After an early brush with a home computer in 1981, Sheila Rodgers has never looked back. And her early speculative letters to a number of teachers reaped some big rewards, as Dorothy Walker reports.
Twenty years ago, Sheila Rodgers believed she could make a difference in the world of educational technology. So strong was her belief that she borrowed pound;3,500 to buy a state-of-the-art computer. Today it is stored in Rodgers' loft, but it is a powerful symbol of her achievement. Earlier this year, her educational multimedia company was acquired by RM - makers of that computer.
Rodgers is managing director of 3T Productions, a leading media design and development company. The Stockport firm has made a name for itself with projects ranging from training Post Office staff to producing a star-studded multimedia version of Cluedo, but its speciality is education.
"Education", admits Rodgers, is "really close to my heart." She began to realise the educational potential of ICT when her former husband, a secondary teacher, brought a computer home from school. The year was 1981, and Rodgers was already a fan of technology. A couple of years earlier she had moved from her job as a trainer with a photographic firm to embark on a career as a computer systems analyst. "I was fascinated by computers, but I thought I'd need a degree in maths to become a programmer," she says. So she enlisted on a training course at a college in Manchester to learn systems analysis and programming.
Rodgers loved the course, but when she graduated, found herself "working on reporting programs for insurance companies and quantity surveyors - some of it was unbelievably tedious." Casting around for something better, she found the answer when her husband brought home an RM 380Z computer.
"I looked at the software programs, and I was amazed at how badly programmed many of them were," she says. "Some were written by teachers who knew the teaching points they wanted to convey, but didn't have much programming experience. The rest seemed to have been put together by programmers who thought they knew about education because they had been at school! I realised there was a need for professionally programmed software that met educational needs."
Spurred on, she wrote a speculative letter to 100 schools, asking if any teachers had written software that met their educational needs, but would have to be re-programmed for sale to other schools. She received 25 positive replies, a "staggering" response.
She borrowed pound;3,500 from her father to buy her own RM 380Z machine, and set about reviewing the schools' software. "I asked teaching contacts whether each program met a widespread teaching need, and if it did, I re-programmed it and started sellig it."
Some of the software the schools sent in was extremely advanced in the way it supported learning, and one particular example shaped Rodgers' ideas about the potential of multimedia. Written by a teacher at Giggleswick School, Yorkshire, it presented a series of five science simulations. They included the Millikan Oil Drop Experiment, a classic physics experiment used to determine the fundamental unit of electrical charge.
She says: "If someone had tried to explain the theory of the experiment, I would just have blanked. But when I saw it work on the screen it made senseI Even in those early days, you could use ICT not only to watch something, but also to experiment with it... that is true interactivity. I think interactivity is often gratuitous... it should have a purpose."
Originally she had envisaged her business as a one-woman enterprise, but such was demand that it quickly grew to seven people, all working in two spare bedrooms in Rodgers' house on the outskirts of Manchester. "It became rather silly," she says. "I couldn't afford to go away on holiday. But I couldn't take a break at home, as I had seven people trooping through my house!" Soon she began producing software to accompany TV programmes for primary schools, first for Granada Television, and later for most of the ITV network. Rodgers says: "The children would watch TV, work with the software, continue the project offline, then go back to the computer. The idea was to do an integrated set of classroom activities, and move beyond simply having 20 minutes 'playing on the computer'."
The early Nineties were difficult years for the educational market and 3T Productions shifted its attentions to entertainment and corporate training. "But three years ago, we decided to have a really big push into education - and now we do almost nothing else."
Having worked with RM on a number of projects, 3T Productions welcomed the chance to become part of the group earlier this year. Rodgers says: "We feel RM have the same commitment to education, and they care about their staff and clients as much as we do."
Recent work includes the development of software for the Teacher Training Agency (TTA), to help identify how teachers need to be trained in ICT, and a number of joint projects with RM to deliver software over intranets for various education authorities.
Rodgers says: "The Internet makes everything more accessible. If a school buys a CD-Rom, it can only be used in one location. Produce something on the Internet, and children can use it from anywhere."
One such person is very close to home. Rodgers has presented her 76-year-old mother with a state-of-the-art laptop. "She's really keen to get on to the Internet," she says.