What is Ultralab (1990-2006)?

Someone asked me the other day what Ultralab (1990-2006) (my employer) is.

The Ultralab (1990-2006) Mission is…

“To research, apply and disseminate the benefits of new technologies, seeking to develop
an empowering, creative and delightful learning environment that knows no boundaries.”

and here is a really good article published by the Financial Times a year and 10 days after I joined Ultralab (1990-2006) on 07 November 2000….


Man the lifeboats – in a laboratory: ONLINE EDUCATION: Jim Kelly visits an exciting centre of learning

Financial Times; Nov 17, 2001 By JIM KELLY

It’s an unlikely place to find a guru. A drab 1960s block in the middle of the only English university still to call itself a polytechnic. But the Chelmsford campus of the Anglia Polytechnic University (APU) is home to a remarkable institution – Ultralab (1990-2006).

Here for the past 15 years Stephen Heppell has been building one of the most respected research centres in e-learning in the world. He has gathered together 57 “ultranauts” – applied research workers in many areas of “webucation”.

In the past year alone about 70 national education ministers have been in contact with Ultralab (1990-2006) for advice and to discuss projects. Heppell’s team works closely with five or six national governments and is intimately involved in the UK’s development of online learning, a project being closely monitored in the US and other European countries.

Heppell’s own eclectic background is one of the clues to Ultralab (1990-2006)’s success. He is interested in the process of learning rather than the accumulation of knowledge content. He says the idea that “content is king” in the development of online learning is a fundamental error.

“If content was king, then we would build more libra-ries not primary schools,” he says. Learning is the real key, the internet is a tool.

He was a social scientist at university, a trainee accountant, a teacher, a macro-economic modeller, and – most significantly – he was chosen to help to develop UK national policy on IT in schools. That started off in a house in Chelmsford, the first seed of Ultralab (1990-2006).

Heppell is a devoted polymath. He suggests that the government, which is promoting specialist schools in technology, languages, business and other subjects, should consider “polymathic” schools devoted to learning across all subjects.

Understanding how people learn is a fixation at Ultralab (1990-2006). Elsewhere, internet developments have been hijacked by at least two bad ideas. One is that the key to success is building IT infrastructure, and the second that it is about delivering content. “It should be about asking, ‘What will people be able to do that’s delightful?’ ” All Ultralab (1990-2006)’s projects are about creative excitement online.

Two examples give the flavour of Ultralab (1990-2006)’s work. One of its biggest successes is notschool.net, an online school for young people who don’t attend schools for a variety of reasons. It now has 5,000 pupils and is expanding quickly. Tutors, mentors and online software support the young people who are given hardware for the home. It is a cheaper option for local authorities than to create special units.

One of Ultralab (1990-2006)’s newest projects is a virtual lifeboat station – a project run with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution as a learning tool. Each “room” is dedicated to a real station with an online view from the real window and live camcasts from the station. Stories of trips by local crews are recorded and can be updated as a crew member phones in on returning from a rescue.

For parents, the biggest IT decision to face is choosing a school. How would Heppell help them? “Watch out – and avoid – schools with signs saying DON’T, such as ‘DON’T swallow the ball in the computer mouse’, that kind of thing.” He says schools which over-prescribe the use of IT deaden creativity. Parents should also look at the walls and study the work displayed. Is it up to date?

Most of all, he warns, look to see evidence of the process by which the work was produced. Finished work alone suggests it may have been pulled off the internet as a finished product.

Then look at the way in which the PCs are arranged; ranks of computers in lines is a bad sign. He says they are better used in open positions where the children can interact. And then there are the swathes of computers in under-used “laboratories”.

Heppell admits these once had their uses, especially if teachers were unsure of the technology and needed an environment with Marks where they could concentrate on the lesson. “But they are looking increasingly like an anachronism,” he says.

Moving on to universities parents need to be even more eagle-eyed. Most of the UK institutions now include lavish descriptions of their IT hardware in prospectuses sent to students in an increasingly competitive market. Heppell believes students should ask three simple questions. 1. Can I keep my e-mail identity? 2. Can I keep my computer – if I have one and am used to it? 3. Is the university’s computer network and hardware open for use 24 hours a day seven days a week?

Institutions in the UK from Whitehall down to the smallest primary school have all been tempted to concentrate on building infrastructure and delivering content in an over-controlled environment, he says. “We have made the mistake of delivering certainty – we should be trying to deliver uncertainty.”

He says the outstanding results achieved by the pupils of notschool.net show what can be achieved if the emphasis is on the power of IT to assist learning. The net should be seen as a learning tool, not providing teaching materials. And it should be seen as giving access to a community and allowing participation – not interaction. “I interact with my microwave oven but I haven’t learnt anything yet,” says Heppell.

Of the 67 education minis ters he has spoken to in the past year about a third, he believes, have understood the fundamental benefits of IT which can lead to rising standards. He counts Estelle Morris, the UK secretary of state, as one of them. Not understanding the real power of online learning leads, he says, to a low value-added education system. The UK picture is mixed, but generally favourable.

And what about the future for Ultralab (1990-2006)? Critical mass, he estimates, is 120 ultra-nauts.

The lab is the jewel in the crown for APU, but can it hold on to a world-class institution? Heppell is understandably reticent but admits that hardly a day passes without other universities trying to tempt the unit away. And venture capitalists are equally keen.

But for now, the most exciting place in the world of “webucation” in the UK will continue to be the third floor of an Essex office block.

Copyright: The Financial Times Limited 1995-1998

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