Tomorrow's world

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
What can education learn from computer games? Dorothy Walker talks to the man helping to shape the classroom of the future

"The only choice viewers of my shows had was whether to fall asleep or not." So says Martin Freeth, and since his credits include the making of landmark television programmes such as Horizon and Tomorrow's World, it's unlikely that many viewers opted for a snooze. Now, Freeth is shaping tomorrow's learning landscape, at the head of a future-seeking new laboratory which aims to exploit the power of digital media to engage learners as never before.

Freeth is chief executive of Nesta Futurelab, set up in Bristol's thriving Harbourside by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta), and funded with pound;3 million from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES). "The DfES told us we could dream of a different future," says Freeth. "We don't have to stick to today's curriculum, and we're allowed to imagine how teachers might do things differently."

Futurelab's brief takes in computers, the internet, mobile phones, film and television, and games consoles. "We are looking at how technology will evolve in the next five years," says Steve Sayers, Futurelab's director of external relations. "But it is also nice to speculate beyond that timeframe. One of our conferences this summer will explore what the school of the future might look like, and it will stretch the limits of the imagination."

Futurelab is positively buzzing with ideas. And it's drawing on a wide variety of talents - from the education and media worlds, the arts, the entertainment industry and the technology sector - to help turn creative concepts into compelling learning resources.

This is where games designers learn from teachers what really happens in the classroom, and mobile phone operators talk to educational researchers about the appeal of learning on the move.

A year after its launch, Futurelab is living up to its reputation as "The Hollywood of Education". And ranking high on the cast list of stars are the young people who are the consumers of learning materials, and whose input is often noticeably absent from the creative mix. Keri Facer, Futurelab's head of learner research, says: "When we are developing prototypes, the aim is to get children in as early as possible."

Anyone with an idea can bring it to Futurelab, it will help prove the concept and put together the commercial arrangements. There's a full-time team of 18 professionals, backed by the talents of Futurelab's partners, a group which includes the University of Bristol's graduate school of education, the BBC and Apple Computer.

The lab selected 10 prototype projects from 150 proposals submitted in a call for ideas on the internet. "We create the environment in which people can make things happen," says Martin Freeth. "Our focus is on five areas: languages, science, creativity, citizenship and thinking skills. Science is the top priority for us and for the DfES."

He continues: "I always felt that there was a limit to what you could do with passive, linear, non-interactive presentations. We're particularly interested in simulations, which give you the ability to do things you could never do in the real world. We think we have only begun to explore what's possible in science simulation."

He believes many lessons can be learned from games manufacturers about how to produce appealing material that draws in the user. "Producers need to understand that the world of new media isn't about downloading huge quantities of linear presentation material. Games people may not know about the pedagogy, but they sure understand the power of interactivity and how to use it."

The choice of projects is partly determined by their potential to support new research, and Futurelab aims to share the findings through its regular events and its website. "We plan to learn from our failures as well as our successes," says Freeth. "In a year's time we will know much more about how new technologies and media can support learning, and teachers and educational advisers will be able to come to us and use what we have learned."


* To create compelling educational prototypes that are interactive, involving and imaginative

* To research the potential of ICT in learning and teaching, working closely with teachers, students and parents

* To bring together diverse communities to explore how new technologies can be creatively and effectively applied to education

* Establishing a knowledge hub, identifying and sharing the latest developments in technology, the media and education

* Securing Futurelab's long-term viability by working with a wide range of partners in the private and public sectors


Futurelab issues regular calls for ideas via its website, and languages are currently a special focus. If you have a proposal for using technology to create imaginative resources, the Futurelab team would like to hear from you. If your proposal is selected, Futurelab will work with you to develop and try out the idea and agree commercial arrangements. As a not-for-profit organisation, Futurelab re-invests any surplus cash from royalties it receives.


Futurelab holds regular conferences and workshops which enable teaching professionals to share experiences with creative minds from other fields.

At its inaugural conference, Contagious Creativity, teachers networked with games developers, film-makers, academics, technologists and government agency representatives. And in November, at Opening Pandora's Toolbox, they explored how technologyis changing patterns of teaching and learning, by promoting self-directed learning and collaboration. Forthcoming events are listed on Futurelab's Tel: 0117 915 8200

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