An Ultranaut’s Ultralab (1990-2006) 2000 – 2006 : Never complain about the rain

Matthew Eaves joined Anglia Polytechnic Univiersity’s Ultralab (1990-2006) from the University Alumni in November 2000. Hired by Professor Stephen Heppell to build education databases the self titled New Media Researcher quickly changed direction and went on to work globally with people of all ages on Digital Creativity learning and research projects.

Matthew is now Director of Creative Learning Systems a commercial company who care about the research and consultancy that was once Ultralab (1990-2006)’s bread and butter.

Here he reflects on his time at the internationally respected learning technology and research centre which closed its doors for the final time on December 22nd 2006, two years short of its twentieth birthday.

Never complain about the rain…

Fellow Ultranauts (thats what us ‘staff’ at Ultralab (1990-2006) were called) all have interesting stories surrounding their arrival at Ultralab (1990-2006), and mine was because it rained.

It was a wet graduation day back in October 2000 and somehow my former University Multimedia lecturer, Roger Clark, saved my boss to be, Stephen Heppell, from getting soaked from the rain. Roger picked Stephen up in his car somewhere between the then Anglia Polytechnic University Central Campus and the building site which was Anglia’s Rivermead Campus, and gave Stephen a lift. The conversation in the car apparently involved Stephen telling Roger that he was trying to find a programmer to join his team to work on a Government project. Roger told Stephen he was about to meet one of his old students to talk about enrollment on a masters course, and somehow Roger swung me an interview, without telling me.

I turned up to meet Roger (out of politeness really; I respected Roger but was not really interested in doing a masters degree so soon after my undergraduate course, I wanted to see the world, Roger was persistent), he sent me straight over to see Stephen Heppell, Director of Ultralab (1990-2006).  I’d never met Stephen before, he welcomed me, and I walked round his lab with him.

“When I finally spotted him, Stephen Heppell didn’t look at all like I imagined. This geek of geeks, this net-head of all times, this revolutionary who is yanking the British education system out of its Victorian slumber and shaping it for the digital information age, surely it couldn’t be this genial fellow before me with his whitening Father Christmas beard and Hush Puppy fashion sense” – A reporter from Design Magazine, 1999.

Stephen introduced me one by one to all his Chelmsford based team (who all poked fun at my freshly graduated suit, gown and mortar board). As I walked round I met an enthusiastic Australian who was working on a project called ‘Smile’, a really nice lady dressed in a white coat creating smoke as she soldered a robotic toy, and there were two guys leaning over a partition covered in plants bouncing ideas off each other for a name for the project they were about to embark on, “Once you think of it”, said Stephen to the two guys “order enough t-shirts with the name on for everyone” before walking further and inviting me to talk at his desk. Within just ten minutes of meeting Stephen I had been walked round his lab, met his team and heard about the projects they had done and were doing.  I instantly wanted to be a part of action, the buzz, the excitement that was Ultralab (1990-2006). Stephen offered me a job that day, I’m still to complete the masters. I never complain about the rain, and I have a wardrobe full of project branded shirts.

As I left the lab, walking down the stairs in disbelief I clutched a piece of paper which Stephen had written containing his office, mobile and home telephone number; I was to call him anytime if I had any questions. I was very excited. I drove home and told my family I’d gone for a masters interview, but got hired. “What will you be doing?” asked my Dad “I don’t know” I replied, “but I know they make t-shirts.”

Formed in 1988, based out of a corridor under the name of ‘New Learning Environments’ the lab slowly grew, moving first into a demountable hut (Anglia’s Shed) and changing its name to ‘Xploratorium’ (which resulted in a legal threat from an unrelated company with a similar name in the States) the team settled on the top floor of Anglia’s Brentwood Campus under the ‘Ultralab (1990-2006)’ brand. The lab slowly grew to attract, nurture, home-grow and embrace some of the most talented education people from around the world. In 1997 with the closure of Anglia’s Brentwood campus meant Ultralab (1990-2006) moved to Chelmsford where it lived for nearly 10 years on the top floor of ‘North Block’.

The lab had always been very careful about spending money unnecessarily (and did right up till the final day) and when it moved to Chelmsford the perfectly good desks which kitted out the space were rescued from University skips. Other departments in the University often spent money on unnecessary refits and as the years passed we learned to cherry pick the skips whenever someone new arrived or we needed more cupboards or filing cabinets. This made Ultralab (1990-2006) a mash of mismatched furniture, scattered with plants, technology and casually dressed people doing cool stuff.

Every Ultranaut was given a brand new top of the range Apple laptop on their appointment, which was encouraged to be used both at work and with the family at home. I can just imagine Stephen turning to Lys his PA and saying “I’ve hired Matt Lys, please order a Mac, chair and check the skip…”

From my very first time in Ultralab (1990-2006) I empathised with what Stephen and the team were trying to do as they challenged, researched and experimented with the way people learn, using technology. It was becoming clear to me that technology was a way of enhancing learning opportunity and engagement, and I’d not really had the easiest and exciting learning journey myself….

When I was nine my Junior School teacher told me I’d not do very well in life, her solution to my ‘trouble with learning’ was to give me the easy book rather than tackle the so called hard stuff. My previous teacher had identified that I’d got Mild Dyslexia, she was very good with me although as I moved through the system from teacher to teacher, classroom to classroom, school to school, my learning experience was challenged further by a system that could not cope with my specific learning needs and teachers who did not know what exactly they should do with ‘someone like me’.

I’d often be made to repeat my errors over and over again, until I succeeded with the question or sum I was struggling with. I dread to think how much more my classmates were learning than I was as they moved on to more complex things. One religious education teacher decided to punish me with extra homework because I formulated a verbal religious argument with him that I was unable to put down on paper.

It was not till I reached the age of thirteen that I could finally take hold of the steering wheel controlling my learning journey. All of a sudden I was the decision maker picking GCSE’s which would help shape my future. I picked lessons which I knew I could be strong in, lessons which allowed me to be creative both with my time and with my output. Geography was dropped from my timetable, I’d only had one interesting Georgraphy lesson in three years and had even then failed to remember the key information and data that was tested of me. History allowed me to be far more creative, I was interested in the arguments as to why key historical moments had taken place, the impact on civilisation and alternative outcomes had a moment in time been different.  History tested my data analysis and reflection skills, and Mr Soanes, an excellent teacher knew exactly how to captivate and engage his class.

Physical Education was another GCSE choice which bemused the teacher that was given the challenge of my company. I remember hanging onto the side of the swimming pool while he laid out his expectations from us for the next two years “and I wonder” he said “why some of you (looking my way) have signed up to this course” to which I politely smiled and thought to myself that while I was swimming I was not writing, and while I was not writing I was not thinking about the alternative words I could write to replace those words that my dyslexia dictated I’d have difficulty spelling. I also knew that PE would not set me much homework, which meant I’d have more time for the history assignment. Business Studies and Media Studies were my other two choices. In Business Studies I could use a computer (with spell checker, thank you very much) and in Media Studies coursework was assessed on creative ability. I undertook my first film project in 1993.

In 1995 I graduated from Secondary School with five B’s, one C, two D’s and two E’s. The B’s were in History, Media Studies, Business Studies and Double Science. The C was in English Literature. The D’s were in Physical education and English Language. The E’s were in French and Maths. I never understood why the school insisted I undertook a foreign language when I really struggled with our native tounge.

Joining the Sixth Form I enrolled on an Advanced GNVQ (General National Vocational Qualification) in Business Studies and an A Level in Media Studies. GNVQ gave me the opportunity to once again select the modules from the course which suited me the most. I was able to pick and choose how and what I learned, where I’d do my research and how I would present my findings, it was really good. For that course I had one very good teacher, and one very bad one who really let me down by failing to mark my work for periods as long as eighteen months. I strugged through it and left the centre with a Merit graded GNVQ and an A level at grade D. The theory side of the A level was much more intense compared to its preceding GCSE. I struggled yet again and was dissapointed with my result, which helped me identify that perhaps my future was not in media after all, ironic on reflection.

In 1997 I became the first member of our Eaves family in history to enter University. With a good part time job, and charity commitments it was impossible for me to move away from home so I joined the local Anglia Polytechnic University on a Business Information Systems course. I knew that Anglia was not Oxford, or Cambridge but wanted to give it a fair chance to educate me and enjoyed the flexibility the course gave me to define my own learning journey with them.

I arrived on my first day at University in 1997 and was about to enter ‘North Building’ (soon to be home of Ultralab (1990-2006)) to meet the Business Studies department course I had enrolled on.  On entry I bumped into a very old looking lecturer (in traditional tweed jacket (with the patches on the arm)). He asked me where I was going to which I told him I was a new graduate enrolled on a course in the building. I remember vividly how he poked me in the chest and told me I was an “UNDERgraduate” not a “graduate” and that I would be far better off enrolling on a course in his department which was much better than the one I’d enrolled on in the Business School.  He told me his course “was not run by boring old farts and used computers”, I liked computers so I followed him. He lead me over to a nearby demountable building and signed me onto the ‘Business Information Systems’ course in the ‘Design and Information Communication Systems’ department (they call it DACS rather than its real acronym (for obvious reasons). He then pointed me in the direction of another building and told me to head over there, reminded me I was an UNDERgraduate, prodded me some more and then patted me on the head before walking back towards the building he had intercepted me.

Little did I realise at the time was that I’d just been done up like a kipper. The lecturer from one department in the university was intercepting new arrivals outside its rival building and attempting to convert the new students onto his own course which unknowingly to me had a ‘falling role’. New to Anglia I’d taken the bait, followed him out of North Building and signed up to his course based in another department in the Johnson Building. It turned out to be one of the strangest impulse decisions I’d made in my life, and worked out for the best. I still shake my head in disbelief to this day that I’d been hijacked on my first day at University and how a quick chat with one person changed the next three years of my life.

Business Information Systems turned out to be a great course. DACS teaching staff were extremelly friendly, supportive and accessible throughout my three years with the University, I made some lifelong friendships with staff and students. I was happiest working on group based work projects, undertaking real business problems and incorparating effective solutions as part of my work. The flexibility of the course delivery allowed Students to select modules (within reason) from around the University. My little band of friends enjoyed working together on group projects so we picked the ‘Group Project Design’ from the nearby ‘Multimedia’ course.

The module lecturer of the course on meeting my group of unknowns said; “Guys, you are not from this course, so I’m waiting for you guys to fail”. He honestly expected my group to fail misserably in our task because of our lack of experience in ‘multimedia’ related projects. What he’d missed the boat on is that we had all come from previous colleges who delivered courses to us which exceeded the ‘basic stuff’ which Anglia Polytechnic University were delivering. To be frank, APU were delivering stuff which was way too basic. Our lecturer had to swallow his pride when our group were awarded A’s.

Through my time with Ultralab (1990-2006) (and since with Cleveratom (2006-2011)) I’ve learned how the UK education system is still not joined up, learners journeys are challenged by goalposts which move as they move between education establishments and personalised learning is still something that most people don’t understand. One teacher I worked with in New Zealand said to me that young people from his school do not get the same or better learning technology opportunities when they move into the local high school; they go back to using only pens and paper. Ten years later and on a global scale I think we all need to admit we’ve got a problem somewhere, and even though the lab has gone I’m still keen to try and help solve this.

I left APU in July 2000 with a first class degree. I was one of four students to get this grade, 180 people had originally started the course, about 90 finished it. My family was very proud. I wondered just how many of us 180 had been intercepted and trusted a strange man (in a tweed jacket (with patches on the arm)) on the first day and impulse enrolled on his course.

After a few months working to raise money to travel around the world and relaxing at home I attended my graduation, got the unexpected job at Ultralab (1990-2006) and started at the lab a few weeks later. I arrived outside North Building, looked cautiously around for anyone who was going to hijack me and lead me off to somewhere else (probably to start a job in the photocopying department) before quickly climbing the stairs and pressing the bell on the Ultralab (1990-2006) door.  I was welcomed and lead into the Ultralab (1990-2006) meeting room, and spent half an hour talking to Stephen Heppell and his second in command, Richard Millwood, who fed me doughnuts, muffins and toasted my time at the lab with orange juice. We were joined by and introduced to Carole Chapman and Alex who I would be working with as part of the ‘NPQH’ team. NPQH stands for National Professional Qualification for Headteachers and was a typical Ultralab (1990-2006) project of its time.

Ultralab (1990-2006) projects all started out in Stephen Heppell’s famous ‘pile’. Once a week, every week Stephen would sit at his desk with Lys his assistant to look through all the letters, emails and notes on phone calls. In the ‘pile’ were project ideas and proposals, media reaction requests, consultancy offers, meeting suggestions, advice and keynote offers at conferences from all around the world.

The ‘pile’ was a gold mine of key Government officials, senior members of huge corporations, broadcasters, charities and education institutions worldwide. Also included into the pile were much smaller organisations and schools with very little or no money to spend, but still had great ideas or needed help. Requests often came from teachers looking for ideas for small classrooms of children, maybe some advice on best practice. Stephen’s ability to balance the activities Ultralab (1990-2006) did came into its own, no project was too big or small for Stephen, they would be treated equally in respect of the innovation they were trying to understand, research or achieve.

Ultralab (1990-2006) was never about money (see desks), it was about pedagogy, it was about how we all learn. The lab never admitted to having the answers to the worlds problems, but it did have the best people in the world when it came to Action Research style investigation. Our team was enthused and willing to tackle project proposals and ideas that hit Stephen’s desk each and every day. Stephen would redirect his mails accordingly, putting the Ultranaut (thats what he called us, his staff members) with the skills he thought the a new project needed in order to fly. He always picked the right people to do the right jobs.

The resources Stephen had in his team were tremendous, he’d assembled us from all over UK, and from the far corners of the world. The team had backgrounds of school leaders, recent graduates, specialist teachers, musicians, designers, technologists, scientists, parents, industrialists, dancers, managers, entrepreneurs, conservationists, charity workers and academics to name just a few. Stephen’s team were so knowledable and agile that together they could deliver fast, effective ideas and solutions to all levels of any organisational chain. Leonie Ramondt, a creative Australian film producer saw Stephen present at a conference in her native country, they got talking and eventually Leonie and her skill set were on an plane to England to add to the mix of the Ultralab (1990-2006) team, she was with us right up till the day the lab closed its doors. Stan Owers joined Ultralab (1990-2006) at the point of his retirement from the automotive industry giving fifteen full time years to the Ultralab (1990-2006) cause from an industrialists point of view, globally respected for his research into industrial decline (see the website). At the point of his second retirement he proudly left as Dr. Stan Owers. Colin Elsey left Head of Faculty post in a Secondary School to join the team brining huge knowledge of Design and Technology with him and went on to innovate D&T solutions on an international level. Ultralab (1990-2006) cars were always first to arrive and always the last to leave the Anglia Ruskin University car park each night, Colin’s would be first to arrive.

I joined Ultralab (1990-2006) as Ultranaut number 61. My first challenge was to support Alex with NPQH development while Carole Chapman travelled the length and breadth of the UK to vision share and train the trainers and eventual users of the system we were building. NPQH was typical of Ultralab (1990-2006)’s project remit. The project would have arrived at some point in the famous pile and Stephen identified Carole from his team of Ultranauts to undertake the project. NPQH was was taught course which anyone who wanted to become a head teacher within the United Kingdom would have to undertake. The course was 32 fat booklets, which the candidates would have to read alone and then give up their Saturdays to drive to a testing centre somewhere in the country and take the written exams. Applications for the course dropped significantly (which meant less future head teachers (anyone spot the shortage and wonder why?)) when it became apparent just how much more work prospective candidates would have to take on as well as doing their day job. The course had to be made more accessible. Carole worked with Alex to plan how the course could be translated to be online, supported by an online community which would bring all the candidates together in one virtual space to discuss the associated course materials, because of the success of Carole’s achievements the testing moved online too.

After that project completed Stephen Heppell took me to the Millennium Dome (Stephen helped design some of the learning zone) one Friday night, placing a video camera in my hand and told me to stand up the back and record an event. I stood up the back and recorded the first ever Ultralab (1990-2006) Summer School presentation evening. I had no idea what to expect, all I knew was that young people had been set a task by Stephen during the summer months to use computers and cameras to tell a story of transformation. The evening was inspiring, never before had I seen young people so capably creative with technology. My immediate desire to be involved into digital creativity research formulated that evening, and it has been one of my passions ever since. That night at the Millennium Dome I met Shirley Pickford and Hilary Messeter from the Ultralab (1990-2006) team. Shirley and Hilary were part of the remote working side of Ultralab (1990-2006), they worked at the dome on the Tesco Schoolnet 2000 unit.

Schoolnet 2000 was one of Ultralab (1990-2006)’s biggest projects at the time and involved the setting up of internet connections and computer systems in Tesco Supermarkets throughout the UK for schools to use. Working for Tesco part time prior to my time with Ultralab (1990-2006) I remember group loads of young people buzzing around in our store as they used computers and cameras to undertake the ‘Modern Doomsday’ challenge which Ultralab (1990-2006), Intuitive Media and Tesco were delivering, I remember thinking that this was very cool. The young people left amazed that the creative work they had done that very day was now available on the Internet for the world to see. Celebration of creativity and suitable performance space is still a fundamental part of education which is often missing in the UK education system. Some schools understand why it is important, and those ones will get better results from their learners. Schoolnet employed over 20 of the Ultranaut team spanning the UK (see the map:

With Ultralab (1990-2006) based out of Chelmsford and half of the team remote we were able to understand the geographical needs of the UK when it came to education reform. Having a Welsh speaking Ultranaut in a meeting with the Welsh Assembly is just one example of how our respect in the regions enabled us to work on local projects using local people. When the Royal National Lifeboat Institution approached Ultralab (1990-2006) looking for a ‘creative solution’ to reach young people and disseminate what the RNLI is (and does) Stephen Heppell selected Colin Esley and myself to manage the project and we instantly drew on our distributed nationally Ultranaut spread to help with the project.

The RNLI needed to raise its profile in the eyes of young people. The organisation wanted to understand and identify better with the younger audience to ensure lifelong support and crewing of its lifesaving service. One a cold January morning in Burnham-on-Crouch back in 2002 Stephen Heppell, Colin and myself stood back and watched a group of young people walk around a lifeboat station exploring and finding out about the service. Our research found that the young people were most interested in the crew members of the RNLI and why it is that they risk their lives, all weathers, to save the lives of strangers.

The RNLI had never marketed a campaign before for young people about the volunteers that crew its boats. We also learned that young people did not appreciate reading resource material and fact sheets to find out information when they were out of the classroom; learners tell us this all the time. The RNLI wanted to reach this particular audience outside of the school environment and were open to innovative use of technology to reach this objective. Young people were fascinated by the stories the Lifeboat crews were telling them about real life rescues and situations they had been in. If young people were not interested in reading lots of text, school style, then how would we disseminate this information?

We looked to for the answers. at the time was Ultralab (1990-2006)’s flagship inclusion project which was a DfES funded initiative to help re-engage young people back into learning. These young people had been out of the education system for more than about four years. What we had with Notschool was a brilliant group of learners who thrived in an online community environment which harnesses the powers of creative technologies. Notschool at that moment in time had around 1,000 young people engaged within its virtual community. Each and every one of the notschoolers often exceeding the expectations of the dedicated team that supported their learning journey. Our second research pilot for the RNLI saw us fly to Jersey to meet with local researchers (we don’t call them pupils, they’re not).

The notschool researchers explored the St. Helier Lifeboat Station and once again found the stories and the experiences of the crew members the most engaging. We challenged the researchers to capture key information from the crew, and before we knew it, our solution to the RNLI’s problem was solved. The creative innovative ideas of one particular Notschooler turned reality into virtual.

Lifeboats.TV (the website) would be totally virtual. We built a ‘Virtual Lifeboat Station’ which young people could explore online. The site had minimal text and was filled with 467 short movies which allowed a visitor to find and explore what they were looking for, without having to read anything. The site was an instant hit with the people that used it. Colin, myself and our remote Ultranaut team travelled the UK to find the most interesting crew member stories to include in the website in video form.

Working with Colin is one of those moments in my life where I learned so much in such a short space of time. Here was me, a young lad in his early 20’s coupled with a well educated and experienced guy about to embark on his 60’s walking into lifeboat stations, talking, filming and exploring just how we could help raise excitement and interest in what these people were doing. I spent many an hour driving across the UK with Colin and as we drove he taught me a lot about learning, pedagogy, analysis, and how to research. I would gather stuff and Colin would make sense of it, eventually, because of Colin, I was making sense of it too. We spent hours talking through ideas and formulating plans over breakfast in run down B&B’s (Ultralab (1990-2006) really did look for the most cost effective travel and accommodation) and I remember one night we were driving on a motorway through Dorset, deep in conversation solving just how we would tell the RNLI story online. Every step of the way we got feedback from young people, that was so important, and I believe is still so overlooked in many decisions that involve young people today.

Here is one of the conversations we captured:

“Being in a lifeboat is like being in a tumble washer sometimes, you see your clothes going round, and you are going everywhere. The sea is not a very kind thing, it comes at you from all angles. Even though the crews are strapped well in, and the seats are numatic and help protect your back, because you could imagine falling 10 / 15 feet. If you were sitting at the back of the lifeboat you can see all your crew members and they are going up and down and up and down in their seats as the motion of the boat takes them. So when a boat comes off a heavy wave, this would happen; the boat would fall and you are pulled in your straps because the gravity of the boat will take you down but you are going to stay there momentarily, so it is like the keys on a piano, if you could imagine, no fingers, everybody is up and down.” – Crew Member, Dun Laoghaire Lifeboat Station, Republic of Ireland, 29 January 2002.

And here is our favourite:

“When friends ask, why do you risk your life to be a lifeboat crew? What is it that makes you go out in rough weather? It’s very hard to explain to them the feeling that you get when you actually put your hand on somebody, who is about to die, bring them into your boat, with your mates, bring them ashore safely. Thats a feeling, a privelege words cant explain.” – Crew Member, Dun Laoghaire Lifeboat Station, Republic of Ireland, 29 January 2002.

In Tobermory in Scotland on the 19th of March 2002 Colin, Alex, Hamish Scott-Brown and myself were filming the crew who were answering our questions while on a lifeboat when a real rescue call was instructed by the Coastguard.

Alex, Hamish and myself did not have enough time to leave the boat and found ourselves at sea taking part in a real life rescue. I can’t explain how it felt, but for the first time in my life I actually felt frightened. Not because it was 8pm and we were on what turned out to be a five hour shout in the dark, in rough water, in a two level boat which was rocking in all directions, in the most remote part of Scotland….but because there was the possibility someone was in the sea and if we missed them, they could die.

I stood on the back of the ‘Severn’ lifeboat, with an RAF helecopter above us, with its search lights on full beam sweeping across the sea in search for a sign of life. I remember checking the same patch of water over and over and over again, thinking ”If I miss someone, I’ll never forgive myself”, thankfully nobody was found that night, and no bodies were reported missing within the following weeks.

When we started the project I felt slightly concerned that as a person that had never been on a rescue how could I give an honest representation of the people who risk their lives to save others? When we docked after the shout in Tobermory I actually felt like I knew what it was like to be a lifeboat crew member. I had experienced the excitement, the fear, the antisipation, and above all, in a small way I’d put my life in danger too, although I was in perfectly safe hands throughout the rescue. Action Research means ‘learning by doing’, and this is what Ultralab (1990-2006) did so well.

On completion of Lifeboats.TV I continued with Digital Creativity work. Next I embarked on a new project with Stephen Heppell and Richard Millwood. ‘Future TV’ within Children’s BBC asked for Ultralab (1990-2006)’s support in determining the future of Children’s television. We embarked on a pilot in the North of England to give over airtime to young people for them to create their own films. The results were astounding and helped the BBC to understand the potential of user generated content. After the success of that project I flew to New Zealand to undertake a similar pilot with their national broadcaster; TVNZ.

In New Zealand was the newly opened Ultralab (1990-2006) South, by 2002 Ultralab (1990-2006) had gone global. For a month Ultralab (1990-2006) South’s Director sent me all over the country talking about my work, and networking to generate new business leads for him. My time with Ultralab (1990-2006) South remains one of the most enjoyable moments of my working lifetime so far.

By the end of 2005 I’d worked all over the world, in all kinds of places and situations ranging from the beaches of Thailand to corner of lake Annecy in France. Ultralab (1990-2006)’s reputation was so well known globally that no matter where I went, anywhere in the world, I was automatically respected on the reputation of the organisation I represented. One thing that really hit me was how well respected Ultralab (1990-2006) was oversees. While in New Zealand I was amazed to be introduced to a school head teacher who had flown from the North Island to the South Island to specifically meet me, someone who worked for Ultralab (1990-2006) in the UK, we had a long chat, it was very nice and flattering. Oversees Ultralab (1990-2006) had an amazing reputation, Stephen would often talk about how well respected Ultralab (1990-2006) was abroad and it was great to experience that first hand.

2004/5 were very difficult years for the lab, we could sense a storm was brewing in the wider parent University after the incoming Vice Chancellor put a stop of the transfer of Ultralab (1990-2006) from Anglia Polytechnic University to another well known and respected University. It became apparent that the University was changing its structure and began investigating its operations campus wide to look at cost savings and job roles, being University staff we at Ultralab (1990-2006) were included in this process which involved some 2000 colleagues across the entire operation.

I think it is fair to reflect that people who did not understand Ultralab (1990-2006) and its operations were making decisions that impacted on how we were able to work, without actually visiting us and talking to us. During this time it felt like every process any staff member at the University was doing was being analysed and matched to a criteria sheet and where people could not be matched into boxes and ticked off questions were raised. Because Ultralab (1990-2006) was so cutting edge, revolutionary and forward thinking it made us very difficult to manage through what became a rather tedious process caked in red tape. I remember spending half my week (like the rest of the lab team) administrating University fielded requests, and the other half doing cool Ultralab (1990-2006) projects. Although change is sometimes a good thing, in our case it seeked to (maybe unknowingly) destroy us.

Despite the increased workload us Ultralab (1990-2006) staff continued to work through the night and at weekends to meet the needs of the work we enjoyed, thats the cool thing about Ultralab (1990-2006), it always had an overtime budget of zero for the eighteen years it operated, never once did it ever pay any of its team overtime money. What is more special is that Ultranauts enjoyed their job so much that they were happy to work without overtime pay. What Stephen and Richard had successfully built was a place that people enjoyed working in and could see that the work that they did made a real difference to learners, so much so that no matter what the take, whatever it took it would be done on time and in budget, even if it meant sitting in the lab all night with a pack of ‘Red Bull’ and a plate of chips from the all night kebab shop down the road.

I often left the lab after 8pm, sometimes the last person there and therefore having to lock up. One late evening I started to lock the lab and did the usual ‘3333’ telephone call to the security office to tell them I was leaving to which Mark the Security Guard (he left the University soon after to become a Funeral Director) arrived to lock up with me. I appologised for being in the building so late, explaining that I was working on a project and really needed to get it finished for a meeting the following day. Mark told me that I was not the latest to have ever leave Ultralab (1990-2006) at night, he told me that Stephen and Richard would often work right through the night when based at the Brentwood campus when they were making multimedia CD’s for learning projects.  Apparently Mark would help break the campus rules and hide the fact that they were there by insisting that no lights could be seen on from the road, apparently they used to sit up there in the pitch black, all for the love of their job and the desire to meet the deadline. Find me another department in the University where people were this dedicated and had earned the respect of the security guards too. The Security guard team at the university were always on the side of Ultralab (1990-2006), and I like to believe that their support of the labs extended working hours were partly fueled by free lab branded t-shirts and how we phoned them up to join us when the pizza delivery van arrived late at night.

Working in Thailand was really interesting. It was so hard to believe that the beautiful beach town of Patong was ripped apart by the forces of the tsunami. Over 283,100 people were killed on that fateful day in December 2004. 129 Britons lost their lives and countless others were affected by destruction of home, belongings and loved ones. As you walk along the beach you’ll be approached by someone selling everything from jetboat rides to fruit and from radio’s to musical instruments. The beach is a trading place for anyone and anything. Talking to a sunbeds attendant I asked him how business was. The trader told me that business is not what it used to be,there are less people on the beaches and prices for everything have been reduced. But the sea will not scare the traders away.

“I have children” he says “I have to do what I can to feed them, wouldn’t you?”.

I did not feel it appropriate to ask him where he was on December 26th, some things you just don’t talk about with these people.Walking along the sands are Nan, Rus, Al, Ha and Wit, young Muslim children. They were holding our digital video camera’s and were engrossed in filming their surroundings. These young people were part of a group filming on the beach as part of a digital creativity project with Ultralab (1990-2006).Nan, Rus, Al, Ha and Wit and the other 40 children involved in the project lead lives worlds apart from British children. They live in small communities in Pattani, an area of the country where Western citizens are advised not to travel, due to frequent bombings and other forms of terrorism. The dangers of Westerners working in such a region meant the children were bought by bus from their homes to the coast to work with Ultralab (1990-2006) making a film portraying life in Thailand.

Jonathan Furness and I worked in close collaboration with the British Council to plan an experience for these young people who do not use technology within their education. The plan was simple, to train them in five days to create film, music and animations which reflected their feeling towards life in Thailand. The output, as expected was incredibly creative, reflecting it still amazes me how creative young people are when when they have had absolutely no access to technology in their lives, these children had never touched a computer before, some had never watched television.

I’ve worked all over the world with children, from the peace process work in Northern Ireland, to major television projects with broadcaster, Korean education integration projects but nothing came close to the experience in Thailand.

Ultralab (1990-2006) had a global reputation for drawing out incredibly creative work from people of all ages and we were always in demand to disseminate our achievements; while conducting new research into how to bring out the best in people, through providing them with the tools and skills to bring out the best in themselves. In this case, by giving children state of the art equipment, in groups of five to make a film exactly 100 seconds long without any limitations on what they can do or say, the audience being global.

Rus reflected in her ‘video diary’:

“Hello my name is Rakiyah Sama, you can call me Rus. It is my honour to be a part of this project, I have received so much knowledge including: computer skills, making movie skills, how to edit a film; I learn technique which can be applied. I used to wonder how things were made on TV, now I have learned and that is an advantage! The trainers from the UK are very friendly and we have practised speaking english with them but sometimes we do not understand some of the things that they say, but if we try harder, one day we will! Thank you very much!” (Click to watch this text as a movie).

Lots of the young people made films on the beach attempting to show how normality had come back to their community, they also made clay animations and musical songs in the tradition of their country. Each child recieved a DVD containing all the work created during the two week workshop.

Some of the children we were working with had never met people from the west and were continually asking about life in England, education, family and daily lives.At the end of the second week I went to Bangkok alone to work with educators at the Thai Knowledge Park (TK Park). TK Park is based in a shopping centre in the middle of the city and is a resource for the community to be creative. Another department from within the British Council paid for me to work with TK Park staff how to get the most out of technology creatively.I spent a week working closely with a wide age range of staff. National television channel TV5 arrived to cover the news that Ultralab (1990-2006) were in Thailand working with people of all ages to support future learning potential. We made national news bulletins throughout the day as a lead story talking about how creative I think Thai children are when given access to technology in order to achieve their full potential. Word spread further across Asia and other countries are considering digital creativity projects in the future.

Those who know Ultralab (1990-2006) will know the lab’s biggest success stories have come from taking risks which challenge the conventional and encourage radical innovation. Ultralab (1990-2006)’s instantly recognisable logo and brandname emits a rich history of quality innovation and is much sought after as a project partner by governments, educators, businesses and community groups globally. Ultralab (1990-2006) continued to attract new innovation in the field of digital creativity right up to the day the University announced internally that it would not be continuing with Ultralab (1990-2006)’s research and consultancy.

With the arrival of a new Vice Chancellor the agreed transfer of Ultralab (1990-2006) from Anglia Ruskin to the Open University by the previous Vice Chancellor was cancelled. Next Stephen Heppell, our visionary founder leaves the organisation as the self-funded Ultralab (1990-2006) South in New Zealand is requested by the University to change its name from Ultralab (1990-2006). All Ultralab (1990-2006) staff are then put through a job re-evaluation programme which brings much hurt and upset as it becomes apparent that Anglia Ruskin University had no real desire to listen or understand the kind of work Ultralab (1990-2006) does.

We were requested to increase our charges, to prices which are simply unaffordable by the people we work with, we were always solvent. The University continued to invest in more new buildings, but put very little investment into us. Next the University charged us to park in its car park, as parking space became scarce as yet more buildings were built on them. I never recall a single visit from our Vice Chancellor within the Ultralab (1990-2006) department. A few days after Ultralab (1990-2006) staff successfully achieved 140 graduates on our successful online degree the University announced that it would not continue with Ultralab (1990-2006)’s research and consultancy and that Ultralab (1990-2006) would not exist as a physical department after nearly 20 years of healthy finances and ongoing success.

I was lucky to be at the graduation at Chelmsford Cathedral for this first real online degree success of any UK institution and quote the speech of Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward, who I congratulate on a well deserved doctorate:

“Eventually he was relatively healed and after a years Open University course got into a department of the Anglia University called ‘UCANA’. I’m afraid I haven’t found out quite what that is, I should have, but it must have been an amazing institution because he was encouraged to design a course covering his own interests in Ecology and Conservation.”

The Bishop was commenting about a student from the University past, his comment about UCANA is fitting as UCANA has since been closed by the same Vice Chancellor that brought an end to the Ultralab (1990-2006) as we knew it. (Read the rest of the excellent words from the Bishop at the graduation).

When we use the Internet Archive ( to surf back to 10 December 2004 and look at the UCANA website what does it tell us about a sister department who was chopped down around the same date:

“Negotiated Awards are normally undertaken when the conventional awards on offer within the University portfolio do not meet the particular requirements of individual students. The flexible, innovative design of negotiated awards give students the freedom to plan and negotiate the content of their postgraduate programme according to their personal and professional needs and to propose a unique, relevant award title.

This type of programme is essential for those who:

  • require a flexible programme of study tailored to their own needs
  • would enjoy negotiating their own programme of study and associated award title
  • have significant experience in their own field
  • wish to capitalise on learning within the workplace
  • may have little recognition for learning in the form of certification
  • wish to enhance or complete a previous Postgraduate programme
  • are involved with Continued Professional Development”.

(see the whole thing here)

The same Vice Chancellor also closed the excellent ‘Enterprise and Innovation Department’.

Uploaded onto the Anglia Ruskin Website on the 24th of October this year was the 2006 Anglia Ruskin Lecture. Prior to the lecture, David Tidmarsh said this about John Ruskin, one of the Universities founders:

“Ruskin was a mould breaking educator, deeply committed to making education accessible to all, and passionate about teaching work relevant skills. Like Ruskin we are constantly striving to widen our student body to be more representative of all parts of society and community and to develop top quality courses and research projects that are relevant to the world today. These are values that have been embedded in this University from its foundation through to the present and they remain core at the centre of our activities”.

Watch the entire film here:

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusion.

I believe we simply did not fit in the boxes the University structure required everyone to comply with. Ultralab (1990-2006) was just too innovative and therefore too difficult for the University to understand.This article at Merlin John Online tells fittingly the impact the closure of Ultralab (1990-2006) as a department will have on the UK education system, and I quote:“The University That Killed The Golden Goose”. I would argue it was not the University, it was the person who ran the University. The people who make up Anglia Ruskin University are lovely, the courses are good and sound. I recommend an Anglia Ruskin education, I had one myself. I especially recommend the excellent 100% online course, Ultraversity.

I wish Mike Thorne, the new Vice Chancellor the very best of luck steering the Anglia Ruskin ship in its new form. I had a great time within the University, and never complain about the rain.

So what happened to my colleagues? The Ultralab (1990-2006) website (now back online as part of the National Archive of Educational Computing) will tell you right here.

I’ll leave you here with some of my favourite messages of good luck that I have received since departing:

“Change is good for us but we don’t usually like thethought. Remember the old sayin…..When the winds of change blow,some build walls while others build windmills.” I can just see thosewindmills springing up everywhere.” – Headteacher, New Zealand

“I am really sorry to see Ultralab (1990-2006) go – very short sighted.” – Headteacher, Australia

“I have always rated the thinking that you and colleagues are engaged with.” – ICT Inspector

“From the early days when Steve was the driving force to now Ultralab (1990-2006) should be proud of what it has achieved and will carry on achieving because of the real legacy it will leave.” – Company Director

And a fellow Anglia Ruskin Staff Member, from another Department sums it up pretty well:

“Presumably this is the final salvo in the disastrous era that is Tidmarsh”.


8 thoughts on “An Ultranaut’s Ultralab (1990-2006) 2000 – 2006 : Never complain about the rain

  • John
    January 1, 2007 at 4:54 pm

    Tidmarsh was a manager at Rover, enough said.

  • mattheweaves
    January 4, 2007 at 7:13 pm

    John Rudkin has written about the demise of Ultralab (1990-2006), Have a read, well worth it.

  • Unhappy
    January 4, 2007 at 8:27 pm

    The University also has another big weight and really needs to be ruthless.

  • John Rudkin
    January 6, 2007 at 8:11 pm

    Read my piece. I’m just so sorry that Ultralab (1990-2006) couldn’t continue as was, but for whatever reason it happened the joint value of all that Ultralab (1990-2006) has added to the understanding about Education Technology will now be dispersed to help lots of others gain something tangible I hope. I hope Apple UK appreciate the earlier work of Ultralab (1990-2006) championing ARIC, and all the work its people have done to make BETT and other initiatives alive. >> ‘Ultranauts rocked the future’

    I feel strange in one sense – as a trustee of NOTSCHOOL I know personally of the value of the labs pioneering work (and the people behind its development) very well. There were times however, my hands were tied. At least I was able to support NOTSCHOOL, which is alive and kicking at .

    Most recently you have supported Blackpool’s blueIRIS project. It was a small project, but it was great to play ball again chaps. You can hear Stephen’s broadcasts at (Search for Heppell). Shame we didn’t get Richard’s recording….but there is still time? Richard?



  • Gina
    January 9, 2007 at 2:11 am

    Thanks for your thoughts Matt. I felt so strange leaving you all in November to fly back to NZ knowing I’d not be able to visit again- well not everyone in one place that is. Unless we have a reunion sometime…. 🙂

    My time at Ultralab (1990-2006) was a huge learning curve, a place of support and love and fun and ideas and hard work and sometimes angst – always worth it. To date, it’s the only job I’ve had where I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning just to be with my colleagues, the virtual ones and ones like you, across the plants in the office.

    Best of luck for Cleveratom (2006-2011)!

  • J.R
    February 10, 2007 at 1:41 pm

    David Tidmarsh seems to cause confusion, uncertainty and chaos wherever he goes. Anglia is best off without him.

  • mattheweaves
    February 25, 2007 at 11:35 am

    22nd Feb 2006: An update on the above article…..

    I read today with interest Stephen Hoare’s interview with Mike Thorne, the new Vice Chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University. Click here to read it for yourself.

    Now Mike Thorne is new at Anglia, so I wont blame him here for some of the bemusing decisions made before his arrival by his predecessor…I wish Mike the best of luck in the aftermath of what became a very uncomfortable period for the University staff, but in the interview with Stephen Hoare it is nice to read the following as Mike Thorne’s thoughts in the opening paragraph of the article:

    It’s all a question of demographics. By 2017 there will be 500,000 fewer UK school-leavers, and universities will have to develop more part-time degrees aimed at re-educating today’s workforce. It is an inescapable fact that, if the sector is to grow or maintain numbers, we need to develop new offerings like Anglia Ruskin’s online degree programme, Ultraversity, for upskilling adults in the workplace.

    Those that know me will be well aware that I’m a graduate of Anglia, and up till Christmas 2006 I worked for the University in “Ultralab (1990-2006)“. Ultralab (1990-2006) was one of the worlds leading learning, technology and research centres.  It employed 40 staff, it was globally respected, it had existed since 1989.
    Ultralab (1990-2006) ran projects all over the world, innovative projects, good projects, well respected projects. The Ultralab (1990-2006) team were the best team anyone could have worked with, assembled carefully to radically reform education as we know it, and they did.

    Ultralab (1990-2006) was the very same research centre who’s team designed, implemented and ran Ultraversity for three years …. Ultraversity was staffed by a team of over 30 people, working day and night to build up a fully online 100% degree course, delivered over the internet for people already working in full time employment, in just three years…..

    The Ultraversity project is quite simply awesome, innovating and I have the utmost respect for my colleagues who made a brilliant idea by Professor Stephen Heppell into a reality for so many people. Real people who would never have dreamed of going to University because they have busy lives can now finally get on and graduate. The course for me is educational ICT innovation at its finest.

    I was privileged to be at the graduation in November 2006 of 140 graduates, who met each other for the very first time physically as they collected their fully online degree diplomas. A magical moment for everyone involved.

    Two weeks later, hitting the doormat’s of Ultralab (1990-2006) staff all over the UK came letters saying wither ‘you are redunant‘ or ‘you are not redundant’. Here is one of the most exciting projects in the history of Higher Education, bringing real opportunity to a market of students which traditional Universities do not target…..and the University is closing down the department which made it all happen. Genius, pure absolute genius.

    Lots of people, with the knowledge and know how on how to deliver online courses to distributed groups of people nationwide, asked to leave the University.  Genius once more.

    Now anyone with a little vision for the future would have thought: “Wow, this is good, we could bring in more students and provide more people with the opportunity to graduate, bringing more students onto the role, increasing funding….. lets invest in this course and help it grow and be bigger and even better”…. sadly it was decided to cut the team down and remove Ultralab (1990-2006) from the equation.
    I wish the previous Vice Chancellor would have seen that Ultralab (1990-2006) could have made Ultraversity so much bigger than it already is, reaching more people all over the world. A lot of that excitement, that energy and enthusiasm sadly got made redundant.

    It would have been nice for the previous Vice Chancellor to actually have visited Ultralab (1990-2006) during his time at the University, and understand first hand what it did.  I’d have put the kettle on for him.

    By the end of December 2006 Ultralab (1990-2006), which had once been quoted as the ‘Jewel in the Crown of APU‘ (Anglia’s previous name) had gone. 13 of the Ultraversity team kept their jobs, transferring into the Faculty of Education to continue delivering the existing degree course. The rest of the Ultraversity and Ultralab (1990-2006) team, more innovators, knowledge filled specialists in how Ultraversity could expand and grow….. they got made redundant. An amazing decision, especially when those people could have been assigned by the University to undertake the following which is raised just two months later:

    “we need to develop new offerings like Anglia Ruskin’s online degree programme, Ultraversity, for upskilling adults in the workplace.”

    The Ultralab (1990-2006) and Ultraversity brands were transferred to the care of another department within the University to develop them further.  How does that work then?   It might have actually made sense to have an Ultraversity based staff member working in that caring department to commit to development of the Ultraversity project further.

    I wish Mike Thorne and Anglia Ruskin good luck in achieving a very good and forward thinking objective considering the tools already existed in the form of three departments which are nolonger a part of the University:

    1) Enterprise and Innovation Unit

    2) Ultralab (1990-2006)

    3) UCANA

    “we need to develop new offerings like Anglia Ruskin’s online degree programme, Ultraversity, for upskilling adults in the workplace.”

    How about “we are developing new offerings” instead of “we need to develop new offerings”.

    Good luck Anglia, you need a lab…..

  • Ben
    January 6, 2009 at 11:46 am

    You’ve proved that Ultralab (1990-2006) can live on through the work of Stephen, and with your team at Cleveratom (2006-2011). Whatever happened to Richard?

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