunity, but my concern is that we've got too much inertia to pull it off."
Meanwhile, Stringer is busy working with Professor Stephen Hawking on an ambitious online project called Virtual Universe, which aims to explain how the universe operates. It's a bold venture, but if anyone can do it it's Hawking and Stringer.
www.amaze.com www.bafta.org www.transportal.wa.gov.auenhanced