By George Cole
Angela McFarlaneAngela McFarlaneSometimes, when you create an innovative product, you don’t always get the reaction you expected. Back in 1990, Angela McFarlane and her colleagues took some Windows-based data-logging software they’d developed to an educational computing conference in Denver, USA.

Representatives from Microsoft were astonished. “How on earth did you know how to do this,” they asked, “when you’re not even an approved developer?”

The software, SoftLab, was icon-based data-logging software, developed by Angela and two of her colleagues, Peter Ling and Paul Fleury, at the Centre for Research in Educational ICT at Homerton College, Cambridge. At the time, the educational software developer Roger Frost described SoftLab as being “ahead of its time”, and soon every secondary school that used the PC platform had at least one copy of SoftLab in its science department.

“It got used all over the place,” recalls Angela, “Even in Jordan, and this was before the days of the internet. I even heard about a school that was still using it last year.”

SoftLab was based on a good idea and required some smart developmental work, but there was a third essential ingredient to its success, says Angela: collaboration. During the development of SoftLab, Angela and her colleagues worked with five teachers who provided important feedback on how the software could be used successfully in the classroom. And Homerton College also worked with data-logging manufacturers to develop a common data protocol which enabled SoftLab to be used with any data logging product found in schools.

“You’ve got to collaborate,” says Angela, “and make sure you involve people who are a good representative sample of those you hope will adopt your innovation.” Angela learnt this principle from her mentor at Homerton, Fred Daly, then director of the IT Development Unit. “Today, it seems obvious that you involve users at the design stage, but back then it was a novel approach,” adds Angela. Another important lesson she learnt was to develop the user interface first: “Many of our key ideas started out as screen graphics scribbled on restaurant napkins. Start with the user and start with the user experience.”

Angela has been involved in numerous science education projects and she’s a firm believer in this: “If you are learning about science, you need to start with the sensory experience, whether it’s touching, seeing, smelling or hearing. That’s the tangible element. Software enables you to link the tangible with the intangible [the scientific concept].” She gives the example of how, by using heat sensors and data-logging software, pupils can feel and see the connections between heating and cooling, and the resulting pattern drawn on a graph.

After leaving Homerton, Angela joined the educational technology agency Becta as head of evidence and practice before moving on to subsequently head Bristol University's School of Education.

Screen Great Plant HuntKew's 'The Great Plant Hunt' celebrates DarwinToday, she is director of content and learning at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, as well as retaining her role as professor of education at the University of Bristol. At Kew, Angela and her colleagues have been involved in another innovative project, The Great Plant Hunt, which has been funded by The Wellcome Trust. The project was launched in April 2009 and linked to the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth.

The project aims to encourage pupils aged 5-11 to study the plant life in their local environment by observing, recording, collecting and analysing. This involved sending 23,000 “treasure chests” to schools, which included resources and ideas for activities. Once again, working closely with practising teachers during the project’s developmental stage was critical, says Angela: “Teachers give you a constant reality check. You have to be partners in a dance. It’s a mix of the person with the innovative idea and the one who has to do the job at the coal face. That way you learn what is feasible and that you have to be flexible.”

'It’s not fair to expect teachers to come up with all the answers as well as do the day job'

The teacher focus groups included headteachers, who said that having activities that could be used during assemblies would be an asset, and so this idea was incorporated into the Great Plant Hunt resources. Providing good teacher support is also essential if any innovative product or project is to succeed, says Angela: “It’s not fair to take a group of teachers and expect them to come up with all the answers or the brilliant ideas, as well as do their day job. There are probably 15-20 per cent of classroom teachers who are good at sparking innovative practice, so how can you support the rest?” In the case of the Great Plant Hunt, that included providing teachers with essential information covering out-of-classroom activities, such as health and safety, and risk assessment.

“Teachers could simply pick up the pack and go with it,” says Angela. The project is also scalable, so whether a school’s immediate environment consists of a tarmac playground or a local nature reserve, there are suitable activities for all pupils.

Another key to successful implementation is making it easy for your target audience to find resources. So in addition to the treasure chest packs, teachers can also download materials from the Great Plant Hunt website, and also upload their own photographs. This strategy has reaped good results. Independent research into the Great Plant Hunt project, funded by The Wellcome Trust, has found that two thirds of teachers who received the treasure chests are using them, with most of the remaining one third planning to. Of those teachers using the resources, 96 per cent reported that it had inspired their pupils, with more than two thirds of teachers reporting that it had improved their teaching in practical activities.

“Having an idea for something innovative is the easy bit,” says Angela, “the hardest part is convincing people to go on a journey from where they are today, to where you’d like them to be. That’s why collaboration and communication are so important. If you manage to produce anything worthwhile, people will do wonderful and creative things with it, in ways that you could never have imagined.”

Conditions for innovation

  • Innovation is about partnership.
  • Involve the end user from the beginning.
  • The user interface should come at the start of your project and not at the end.
  • You have to reduce the risk if you want a wide range of teachers to take up your idea and not just the 15-20 per cent who are prepared to take big risks. That’s why good support is essential.
  • A good innovative product doesn’t answer a question; it asks a question and encourages students to find the answers.
  • Start with a really good idea and make sure your target audience clearly understands why it will enhance the teaching and learning experience.

Sources of inspiration

Fred Daly
Fred was my head of department at Homerton and he taught me some valuable lessons about innovation. Fred was an innovator himself: he developed the Homerton Interface, which was the closest to thing to a WIMP [Windows, Icon, Menus, Pointer] user interface on pre-mouse machines. When he became a director of the NECT [National Council for Educational Technology, the forerunner of Becta], he was the driving force behind the National Grid for Learning, and the Portables for Teachers projects among many others. Fred Daly was a real pioneer who deserves wider recognition within the educational technology community.”

A group of 12-year-olds I taught on my teaching practice
Back in 1982, I was doing my teaching practice at a school in Bushey, Herts, with a group of Year Two (today, Year 8) pupils who had been somewhat written off; the school had given up any hope of teaching them more than the basics. I managed to beg the use of the school’s computer (which was locked away in the maths department) and used an animation program called Eureka, which consisted of a bath whose water level changed whenever someone sat in it. The children loved using it and soon learnt how to work with line graphs. They learnt so much in the two terms I worked with them - nobody had tried teaching them real science before. As a result, I’ve never forgotten the difference technology can make to teaching and learning.”

More information

Professor Angela McFarlane is a member of the panel in the Besa “Breaking the bonds of learning” Keynote at BETT 2010, chaired by Merlin John. Other panel members include learning and creativity expert Tim Rylands, new media expert Professor Stephen Heppell and 2Simple's Max Wainewright. The keynote takes place at Olympia's Apex Room, Wednesday January 13, 12.30-13.30. Mobile phone interactivity for the audience will be provided by Steve Sidaway and the Txttools service which is also being used at the Learning and Technology World Forum earlier in the week.