Lord David Puttnam – the Oscar-winning champion of Ireland’s digital future

25 Jun 2013

Lord David Puttnam at the Digital Agenda Assembly in Dublin. Photo via eu2013.ie

Despite the number of Hollywood accolades he has achieved as a movie producer, Lord David Puttnam provides the sense he is revelling in his current digital existence. Not only has he been named Ireland’s digital champion by the State to encourage more progressive technology policies for society, from schools to SMEs and the elderly, but he actually walks the talk.

Every week from his home in Skibbereen, Co Cork, he broadcasts in real-time to lecture halls in Australia and Singapore. He interacts with film students over high-speed broadband, talks over video clips of his earlier films, and chats with the earnest students.

Puttnam, who sits in the House of Lords, advised the last UK Labour government on digital policy. He is best known for being the producer of major movies, including The Mission, Bugsy Malone, Memphis Belle, The Killing Fields, The Duellists and Midnight Express. He won an Oscar for Best Picture in 1981 for Chariots of Fire and a BAFTA in 1982 for his contribution to the British Film Industry.

For more than 10 years, he chaired the National Film and Television School, and taught Nick Park, the creator of Wallace & Gromit. His achievements in the movie business vie with his contribution to education and politics. As well as sitting on the board of education of technology firm Promethean, he founded the National Teaching Awards in the UK, chaired NESTA and is chancellor of the Open University.

Ireland’s digital champion

Puttnam attended the Digital Agenda Assembly in Dublin Castle this past week. There he delivered several original speeches and eagerly contemplated his eventual train to Cork on Friday evening for a weekend devoid of responsibility or obligation.

He said he never thought Ireland would select him as the country’s digital champion and said the work is not a million miles away from what he has been doing over the last 20-odd years.

“The work I’ve been doing with (new media expert) Stephen Heppell, (educationalist) Ken Robinson and others has a kind of logic to it,” Puttnam said.

“I have been passionately arguing that we have not being using the digital world or taking advantage of digital developments in teaching and learning.”

The issue is one Puttnam has been pursuing.

“The fact that (digital development) is extending out to other areas, such as looking after the elderly to deal with loneliness, enabling SMEs to sell more, that’s a new world for me, and a very interesting new world.”

Puttnam said that working with the Irish Government’s Department of Communications as a digital champion – the EU requested that all EU States appoint a digital champion – has been so far productive.

“I feel that I’m being pushed in exactly the right way but I’m never harassed, so that’s been nice,” Puttnam said.

He said he likes and trusts Pat Rabbitte, minister for communications, as he has a good sense of what Puttnam can do in a certain time frame.

“I actually think that over the next year we might achieve quite a bit,” Puttnam said.

Irish education

Puttnam’s arrival as digital champion and his focus on education over the last 20 or so years coincides with momentous change in the Irish education system, which is no longer the glittering prize it used to be in terms of falling maths and literacy levels.

Despite Ireland’s economic situation, efforts are afoot to correct this in terms of reforming the exams and college-entry systems, and recently a decision was made to finally scrap prefab buildings altogether.

Another ambitious plan is to see every secondary school throughout Ireland – that’s more than 600 schools – equipped with 100Mbps broadband by the end of 2014 and so far around half have been completed.

Regarding the challenges this generation of young people in Ireland and the UK face educationally, morally and economically, Puttnam makes no secret of his belief that they have been short-changed, if not outrightly betrayed by a generation he himself belongs to.

“When I look at what the prospects are for the 21st century and the challenges for the 21st century, unless we’ve got the smartest generation of young people ever, and agile – a very good and a key word – and confident only then can they stand a chance,” he said.

“It’s bad enough looking at the environment we’re handing them; it’s bad enough the debt we’re handing them; and the other areas of demoralisation that we’re handing them and unless they are smart, agile and confident I don’t know how they are going to make it.”

Puttnam said that as far as he is concerned, at this point in his life – he’s 72 – just about the only contribution he can make is to ensure the younger generation is at least equipped to take on the challenges his generation has left them.

“There’s a bit of guilt there,” he said.


Unlike many of his generation, Puttnam is willing to embrace the courage of his convictions and not only is he espousing connected, digital learning, he does it every week to an audience of students in the Southern Hemisphere.

He revealed a video compiled by his students of how he works from his home office. He makes use of a Cisco TelePresence high-definition videoconferencing system with high-speed internet access provided by BT to provide HD lectures to various universities in the UK, US, Asia and Australia.

He had wanted to teach this way for decades. “If I’m honest, it was frustration. I had been talking the talk for quite a long time and I was very frustrated at the pace of change and what seemed to be possible. In conversation with BT they said it might be possible to connect me between Skibbereen and Baltimore and do what I dreamt of.”

Puttnam said he and BT formed a project-management group and that he was prepared to put his hand in his pocket if they thought they could pull it off, and they did.

“In a sense it was defiance. I was being defiant: ‘to hell with this. For 20 years I’ve been advocating this and saying that the technologies are out there, I’m going to do it. I’ll prove it can be done’,” Puttnam said.

“That’s exactly what has worked out and I think to a degree, part and parcel when Pat (Rabbitte) came out and had lunch with me last summer he was seeing that, that I was walking the talk and if I can walk my own talk that I could talk the talk for him.”

Puttnam finds broadcasting in HD from his Apple Mac-equipped office – which looks more like a cutting and editing room – natural and personally rewarding.

“Only with Australia I have to start at 6am, but I’m getting used to that. They think I’m this guy with wet hair all the time.”

Student feedback

Puttnam said the most exciting thing for him has been the student evaluations at the end of the series of seminars he has been leading, particularly in Singapore and Australia.

“The young people I’m teaching, one’s a master’s class and the other is a first degree class, they prefer (e-learning). It might surprise you and it slightly surprised me, but they actually prefer it and we asked them why. ‘We prefer it because it makes us feel we are 21st-century learners, we feel as though we are in a learning environment which is modern’”.

Puttnam said the students also find the teaching seamless – the ability to stream video and talk over the video is a seamless experience.

“They also say they like me being on the big screen and not a small figure in the front of a lecture theatre, they like the intimacy of it. The fact they are in darkness, they find it easier to ask questions,” Puttnam said.

“A whole lot of stuff has emerged from that first year – some of which I’d hoped would be the case and some of which has surprised me.”

If there was another near-term result Puttnam would like to get out of his role as Ireland’s digital champion it is getting teachers in Ireland to be more digital.

“My son does homework with his daughter who lives in London via Skype every night. When people see this they see the reality is exciting,” he said, adding that the work CoderDojo is doing in getting kids to code should be a beacon to the world and, in particular, to education reformers across the world. “There are three languages in the world today: English, Chinese and Java.”

He encourages teachers themselves to embrace the digital tools that are freely available and be pioneers or “adventurous experimenters” as he calls them.

Puttnam the message has to get across to teachers that they don’t have to sit around and wait for permission to incorporate YouTube videos in their lessons. “They can do this stuff now,” Puttnam said. “They should be doing it, their pupils deserve it, the world of education deserves it.

“I think if I can genuinely create an atmosphere that is exciting, that’s innovative and that is permissive in the best sense of the world, I’d say yeah, let’s get on and do it and find out afterwards what doesn’t work. But let’s do it.”

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on 23 June

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years