Ultralab downsizing, I’m leaving Ultralab

I wrote to all of my contacts from my time at Ultralab, but I think I may have missed one or two. If that’s you, here’s what I sent out:

Dear [Firstname],

I am sending this email to friends, colleagues, work partners and
people I have had contact with over the last five years at Ultralab
(and before) – you are listed under my contacts as someone to keep
in touch with. If you have no idea why you got a copy of this email,
my sincere apologies, there may have been an error, so please disregard it!

You may have heard about the uncertain future of Ultralab in the
national media recently. Anglia Ruskin University has decided not to
continue Ultralab’s research and consultancy work and so I and most of
my colleagues have been made redundant. Ultralab closes as a physical
department within the University structure on 31st December 2006 after
nearly twenty years of ongoing success. The university is keeping some
of the Ultralab team, however, in order to continue to run some of the
larger money making projects which have been started. Thirteen
colleagues will stay on in the faculty of education to run Ultraversity
(http://www.ultraversity.net ), and a further few will work in the new
university centre for learning and teaching.

Far from being distraught about all of this (although it is undeniably
sad when you think of the outstanding work that has been done by the
Ultralab team over the last twenty years), the opportunity arises for
us to continue in a different way.

And on that thought, I would like to introduce you to ‘Cleveratom’.

I have been working with some colleagues to form a new company,
‘Cleveratom Ltd’ which will officially start ‘trading’ on January 3rd.
The company will focus on three core activities, including working with
schools, colleges and other educational establishments to look at how
ICT can be used to support and enhance learning. Building Schools of
the future will be a key part of the work that we do. Secondly, the
fantastic projects focussing on digital creativity will continue, with
several excellent events already lined up for 2007 (have a look at
http://www.digitalcreativity.org ). Thirdly, we will continue to work
to develop and deploy unique online community and social software,
building learning spaces for creativity, virtual learning environments
(VLEs) and more. The web site is at http://www.cleveratom.co.uk
although there is little more than a holding page there right now.

We are keen to further develop the work that we have been doing for the
last few years and would be delighted to talk with people who are
working in the same areas as we intend to, or have a brilliant idea
that they want to make a reality.

My contact details change with immediate effect (see below) and I would
be grateful if you could reply to my new address with your latest
details too… although you are probably enjoying a well-earned rest
and won’t get this until after next week. I am working on updating my
blog (http://www.halmaclean.co.uk ) and you can always keep in touch
with me there if you prefer.

I hope that you are enjoying the season’s festivities, and my very best
wishes to you for the New Year.

Night at the Museum, Film Review

movie artSitting in the Freeport cinema it’s often easy to miss out on the film being shown because of the younger members of the audience who take it upon themselves to provide alternative entertainment. However, today they were no problem at all and I have a suspicion that it was the film we were watching that held their imaginations for longer than usual!

In fact, Night At The Museum is a pretty good film for adults as well, although it isn’t exactly a difficult plot to follow – it is aimed at those who want to have a chuckle without having to think too hard. The story is fairly obvious really – Ben Stiller plays the divorced father of a ten-year-old child, and needs a steady job in order to stay living in the same apartment. Taking on the night shift at the museum he finds all hell lets lose once the doors shut, and it is simply a story of how he brings some order to the proceedings. Oh, and there’s a theft to solve and the problem of improving the number of visitors to the museum itself…
All very easy, and no real depth of thought needed, but this film has a cast of characters that make it shine just a little bit more than you’d expect. Robin Williams plays an uncharacteristically understated role, which is refreshing, Mickey Rooney makes a screen appearance (been a long time since the last one, I think), Dick Van Dyke (without the accent) is a central character, but by far the best for me has to be the British contingent. Steve Coogan and Ricky Gervais really steal the show for me, with Coogan playing a (miniature) Roman general and Gervais playing the museum director. The absolute best part for me is where Stiller is telling off Coogan and Owen Wilson (a cowboy) – Coogan’s responses and expressions are priceless!

All in all this is an easy to watch, thoroughly fun yarn – I’d recommend it for anyone who wants a light hearted way to spend a couple of hours without taking anything too seriously. The special effects are bordering on OK, so don’t go for those. The plot is thin, so don’t go for that. The fun is definitely in the cameos from the supporting cast – definitely worth seeing Gervais and most certainly Steve Coogan… neither of whom I was expecting to steal the show quite to the extent that they do. Take the children too, they’ll really enjoy it!

Ultralab Downsizes, Anglia Ruskin University closes Ultralab

Is it a downsizing or is it a closure? Either way, it’s incredibly sad to think that twenty years of pioneering research activity is to cease as of 31st December 2006.

That is the date when the current staff at Ultralab (myself included) change roles – some will transfer into the Faculty of Education, some will stay within the new ‘teaching and learning’ unit headed up by Tony Brandt, and the rest, like me, will be made redundant. I have quite a bit to say on the matter, as you might imagine, and precious little of it very good.

What is good though is that the world class team that made up Ultralab are now released from the confines of a pretty narrow minded university to explore new avenues and take on new challenges. I am sure that we will do so with as much aplomb as ever, and I am actually really looking forward to building new projects and taking on new contracts.

I am certain that lots of mud will be slung across the internet in the next few weeks, and whilst Merlin John can claim to say ‘you read it here first’ (and the Guardian second), rest assured you’ll probably be able to find about twenty other accounts of the situation from ex-ultralab staff. I’ll write my own version after Christmas, when the dust has settled a little bit.

If you are thinking of working at or seeking employment with Anglia Ruskin University and have a notion that eLearning is a key way forward for education this century, then think again – the incoming Vice Chancellor (Mike Thorn) is rumoured to not be at all interested in that… paper based distance learning is more in line with his thinking, apparently.

With that, and the appalling manner in which the University has conducted this ‘re-structuring’, I for one am pleased to be out of harm’s way!

Access and Integration in Schools Conference, Coventry University

Coventry University’s Bugatti Building hosted the second annual conference for access and integration in schools. This year’s conference wass jointly sponsored by the Ergonomics Society, University of Coventry and Ergonomics Safety Research Institute at Loughborough. Speakers included Alan Gardner on backpain and the design of school furniture, developing a European standard in the design of school furniture, Pauline Hughes, CEO of the Ewing Foundation talking about classroom acoustics, Rachel Benedyk from UCL talking about ergonomics, Andree Woodcock from Coventry talking about an up and coming research project about engaging children in school design and of course myself, talking about the ‘designmyschool’ website (currently off line since 2007).

Organised by Andree, this was a delightful occasion to get people together and talk about things that really matter. There were others on the list of speakers but sadly I missed them as I got in to Coventry by train a little after the conference started, and left a little before it ended.

The intriguing thing for me was to see folk picking up the strands of what we have been doing for the last couple of years in the school design arena. If Coventry University are able to undertake a more formal research project to substantiate a lot of the action research that went in to designmyschool then so much the better! If I can help at all, just say the word…

I thoroughly enjoyed this conference, small as it was, because it focussed on things I believe are important. With so much money being spent on schools at the moment (BSF, PFI and so on) it really is crucial to get the basics right. buying chairs that are poor design, or because they are cheap is about the worst use of the money I can think of – get this bit right, make the learners able to concentrate and not squirm in discomfort, and who knows what will follow on. The same applies to tables, heating, lighting, ventilation, corridors, toilets, canteens, playgrounds, and much more besides. These are traditionally areas that architects and procurement officers concern themselves with. It’s about time they stopped and looked at what makes effective learning (and thank heavens some already do).

But beyond the millions of pounds where will we be? Are we yet again going to invest in buildings that have very good intentions but are based on our yesterdays? Or are we going to take a much braver step towards investing in learning environments for tomorrow’s learners? It really is more about meeting the needs than meeting the budgets.

Exciting Minds Conference, Manchester, Creative partnerships

On Monday this week I drove to manchester to be a panelist and speaker at the Exciting Minds conference run by Creative Partnerships. I was talking about Building Schools of the Future – BSF. As part of a four strong panel we covered a large range of specialisms. Martin from Nottingham was involved in running BSF projects there and planning ways forward for schools – visioning, basically. Abe, from Sussex was an architect who had recently completed a school extension and was focussed on sustainability and ‘green’ issues. Brenda was from Manchester and worked as BSF co-ordinator, seconded from a secondary school where she is deputy head.

A stimulating discussion from each of the panel members, it struck me that there is a huge task being undertaken by lots of schools and not nearly enough people able to support them and talk sense about the issues they are going to face. Many in the audience simply wanted answers to issues they have got, but that simply isn’t enough. We need to look ahead – beyond the next few years – to what the vision is for the school. Creating buildings for the next 60 years will simply keep us in the same rut we are now in, albeit in 60 years from now (or more likely just about 10) – we need to think far more creatively about education and how to use buildings more creatively, and look at how technology can be used to link people and places more effectively.

This is going to be a recurring theme over the next couple of years, I think!

It was delightful to meet up with author and broadcaster Michael Rosen again – the last time I talked to him was when I was a teacher about fifteen years ago. He was an inspirational influence on me then, and I used his books regularly in classes I taught. I don’t suppose he remembers me from that time, but none the less it was good to share a few words and share a common ideal within the world of education.