The Welsh have not taken to the Net, so S4C has converted one of its digital channels into adistance-learning 'college', writes Huw Richards
It may not be the first place that springs to the minds of most educators when it comes to innovation, but Wales's claim that it is the United Kingdom's outstanding testbed for new ideas is getting steadily stronger.
For a start, the Welsh pioneered the joint-secretariat model for funding councils, which was endorsed by the Dearing Report and subsequently taken up by Scotland. Then there were the proposals in its Education and Training Plan, which foreshadowed those for England's Learning and Skills Council.
But Welsh novelties go beyond funding frameworks. On the delivery side, too, the rest of Britain is looking at Wales with deep curiosity since the launch of the Wales Digital College (WDC) in November.
The name, translated from the original Welsh, Coleg Digidol Cymru, is not quite as misleading as that of the Holy Roman Empire, which famously scored nought out of three for accuracy. Certainly, two elements of the name deserve further explanation.
"It is not a college," says its chairwoman Eurfron Gwynne Jones, formerly the head of education at the BBC; rather, she says, the aim is to encourage distance learners to take up courses, which will be run by the existing Welsh colleges. The digital college's membership scheme, which will offer benefits including discounts on educational materials, aims first and foremost to be an aid to marketing and development.
Brian Clarke, the digital college's training manager, says: "Distance students are notoriously difficult to track, and this is one way to keep in touch with them."
The technology used is digital television, not the the Internet, and the programmes - from 9am to midday, Monday to Friday - go out on the digital service of S4C, the Welsh-language equivalent of Channel 4.
The impetus for setting up the WDC came from two directions. First, S4C recognised the opportunities of digitisation. Huw Jones, its chairman, says: "This offered us much more broadcasting time than we had ever had before and a variety of options for using it. We might have used it for entertainment, education or information."
In S4C's first talks with Linda Gainsbury of the Welsh Further Education Funding Council, the organisation picked up on a perceived skills gap in Wales, which was later detailed in a national survey and was among her main concerns.
Huw Jones recalls: "At the time, one of the big stories in Wales was the LG group (Korean electronics company) coming to Newport. Ms Gainsbury said there was evidence of a lack of basic skills in Wales and that LG would need learning programmes to bring its workforce up to basic levels. We talked about what might be done, and the idea grew from there. And by a happy coincidence, Eurfron (Gwynne Jones) was available; her experience, particularly of bringing together different groups to work on education programming, was ideal - and she responded very positively."
Huw Jones says that once the interactive potential of digital television takes off, it will be a better bet than the Internet for reaching Welsh people.
"Current UK uptake is around 18 per cent," he says. "But in Wales it is 26 per cent, with penetration reaching 33 per cent among Welsh speakers."
A further surge in uptake is expected around Christmas, and he hopes this will push the figure above 30 per cent. However, other surveys show that Wales is one of the regions lagging behind in Net capacity. Only 2 per cent of semi-skilled and unskilled workers ave access, says Ms Gwynne Jones.
The project began in 1997 when the main focus was on employment skills. Elen Rhys, the director of the digital college, says: "Our thinking was dominated by the Education and Training Action Group (a Welsh Office initiative) agenda and the planned new credit framework. Our provision will be linked to the framework, and skills for work will be very important.
"When we started asking people about what they needed, a rather different set of perceptions emerged. Our focus groups showed greater interest in what you might call 'life' issues - such as health, the care of the elderly and the education of children. There was also a demand for programmes related to people's hobbies."
Ms Gwynne Jones says the findings also tallied with other research showing that many Welsh people had no interest in lifelong learning.
"Sixty-five per cent of people in the valleys and 68 per cent in Pembrokeshire said they had no interest in further learning of any kind, which shows the extent of the disillusionment and alienation that has built up. One of our jobs is to make learning enjoyable, and a possible way of doing this is to get people interested through their hobbies," she says.
The programmes cover all levels, from basic literacy to advanced science. Using technology developed for S4C's coverage of the Welsh Assembly, viewers can choose between English and Welsh soundtracks.
Programmes have been drawn from a variety of sources. Some are bought in ready-made from production companies. Others are specially commissioned, while a number have been produced by Welsh colleges. The WDC logo was designed at Deeside College, whose principal, Wil Edmunds, wrote the accompanying music and several signature tunes. Coleg Menai and Trinity, Carmarthen and Llandrillo colleges have also produced programmes.
Huw Evans, principal of Llandrillo College in Colwyn Bay, is not surprised that colleges in North Wales and rural areas were quickest to get involved:
"People can walk through the doors of city colleges," he says. "Our catchment area is about 50 miles from east to west, 60 from north to south. Reaching people is a problem, so access to a television channel provides immense opportunities.
"Making the programmes was a chance to develop skills within the college as well as being quite lucrative as the commission was at commercial rates. The whole project offers Welsh colleges opportunities that are not available to our English counterparts."
The project is still in its infancy, but Elen Rhys hopes there will soon be terminals offering access in libraries, Jobcentres - even railway waiting-rooms. "Anywhere you have to wait and are likely to get bored," she says.
At this early stage there are no viewing figures available, but staff have been encouraged by a deluge of telephone enquiries taken at the college's offices in Cardiff.
Ms Gwynne Jones says that much now depends on how well colleges can support students who take up courses in response to the programmes, but she hopes the service will attract 3,000 new students before March.
If the project goes well, the college will seek extra funding to extend its services. But such ambitious plans won't come cheap. As Elen Rhys points out, the first phase of the project may already have run up a bill of pound;2 million. Further funding will also be sought via the European Commission's Objective One programme for Wales. No doubt prospective backers will be watching plenty of television in the next few months.
Welsh Digital College Tel 02920 300800 website: www.learn.cd