Dr Tom Conlon

ICT expert and educationist

Born: 16 January, 1954, in Edinburgh.

Died: 23 December, 2008, in Edinburgh, aged 54.

DR TOM Conlon was one of those rare people able to make an impact in several arenas. He was a teacher trainer, an expert in the use of computing technologies for learning and teaching, a skilled and creative software designer, an entrepreneur and a researcher in the area now known as technology-enhanced learning. He was also a constructive critic of policies aimed at using ICT to help children learn.

He went to the University of Edinburgh to read mathematics, then prepared for a life as a maths teacher by obtaining a postgraduate certificate in education. After this he taught at Portobello High School and then Linlithgow Academy.

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He took a post as a lecturer in computer education at Jordanhill College of Education in 1981. Two years later he became a lecturer in computer education at Moray House and started his three-year part-time MSc in the computer science department at Glasgow University.

The topic – in the area of logic programming – was well chosen; computer scientists around the world were exploring and developing this technology and educationists were beginning to see some advantages in this new approach to computing. He went on to become an expert on the Parlog programming language and, with Steve Gregory, the designer of Parlog, he formed a company called PLP, which still produces useful and popular concept-mapping software (Conception) for schools.

Throughout his academic life he was a cutting-edge practitioner, building system after system featuring well-grounded ideas on helping learners learn.

For nearly 30 years he saw the potential of artificial intelligence to support learning in schools and colleges and our growth of understanding about learning and teaching. In the 1990s he enrolled as a PhD student in the department of artificial intelligence, University of Edinburgh, obtaining his PhD in 1997.

His work on the development and evaluation of knowledge- acquisition tools for educational knowledge-based modelling was the foundation for his research for the past ten or so years. He was strongly involved with the Peg series of conferences, especially Peg 93, for which he was chairman, and had long been involved with the artificial intelligence in education community. He was, more recently, active as a program committee member for the Concept Mapping (CMC) series of conferences.

During the 1980s, Tom became a vocal advocate for improvements to the Scottish computer science curriculum, which, at that time, many considered uninspiring and demotivating. His response was not only to make the situation plain to policymakers and educationists but he undertook the development of a series of Scotvec modules to show that computer science could be challenging and interesting.

He continued to present his humanistic perspective throughout the next 20 or so years – certainly he was a thorn in the flesh of those who wanted uncritical thinking about policy matters. His recent analysis of the Glow project was not some Luddite critique but was further evidence of the extent to which he cared about the growth of learners (and teachers).

Many in Scotland and elsewhere would know him as an enthusiastic and caring teacher educator – full of energy and encouragement, looking to get the best out of student teachers. He was also keen to help teachers develop in their professional lives and produced, with others, an inspiring MEd on "Computers and Learning". Tom wanted educators and policy-makers to develop a "balanced discourse of reflective scepticism" for innovations involving technology-enhanced learning.

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Tom was full to overflowing with enthusiasm for technology when it was beneficial, so any scepticism was intended to promote the best possible outcomes for Scotland, society and learners in our schools. If Scotland is to grow up in terms of its uses of educational technology then Tom provides the best of examples to follow. May his spirit go on from strength to strength, and may we all benefit from the realisation of his vision.

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