By Peter Avis October 9th 2014
NDPCAL was a national development programme in computer assisted learning, first proposed to government by NCET in 1969 and finally approved by Mrs Thatcher as Education Secretary in 1972. It ran from 1973 until 1977 and cost £2.5M supporting some 35 projects covering schools, colleges, universities, industrial and military training. Richard Hooper was its Director operating with a small central team and administered by CET.
Richard Hooper (in 2007)
During the 1960s and early 1970s mainframe computers became more powerful and more ubiquitous, in use in universities and colleges as well business and industry. Various innovative projects in the USA and the UK began to develop the field of Computer Aided Learning and there was much debate about its value and effectiveness. The NCET (soon to be renamed CET) acted quickly and provided clear advice to government in 1969 for a national development programme.
It was four years later that the DES, following much discussion amongst the interested departments and an intervening general election, announced the approval by Mrs Thatcher as Secretary of State for Education and Science to a 'national development programme in computer assisted learning' in a DES press release dated 23 May 1972. Interestingly though, as later was to be the case in the late seventies with the DTI, and mid-eighties with TVEI the Department was beaten to the post by the Social Science Research Council who made the first government grants in computer based learning to the London Borough of Havering and to Leeds University. (MacDonald, 177, p.177).
Following the announcement of the Programme the post of Director was advertised. A board took place in the summer of 1972 and selected Richard Hooper, BBC Senior Producer in the Faculty of Educational Studies at the Open University. The DES revised the NCET proposal, the development of the special student terminal was not recommended, and the project involving the training of computer specialists was dropped.
The rationale for not developing the student terminal as a piece of equipment was set out in the Initial Guidelines (Hooper, 1975 , Appendix 1) explaining that whilst government departments were interested in seeing new computer equipment emerge it is recommended that the programme should use those that already existed in the commercial marketplace.
As MacDonald and Kemmis (1975) reported, whilst the sixties had been a time of optimistic national initiatives they failed to achieve hoped for change, by the time of the early seventies, there was a greater understanding of the limitations of central projects that tried to invent curriculum change and then disseminate it via published materials to a sceptical teaching force, both in schools, colleges and universities.
NDPCAL took on a structure of working on development projects with those educational establishments already working in the field, or working on feasibility projects with those with good ideas. They stipulated joint funding and effective evaluation and monitoring but allowing a significant degree of autonomy to these projects.
Contrary to NCET's recommendations that a non-governmental agency such as itself should direct the programme, the Government decided to retain direct control. (Hooper 1975). NCET was asked to provide administrative services to the new programme, and the programme's central staff were NCET employees but executive control was to be vested in a committee made up of civil servants from seven government departments plus a group of co-opted advisers. The Programme Committee, as it came to be called, was chaired by the DES and funded the work through NCET.
The Programme Committee was more than just a rubber stamping committee, it held the final say on proposals from the Programme Director and involved itself in project evaluation, setting up sub-committees of three or so of its members to look in detail at a particular proposal or project. This led to 2 project proposals being rejected. Each of the thirty projects had its own steering committee but the national control was established because each had to have a member of the Programme Committee as a member.
From January 1973 to early summer 1973, there was a phase of exploration and consultation and from the summer of 1973 to the end of the year, there was the setting up of the Programme's management structure and of the first generation of major projects, notably in the university sector. Richard Hooper was supported by two assistant directors, Mrs Gillian Frewin (from ICL) and Roger Miles (from the Army School of Instructional Tehnology). They were supported by two other executive posts and three secretaries.
Hooper (1977, p.166) describes their approach as active and interventionist, working alongside potential projects in their early stages to help develop their design and approach. They also focussed on good project management requiring four monthly accounting periods and carefully controlling expenditure. In this work Hooper and his team was steered by the Programme Committee and all proposals for projects and policy came to it for approval.
The programme formulated two main aims over its lifetime (Hooper, 1975, p17):
and two evaluations were set up, one to consider the educational benefits and one to consider the financial aspects.
Computer use in Science
NDPCAL project at Chelsea College
This first government funded programme to look at the use of computers focused on their use for learning other subjects rather than about computers or programming them. It supported some 35 projects, seven in schools, a number in higher education but the majority were based on the armed services’ growing interest in developing more automated and managed approaches to training. The hardware was limited; the computers were large expensive cabinets of complicated electronics accessed mainly by paper tape with Teletype printouts but already the focus was more on the way technology could be used to improve teaching and learning than as a subject in its own right. This dichotomy continues throughout this history and different policies struggled with, and often confused this difference.
Hooper R., 1975, Two years On, National Development Programme in Computer Aided Learning, Report of the Director, London: CET
Hooper R., 1977, An Introduction to the National Development Programme in Computer Assisted Learning, British Journal of Educational Technology, 8-3 p165-175.
Macdonald, B and Kemmis, S (1976) Macro-project and Meta-evaluation – the UNCAL Experience. Research Intelligence, 2. pp. 36-39 (online version)