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BBC to launch a global learning service

The BBC and the Open University are set to announce a partnership agreement which will lay the foundations for an international educational broadcasting service.

A new division of the BBC - Worldwide Learning - has been set up to develop programmes, books, videotapes and CD-Roms that can be used by distance learners abroad, either learning independently or following courses accredited by the Open University.

There will also be services for schools overseas, as Worldwide Learning plans to provide programmes from the BBC's education archive for foreign television channels.

From February next year, the South African Broadcasting Corporation will be broadcasting an hour a day of BBC education programmes, in a project, part- funded by the Overseas Development Agency, designed to assist in Nelson Mandela's drive to develop a post-apartheid education system.

Discussions are also under way between Worldwide Learning and television stations in the Indian sub-continent, with plans to offer qualification-based and educational programmes in English, to audiences, which the BBC's research suggests, are hungry for information and training.

John Thomas, Worldwide Learning's managing director, said: "As an international company the BBC is best known for two things - news and education. News is already well served with World Service radio and BBC World television, the emphasis is now on establishing an educational presence worldwide."

As a true product of the era of the information superhighway, Worldwide Learning will begin as a television service without a television channel. Instead it will reach its audiences as part of existing local channels or the BBC's fledgling international television service, or by developing multimedia resources, such as putting course materials on CD-Rom, which can be bought directly by students.

Mr Thomas is also keen for the new service to develop alongside the expansion of the Internet, which would allow the BBC to provide material directly to students anywhere in the world - or at least anywhere with enough money to afford the technology.

As well as course-related material, Worldwide Learning will be producing more general factual programmes and publications. How widely this might be defined has still to be decided, but in terms of selling information as entertainment, it's worth noting that the service is part of the same commercial division that is putting Delia Smith's cookery books into every kitchen in the country.

There are likely to be subjects which will be too culturally specific for a multinational audience, such as history or religion. And differences in curricula around the world will create barriers to using programmes. But Mr Thomas anticipates that there will be large areas that will be generally applicable almost anywhere in the world, such as pre-school programmes and adult education.

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