Robinson's latest crusade

11th May 2001 at 01:00
What better platform from which to communicate than song? Or so Tom Robinson thought until he discovered Apple, email and iMovie. Dorothy Walker reports on how a new media convert is helping children use ICT to express their own ideas.

Communication - that is the great benefit of ICT." So says Tom Robinson, one of life's skilled communicators. Since he first burst on to the pop scene with the Tom Robinson Band in the mid-Seventies, the singer-songwriter has enjoyed long-running success, his music conveying powerful ideas and casting the spotlight on controversial issues.

Today, the man behind hits such as 2-4-6-8 Motorway and Glad to be Gay has branched out into new media. He writes and broadcasts, and on his current round of musical gigs Robinson can be found hard at work building websites while he waits to go onstage. Now his passion for ICT has been harnessed by computer company Apple, and the enthusiastic Robinson is helping children to communicate their own powerful ideas.

He discovered the potential of ICT in 1985, when he bought an Apple Mac out of the profits from War Baby. He says: "As a songwriter, my dream was to have a golfball typewriter and a photocopier, but I couldn't afford them. The Mac cost pound;2,000 - and it was the best pound;2,000 I have ever spent."

To the man whose previous experiences with computers had proved "disastrous", the machine came as a revelation. "Within 40 minutes of getting it out of the box, I had typed my first word processing document - and it came out on the printer exactly as it had looked on the screen! That was just so extraordinary. At that point, I was hooked."

That set the high standard by which he was to judge all technology developments. He says: "I am into doing things easily. So unless something was as friendly and useful as that word processor, I didn't use it."

Nothing else made the grade until the mid-Nineties, when Robinson discovered email. "Text email - that was my second epiphany. Someone emails, inviting you to a party. You hit 'Reply', type 'Great!' and send it. The economy of communication is beautiful."

When he created his own website a few years later, he made email a central feature. Friends were so impressed with the result that they asked Robinson to build their sites, and soon the songwriter had embarked on a parallel career as a webmeister.

His web work has ranged from the site for Friends School, in Saffron Walden (a former pupil, Robinson is active in its Old Scholars' Association) to one for his accountants, and he is currently working on a site for publisher Duckworth. "It is something I can do when I am touring. I work on my laptop while I'm waiting for a show to begin."

He says: "The best thing you can do on a website is pt up a message board and let people create their own content - that is what brings them back. So much of the Web is still about one-to-many broadcasting, where someone creates the content and people sit passively consuming it. The point of the Internet is that you can air your own ideas while receiving others, then have a discussion and reach a consensus. Joining an email group is one of the most marvellous things kids can do. It gives them a feel for people in other countries - kids of the same age but with a different outlook."

Two years ago he began to collaborate with his son's primary school in South London, asking friends if they had any spare computing gear. As a result, the school received a collection of Apple Macs. They may be "vintage", says Robinson, but they are a delight for teachers and pupils alike.

Last year, at a party in Shropshire, he was enthusing about the machines to some teachers, when one suggested he get in touch with her brother, who works for Apple. It transpired that the California-based executive runs the AppleMasters program, designed to introduce children to inspirational creative thinkers. He signed up Robinson on the spot.

Robinson was introduced to iMovie, Apple's digital movie-making software, and was so impressed that he has "been boring people stupid" ever since. "It used to cost a fortune to edit digital video, and you had to learn all the geeky nonsense. But now you only have to think about what you want to do, not about how to do it."

Last autumn he was one of the driving forces behind a three-day exercise at London's Royal College of Art, in which creative professionals teamed up with schoolchildren to explore the possibilities of iMovie. Film director Ken Russell, actors John Hurt and Joseph Fiennes and scientist Richard Dawkins were among the celebrities who paired up with a child to make a three minute film. Most of the adults had never used a computer or camera - "even Ken Russell had employed cameramen to do his camera work".

Robinson says: "For them, the event was about trying to see the world through a child's eyes. For everyone in a creative occupation, the Holy Grail is to get back their sense of wonder at the world. With a young person in tow, they got a fresh perspective."

Not only did the children take the lead in using the technology, they also had a big influence on the creative process, transforming their partners' initial ideas. "iMovie gives kids the chance to show you how they view the world," says Robinson.

He adds: "ICT shows kids how to get ideas over to other people. Those ideas have to be pre-digested in order to get them across, and that is the great learning you get from technology."

Tom Robinson www.tomrobinson.com


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