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'Of course, we still won't talk to people in the house'

I remember the endless anxious discussion about how much television was good for children that went on when my daughters were young. I also remember lying in on Saturday mornings with guilty satisfaction when they chose to spend their time glued to the box, rather than doing something energetic that involved me. Now, 20 years later, I wonder anxiously how much time my three-year-old son should spend interacting on the CD-Rom. Why can't he just vegetate in front of the box like his sisters before him?

Almost every newspaper I pick up heralds the dawn of the new interactive age. Britain has unusually high numbers of video recorders per capita, and we are well ahead of the European game when it comes to the domestic market for video games and personal computers. It is hard to remember that none of us had PCs until well into the Seventies.

Having lost the art of conversation through watching television in the Fifties and Sixties, we are, it seems, to recover it on the Internet, and soon through interactive video conferencing on our multi-functional television-cum-computers-cum-home-shopping facility. Of course, we still won't need to talk to anyone else in the house.

I was prompted to think about all this afresh by a conference in Valladolid, Spain, funded by the European Year of Lifelong Learning, on how the new technologies could be used to combat social exclusion. I find myself a near-Luddite in these contexts: mildly allergic to the exaggerated hopes attached to cutting-edge technologies, and a little sentimental for technologies just behind the action.

The superhighway has a lot to offer in the struggle to create a learning society, but it will be a while before it enjoys the power of terrestial television in tickling curiosity, and in mobilising the excluded to have a go at learning. Ever since the adult literacy campaign of the 1970s, when Bob Hopkins in On the Move demonstrated the power of television to recruit where institutions using conventional means fail, it has been apparent that as long as the programmes could be shown to a mass audience, television had a key role to play in motivating people with little faith in education and training institutions.

The success of Channel 4 in providing educational support materials around general output highlighted the potential of much of the output, and the BBC's Second Chance campaigns during Adult Learners Weeks have shown that it is possible to use comic shorts and slots as short as adverts to stimulate people to phone for advice.

The success of independent television to show how adult learning could contribute to the building of community identity has survived the deregulation of ITV after the 1991 Broadcasting Act, but access to prime time on the mass audience channels has not. At the time of the legislation the prospect of multi-channel competition from cable and satellite was used as an explanation for taking away the duty on ITV companies to provide a minimum of adult education programming.

While the BBC has followed the independents in relegating programming to the margins of the schedules, the mass satellite channels, with offerings to suit every taste, have had little impact yet on the capacity of the terrestrial channels to command big audiences. Indeed, Sky has recognised that it is necessary to offer the same mix of programming as the major channels.

Given the breadth of agreement that achieving the National Targets for Education and Training is a priority, and the evidence of the painfully slow progress we are making towards the lifetime targets, it seems dotty that we were so cavalier with the responsibilities of broadcasters to educate as well as to inform and entertain. I must say a small amendment to the 1991 Act to restore a duty, backed by regulations on minimum numbers of hours, and their distribution through the schedules would be a major priority of mine in constructing a lifelong learning policy for Britain.

This is not to belittle the achievement of the BBC in showing the size and perseverance of the audience for the Learning Zone. For insomniacs and people who can make their video recorders work, and already know that they are interested, such programming is terrific.

So, doubtless, will be the plethora of new opportunities offered by the digital revolution with its dozens of new channels. Everyone who cares about adult learning will be delighted to see options for switching from the latest dramatised novel to a programme about its social context. There is no doubt that there will be an audience - look at the six million people who drop in to the Open University's output.

But specialist channels will not reach the unconvinced. To turn an initial curiosity into an intention to do something about it, we need access to the mass channels, since for the foreseeable future they will continue to shape our understanding of the reach and range of the medium. And again, at least for now, I think it self-evident that television will have a greater influence than computing on whether the information revolution is to be inclusive - something everyone in the house can benefit from.

Alan Tuckett is the director of the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education

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