BBC online plans are 'detrimental'

6th April 2001 at 01:00
The BBC has yet to lodge plans for a digital curriculuim but ICT publishers are still worried: Jack Kenny

Around pound;135 million of TV licence payers' money will be spent over the next six years on what could be a major shift in education - the BBC's "digital curriculum", a storehouse of online learning materials.

While the concept is likely to be welcomed by teachers and parents, it has alarmed the publishers the Government expects to provide the learning materials for its National Grid for Learning. The Society of Authors has also objected, saying the plan will kill diversity since poorly-funded schools will rely on the BBC's free downloadable resources.

The BBC says it has "overwhelming support" for the initiative and adds it has published a "response to issues raised" by a consultation. But it will not reveal criticisms voiced in that consultation until the proposal goes to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Then the DCMS will have time to consult interested parties. The first subjects should go live in September. Lobbying is already taking place.

However, there is rumour of a split in the Department of Education and Employment, with education minister Estelle Morris thought to be backing the BBC and learning and technology minister Michael Wills worried about the harm of a monopoly to the educational software industry.

Many people are reluctant to talk - "the situation is delicate and fluid," said one publisher. Granada Learning is unwilling to confirm it is in talks with the BBC. This raises the possibility of market domination by two major players.

Complaints will be rare from schools as they will benefit; as one local education authority (LEA) adviser asked, why should schools worry when they've been ripped off by commercial interests for years? Alastair Wells of Netherhall School in Cambridge, believes: "We already have lots of free resources and are used to choosing, though it might be different with broadband resources."

But market domination is not the only worry. Dominic Savage of the British Educational Suppliers Association says: "The plans would indicate a single route through the curriculum and raise the question of who controls the curriculum."

Tim Pearson, managing director of RM Learning, agrees a single online curriculum will put pressure on publishers to conform. And David Bennett, director of education software supplier REM, says: "(The plan) will be detrimental. The BBC will create resources that will do, rather than the best material."

But Hendrik Ball, BBC development executive in factual and interactive learning, dismisses industry fears. "Traditionally, the commercial publishers are interested in the low hanging fruit as they have to make a return on their capital. The BBC can afford to go for the high hanging fruit to do things a commercial publisher might baulk at. It will not go for the cheapest way of doing things."

The concern is that the project will be rubber stamped, and the website of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority refers to the digital curriculum as if it is already a reality.

The market is already affected. Some software companies seeking finance are already being turned down by venture capitalists, who see the BBC's plans as controlling the market, while some LEA customers aren't spending until they see what the BBC offers.

The main players are careful of what they say about the digital curriculum but when the proposal comes before culture secretary Chris Smith the lobbying will become intense and a public debate vital.

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