Auntie at the cutting edge

If the BBC's proposals fora digital curriculumget the green light, it will be one of the most important things the corporation has ever done, says Michael Stevenson

few weeks ago, the BBC applied to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell, for approval to develop and launch a new education service - a "digital curriculum" offering interactive online resources to support learning in schools across the UK.

I realise this may not be the hottest topic of conversation in the staffroom. Reactions, where they do exist, probably range from qualified support ("sounds good in principle") to bafflement ("how does this fit in with that Curriculum Online initiative?") to weary resignation ("not another initiative!").

But I believe this is as important as anything the BBC will do over the next 20 years. So let me set out how our proposals will benefit teachers and pupils - and why they deserve public support.

We want to build a publicly funded service available in classrooms, homes and the community via the Internet and adapted to the different curricula of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It would provide a rich mixture of materials via a "virtual learning environment", software that allows users to navigate through the service and teachers to personalise the content. It could be used by pupils or teachers at individual computers or for whole-class teaching via a touch-sensitive electronic whiteboard.

If approved, the BBC service would form part of the Curriculum Online being developed by the Department for Education and Skills. We also want to work with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure compatibility with their plans. In all cases, we would collaborate with teachers and curriculum specialists, and would use the best producers and designers, in-house and independently.

Some commercial providers of online materials claim that, by providing free content, we will harm their business. We think they are wrong. The challenge of an online curriculum is so huge that only a collaboration between public and private players will crack it.

Firms should note that the BBC will draw on licencefee funding, while they will draw on "e-learning credits" - ring-fenced cash to buy online resources - that will be provided to English schools by the DFES. Also, although the BBC will cover a wide range of subjects, it will limit itself to at most 50 per cent of the learning outcomes for any course and will focus 40 per cent of its spending on minority areas.

Moreover, the BBC's involvement will encourage the fledgling market for e-learning materials by helping to create confidence in a new and - to most people - unproven concept. Many teachers will need persuading that Curriculum Online really is for them. I believe the BBC can help with this confidence-building.

It is also worth remembering that the BBC is funded to provide public education as well as news and entertainment. This is not optional - it is in our Royal Charter. We have been at it for nearly 80 years, since the first schools radio programmes in the 1920s. We have developed expertise (extended in recent years into online), established a reputation for quality and won the trust of schools. To our mind, it would be crazy if we were to bow out now, just as the technology - by which I mean the advent of "broadband" delivery that means users can do so much more via a single screen - begins to make it possible to offer an even better service.

The gift this new technology brings is interactivity. This is where it differs from analogue television.

For nearly 50 years, the job of TV in the classroom has been to offer a starting point. At its best this could be inspirational: TV can tell a story, extend children's experiences, engage their emotions. But incorporate all that within a multi-media service that also includes text, illustrations, audio, flash animations, interactive games - all via a single screen - and you will begin to grasp just how much broadband learning can offer.

What e-learning is not is a substitute for teaching. The BBC has always had a role in supporting education - not providing it. The difference is crucial. Teachers educate; broadcasters, software producers and textbook publishers offer tools. A digital curriculum would be an extremely smart tool - one that could vastly improve the learning experience of millions - but it would be no more than that. It would not be an alternative to recruiting good teachers.

Tessa Jowell is consulting the public before taking a decision on the BBC's proposal (as with any new service on which we spend licence-payers' money, we need government approval). Consultation closes on July 22. You can read through our plans in detail on the Department for Culture Media and Sport website at www.culture.gov.uk.

Michael Stevenson is joint director of BBC factual and learning

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