Educational software pioneer Mike Matson thought that the magic was being lost from programming for schools... then he discovered the Internet. Jack Kenny reports.
Nearly everyone over 35 who has used computers in a primary classroom will know Mike Matson's software. Most over 20s should know it too. His early work set a standard, a style. Acclaim followed. Chris Drage wrote in The TES: "Mike Matson's Granny's Garden took educational computing to new heights and now Guardians of the Greenwood is set to become a classic of its time. It is, in my opinion, the most imaginatively executed CD-Rom on any computer platform to date."
Matson is a brilliant software artist and it is as an artist that he thinks and talks about his work. "There are two things that I love about computers: they can take you away to a magical world where you can do things you could not possibly do in real life; and in terms of real life they increase your creativity. Computers have given me the tools to make use of my creativity. It still gives me a buzz when I create something on screen because I couldn't do it off the screen."
Matson taught in primary schools from 1969 until the BBC computer appeared in 1983. Instead of taking the path to a headship, he became an advisory teacher for IT in Devon for about a year. But he became disillusioned when he realised he and another adviser had to cover over 400 primary schools.
"Most of the software at that time was not worth looking at," he says, "so I learned how to write little programs that would keep us going until the good stuff came along."
Soon Matson wrote his first hit, something he now calls "Granny's Bloody Garden". Granny's Garden opened up computing for many teachers, making them realise computers were more than big calculators.
"The most important thing you learn in a primary classroom is how to talk to children of that age. Whether you are doing that face to face or through software, once you have that experience it just comes naturally. I found in all the years since I don't have to ask myself: 'Am I aiming this at the right level?' That just comes without thinking; I don't need to check. No one asked Roald Dahl if he was writing at the right level."
Teachers liked his work and he left teaching to start creating software for a living. With a friend who looked after the business side, he set up 4mation and created Dragon World, Flowers of Crystal, Box of Treasures and Worlds without Words. "Writing adventure programs for children allowed me to bring my fantasies to life," he says. "Over the years, the magic slowly dissipated as schools began to turn to the sort of software that, in the early days, they had scorned. I was convinced that the enchantment had disappeared for ever. But I was utterly wrong. While I was crying intomy beer something as magical came into being - the Internet."
The Internet is now the place where he wants to work, creating stimulating activities that are free to use. His first programs were for the Internet provider Argosphere. "I had a completely free hand to see what was possible. I wanted to find out how to produce interactive material on the Web without using anything too complicated."
Matson was then invited to work with Apple. The result was the Star Tower educational website. "They gave me a free hand, which was good because if you don't have to worry about commercial viability you can be much more adventurous. The trouble with much software today is that publishers are too frightened. Software has to fit the national curriculum and it has to shout 'key stage 2, maths, English or science'."
Matson investigated the educational potential of Apple's QuickTime technology and was surprised to learn it was not just a means of playing sound and video files but had an interactive capability. Although his contract with Apple soon finishes, he will continue to develop ideas with QuickTime (you can see some of his recent work on www.matson.co.ukqed).
Dragonfly Lake shows much of Matson's thinking. He has created a virtual environment that shows users a view and then asks them to work out which of the cameras on a map provides it. "The best bit is a fly-through. If you click on the dragonfly camera, you fly through this environment, swooping across the lake, over the islands and trees. The camera banks and turns and that gave me a real buzz to do. It has whetted my appetite to do more."
All Matson's recent work is available for free on the open Internet; that is the way he likes to work. But he still has to pay the bills. "I want to create material that is open to anyone in the world but I want to be paid to do it," he says. "Organisations must have good reasons for providing freely available material. Being honest, all I want to do is to create work that makes me feel I have achieved something. Kids in classrooms want to feel they have done something worth putting on the wall. I'm like that - I want to feel someone wants to look at and use my work."
Matson doesn't fit easily into the tight world of the national curriculum, with its levels and jargon. He explains: "Rather than trying to fit everything into the national curriculum I want to demonstrate to the world what is possible. There is a worldwide audience and it is silly to restrict yourself to the requirements of teachers just in this country."
When it comes to learning using technology, Matson sees not a national curriculum but an international curriculum.