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"If we do not offer digital resources we will become dead in the water"

With a proposed pound;135m to spend, Frank Flynn hopes to transform the BBC's educational programming prowess into a digital curriculum. Chris Johnston reports.

Since his appointment as BBC director general, Greg Dyke has made the headlines for changes such as moving the Nine O'Clock News to 10pm. And while his proposal to invest pound;135 million of licence payers' money in a "digital national curriculum" has not earned as much publicity, his commitment to education may be more significant.

Sceptics say the BBC's decision is more of a strategy to convince government that licence fees should continue than a devotion to education. Either way, its plan - assuming culture secretary Chris Smith gives the go-ahead - will affect students, teachers, schools and the educational software industry.

As BBC controller of education for children, Frank Flynn is one of the executives responsible for digital curriculum strategy. He says technology will let the BBC build on its strong educational broadcasting and meet individual needs like never before. "It's a logical progression as there's no doubt digital media will be the way to meet educational needs. If we don't provide these resources we will quickly become dead in the water."

Flynn, a Liverpudlian who was a primary teacher and head for 10 years in the Seventies before moving into writing and scriptwriting for educational TV programmes and becoming a BBC producer, says he understands fears the BBC will end up a monopoly provider of online resources to schools, but believes they are misplaced. He says the BBC does not have the funding to be comprehensive and, besides, the idea that there could be a single provider of curriculum resources "doesn't stand up with anything we know about the Internet".

If the BBC creates a skeleton of materials that help pupils learn, teachers will use them, says Flynn, and this will stimulate demand for more resources. (It could also force the Government to put high-speed links in schools sooner, he adds.) The BBC intends to work with commercial providers to create materials, but it wonders whether schools will still be prepared to pay for products after getting used to the BBC's free provision.

While delivery will primarily be via broadband networks, the resources will also be available on digital television so they can be used by as many people as possible, Flynn explains. To widen access, the BBC plans to set up its own learning centres alongside its regional radio operations and allow its materials to be usd in other public access points.

Flynn seems genuinely enthusiastic about the potential of digital technology. "Apart from bridging the learning divide, it can provide one of the few valid links between home and school and it can happen naturally - kids can reinforce with their parents what they have learned at school." He adds it also increases choice for pupils who are too embarrassed to ask for help in the classroom, allowing them to revise as necessary.

Online learning's ability to engage disaffected learners strikes a chord with Flynn because it is the resource most "genuinely reactive to individual need" and can offer a far wider range of learning methods.

Flynn says most teachers plead for resources that reflect pupils' varying abilities and are directly related to the curriculum. Technology can do this, but he realises it must also take into account teachers' concerns that anything new is simple to use and easily learned. And what of other media in this digital push? Flynn is quick to assure that the BBC believes in playing to the strengths of each medium. Video still has a powerful impact and print can be more analytical and seem more concrete than on-screen text. In other words, Flynn is saying BBC books, TV, videos and radio are not going to disappear; they still account for about 60 per cent of the BBC's annual pound;400 million education budget.

He hopes the BBC will improve the way it presents units from the curriculum because instead of preparing a TV series, teacher's workbook and a website, teams will think about the learning outcomes and how they can best be achieved using television and radio, print and new media. "The degree of emphasis about which (medium) carries the content can vary enormously," Flynn says. "The medium should not dictate how a subject is learned - it should be the reverse."

The BBC's decision to step up its online learning, from revision-type resources to curriculum materials, should not come as a surprise; a failure to do so would leave the BBC "dead as a dodo", says Flynn. He says the BBC name is still better known and trusted by teachers, parents and pupils than the likes of Granada Learning. As long as the BBC helps the Government's aim of making the UK a leader in educational technology - and that means a vibrant software industry - everyone should be better off, he says. Frank Flynn is sure Auntie can rise to the challenge.

BBC digital curriculum proposal

BBC Education

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