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Learning with George Auckland

george auckland by euan mcintosh

George Auckland is an inspirational figure from the BBC.  Last night, to celebrate 41 years at the Corporation, Manchester Metropolitan University hosted an evening to flag his achievements.

George retires as the head of the BBC’s Learning Innovation Unit having started his career as a trainee assistant film editor in September 1969.  In between, George has worked on various TV shows, most famously perhaps, Think of a Number and its successors with Johnny Ball.    But it is, arguably his embrace of computing and the Internet for which George is most renowned.

It was George and his team that gave the world Teletubbies Online.  Launched months before BBC News had a web presence, it was possibly the world’s first multiuser website (it was aimed at parents and their young children to use simultaneously).  The site transformed a misunderstood television programme for toddlers into a fabulously successful educational experience for the under 3s.  He did the same thing for adults with WebWise, unlocking the treasures of the Net for millions of us.

Much of George’s success comes from his insatiable curiosity and a personal desire to work from first principles: as a child in the 1950s himself built he a printing machine, later a television, in 1996 he taught himself HTML in 24 hours placing himself at the ‘bleeding edge’ of web development at the time.  “Fortune favours the well prepared” he says.

The ongoing joy of discovery has enabled George to exploit technology for the sake of learning. He credits Disney’s Bambi and a story-based encyclopaedia as childhood inspirations that have obviously shaped his approach to education.  They vividly illustrated to him the value and effectiveness of beautifully crafted narratives that engage an audience on an emotional level.

Never let the facts get in the way of a good joke

This principle was reinforced to him by Johnny Ball who, on having had his script corrected by George about some scientific point, commented: “Never let the facts get in the way of a good joke”

The lesson is timeless – engage the audience, captured their imagination, then unpick it with the delight of learning.

As remarkable as George’s technical achievements is the warmth in which he is held by all who have met him.  His self-effacing and generous personality is legendary.  I think there’s a lot we can learn from George.  I’ll leave you with a quote that resonates loudly for me:

“A lot of  life is not discovering new things but discovering things for yourself”


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