Understanding the past - illuminating the future

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Sometime around the middle of 2006 I was at a conference on e-learning in adult and continuing education.  I struck up a conversation with a researcher who was very enthusiastic about a project that was going to explore the potential of smart cards for e-portfolios.  I innocently asked how that would build on the work funded by the Department of Education in the early 1990s to develop a demonstrator of The Learning Credit Card.  This provoked surprise, both that smart card technology was sufficiently developed 17 years ago and that such a project had escaped their literature search.  A couple of hours later I was talking to another researcher considering the use of personal digital assistants for collecting evidence of competence in the workplace.  Again there was surprise that PDAs were being used in such applications over ten years ago and that they had not found reports of the project in their preparatory research.

The question is why these projects from the 1980s and 90s are evading the attention of the current generation of researchers?  The answer, we think, is two-fold.  In part it is a result of the cyclic nature of learning technology.  As each generation of technology emerges it is accompanied by a new generation of advocates and researchers who supersede those who worked with the obsolescent technologies.  As they leave the field they too often take with them their experience and expertise.  We are not very good at maintaining our community memory of what has gone before and so we are condemned to repeat history.

The second reason concerns the ways in which libraries have evolved and in which literature searches are carried out. We know that everything is on the internet and so we lean forward to our keyboards and call up Google Scholar or Thompson Web of Knowledge.  But what if it isn’t there?  Not all journal volumes are on the internet.  Some publishers have embarked on projects to digitize their back issues but a search for the three references in the box below will give you the citation but not the full text of the article. Ten years ago we might have found these copies of Interactive Learning International on the library shelves but pressures of space and the move towards digital libraries has reduced physical holdings.  Where would you find them now?  It is almost as if our field started in the late 1990’s and that nothing of importance happened before that time.

To address this issue, Conation Technologies has been awarded a research grant by Becta (The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) to identify the key – but forgotten - ICT research projects in the UK between 1980 and 1999 and document their outcomes.

That 20 year period encompasses a great deal of UK research and development in the use of technology in education and training.  There were major government funded programmes into the use of microcomputers in primary, secondary and higher education, the use of expert systems, and technology based learning.  Industry too, researched the effective use of newly developed technologies in training.  This is a time critical project because, with each passing month, more people clear out their attics, more libraries dispose of their print-based collections, and more personal memories are lost through retirement, age and – alas – death.

We have enlisted the help of a number of people known to us, who played key roles during this period and who can recall what was done, its significance, and where it was reported.  Working with this ‘Sage Group’ we are identifying those projects whose results are significant and relevant to the current research agenda in technology-based learning.

We are also collecting relevant project reports from the period and digitising them where necessary so that they can be made available on the Web. Some of those reports we hold ourselves and others have been retrieved from people’s attics.  During the projectt, the office looked like a rather untidy second-hand bookshop!

Not all of the projects are relevant and retrieving information on everything would be prohibitively expensive.  The search will therefore be guided by the current Becta agenda for ICT in learning – and the likely future agenda over, say the next five years.  Where we encounter work that is considered to be important but not immediately relevant, it will be book-marked so that it can be investigated further if necessary at a later date. A comprehensive report with contributions from some members of the Sage Group will be published in the Spring of 2008 (both in print and online).  It is a fascinating project which combines history with forensic work –adding a dash of nostalgia! 

 Nick Rushby


Details of the projects in the first paragraph can be found in the following papers:

Rushby N J, Twining J, Twining N and Devitt T (1990) Smart Cards in Education and Training Interactive Learning International 6(2)

Rushby N J, Twining J, Twining N and Devitt T (1990) The learning credit card Interactive Learning International 6(3) pp119-142

Rushby N J (1996) Assistants for assessment Innovations in Education and Training International 33 3, 154-161


Conation Technologies, The Office Building, Gatwick Road, Crawley, West Sussex RH10 9RZ 

( 01293 459 807 8 nick.rushby@conation-technologies.co.uk