Richard Millwood, the director of Ultralab, talks to Dorothy Walker about promoting creativity

23rd June 2006 at 01:00

Richard Millwood first became intrigued by ICT while he was watching TV.

But simply watching a computer screen has never been his idea of a successful learning experience. "You learn more when you use technology to create things and collaborate," he says. "Learners need to express themselves and evaluate their ideas."

Richard is director of Ultralab, the research centre known for its inventiveness in using technology to create "delightful learning experiences". Based at Anglia Ruskin university, Ultralab was a pioneer in establishing online communities for learning, and continues to break new ground.

Richard has vivid memories of seeing a computer on Tomorrow's World, the future-gazing science and technology programme, when he was 13. "On the computer screen a ball was bouncing around perfectly, unhampered by friction or any kind of impediment," he explains. "I thought: what a wonderful world to work in - a world with no limitations, where I can do whatever I want."

That was in the 1960s, and it wasn't until he had graduated and started work as a maths teacher that he had his first memorable encounter with a machine. In 1978 a microcomputer arrived in school, and Richard wrote a program to make a ball bounce around the screen, just as he had seen on TV.

His version had an added dimension: you could alter the force and direction of the ball, attempting to pot it in the pocket of a snooker table. He says: "I showed it to some schoolkids. They fetched a protractor and began measuring angles on the screen, engaging with the mathematical concepts as they competed to see who could pot the ball quickest. I could see how it was really driving their motivation and interest."

He signed up for a course on how teachers could use computers in the classroom. "That meant creating our own software, and I thought: maybe I should do this as a career." He took a post at London's Chelsea College - now King's College - as a programmer on Computers in the Curriculum, a project to create interactive resources for the classroom.

In 1990, he was recruited by Stephen Heppell to the fledgling Ultralab, creating a team which has since grown to more than 40 people. The first flagship project, Schools Online, drew in 100 schools. Teachers and students worked together online to hatch ideas and create material - a revolutionary concept in the early 1990s.

Richard believes there still isn't enough emphasis on collaborative learning. "People think we need to make resources that fit individual needs, so that learners can have a personalised learning experience. I would reject that - it's not completely wrong, but it misses out on what really happens: learning takes place in a social setting. Individual work is the norm because that is the only way we know how to assess things."

Ultralab's current major project is Ultraversity, which gives teachers and other practitioners the chance to earn an online degree in their workplace.

Ultraversity's BA in learning, technology and research can be done in three years, and involves taking on a research task designed to make an impact in the undergraduate's field of work. Students and tutors collaborate online, and everyone stages a final-year exhibition of their project. The first cohort is graduating this year.

The lab is about to launch the Digital Teacher Network (, an online community created with the help of Apple. It will allow teachers to share their experiences of digital creativity projects, using blogs to report progress and swap notes. Richard finds it encouraging that schools have begun to make space for creative activities, sometimes by scheduling special day-long sessions into the timetable.

"People have caught the message that digital creativity is a good thing.

But there is a big problem: many of the activities are collaborative, and we still can't assess collaboration. If we don't keep moving on that, and youngsters aren't rewarded for their skills, then some of this will come to nought."

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