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Non-stop learning for the digital age

Jeremy Sutcliffe reports on Michael Stevenson's online plans for the BBC

MICHAEL Stevenson is a somewhat alarming figure. Rather slightly built and, at 38, surprisingly young to be a BBC mandarin, he dresses a bit like John Birt and sounds (oh dear) uncannily like Tony Blair.

With such resonances it's easy to take the cynical view. His fondness for designer suits of the sort that enables him to roll up his sleeves as he tucks into a late lunch of carrot cake and caffe latte is just what you would expect of a man who has made his way at the Beeb under Birt's leadership.

And to hear him expounding the BBC's duty to harness the potential of new digital technologies to improve educational standards, you might think him depressingly "on message".

But it would be a mistake to see as an apparatchik the man who has just been given the role of heading what's probably the biggest educational challenge in the BBC's history. He's neither a Birt nor a Blair clone, but a man with the sort of well worked-out strategy which has been seized on by his new boss Greg Dyke.

Having started his BBC career as a Sheffield Wednesday-loving sports producer, he went on to become deputy editor of On the Record. It was an interesting time, just after John Major had succeeded Margaret Thatcher as prime minister, when former Cabinet heavy-weights were queuing to go on the programme to "spill the beans".

His big break came when Birt, the Armani-loving director general, recruited him as secretary to the BBC. Far from being the lowly support role this implies it made him one of the corporation's most influential managers and the DG's link man with Whitehall. Last summer, after a spell as deputy director of Nations and Regions, he was appointed director of BBC Education.

The appointment came at a critical time. The corporation was already in a race with rival television companies to develop an interactive and online learning market, exploiting the potential of new digital technologies. Still in its early stages, the new media will soon bring together Internet and television transmission in a rich, interactive mix of video, sound, text and animation. Stevenson's task was to ensure the BBC took full advantage.

Crucially, he took up his new post just as Dyke was taking over as director-general. Together they have devised a new strategy for BBC education which will bring a radical new approach and an increased commitment to education.

Last week, Stevenson took up an expanded role as joint director of a combined Factual and Learning department. The idea, he says, is to allow the BBC to offer online learning behind all its best factual programmes, from Blue Peter for children to Horizon for adults.

Underpinning the change is the concept of the "learning journey". Here, the millions who tune into popular BBC programmes will be given the chance to widen their knowledge. The model, says Stevenson, is simple: "Let me take children first. You can imagine an item on a submarine in Blue Peter. At the Blue Peter website, there'll be an interactive game around he principles of submarines. That might take you to more structured learning with a parent around the principles of ballast, and you might then click through to the relevant key stage 3 modules of the national curriculum in science."

The same principle will apply for adults, with popular programming on lifestyle issues linked to a new Life Skills website to be set up over the next few months. This will cover health, work skills, citizenship, life planning, relationships and parenting. Those who wish to will be given the chance to gain online qualifications, accredited by the University for Industry and the NHS.

This autumn BBC2 will showcase the new concept with Simon Schama's 17-part History of Britain series, which will be underpinned by online learning and the chance of a university-accredited qualification.

Stevenson hopes the new strategy, made possible for the first time by the new media, will revolutionise adult learning. But the BBC has equally ambitious plans for children, promising to produce a comprehensive, interactive, digital national curriculum for use in schools.

Online courses covering literacy and numeracy for primary schools are already being piloted. By using broadband technology and interactive whiteboards, teachers will be able to incorporate text, animation and television into whole-class teaching.

But the BBC has competition. Two years ago, the Government kick-started the burgeoning digital learning market by inviting bids from Granada, the BBC and Anglia television to produce interactive support for GCSE courses. Education Secretary David Blunkett will shortly announce who is to win the lucrative contract. There may well be more than one winner. Intriguingly, while the BBC has chosen an approach building on its highly successful online learning programmes, such as GCSE Bite Size, Granada's innovative alternative (the other front-runner) is primarily television-based.

"The right medium to develop is clearly online; it's the medium which best supports learning," argues Stevenson. But with Internet and television services rapidly converging, the distinction may soon be academic.

With both the BBC and Granada already pledged to go ahead with developing digital GCSE and national curriculum courses (both have an eye on a potentially lucrative overseas market) it's not a question of whether this new wave of media resources hits schools, but when.

And while Stevenson concedes there's a danger of teachers and parents being bewildered by the new technologies, and at a loss to decide what to buy, he says the BBC's version will work perfectly well using CD-Rom or narrowband Internet, both already in common use in schools.

How will teachers be affected? "I hope teaching is going to become more interesting. I think teachers, children and parents have long wondered how creativity could come to a classroom, and creativity is what the new media can bring. Content that used to be locked up in text books or conveyed on a blackboard can now come interactively to the digital desktop," says Stevenson.

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