How far should the BBC go in getting involved in providing online educational content?
The BBC's ICT-based services, such as Bitesize and Computers Don't Bite, have been highly acclaimed, but now it has an ambitious and highly controversial plan to create The Digital Curriculum (TDC).
TDC would deliver high-quality educational content online, and possibly even evolve into a broadband service. It would cover all the key subject areas across the UK and cater for primary and secondary schools. It would also be used by students at home.
The BBC estimates it will take around five to seven years to develop and aims to spend pound;135 million on the project. What is more, TDC would be free to schools and individual users. Frank Flynn, the BBC's controller for children's education, says: "The BBC feels it has a role to make these materials available free to end-users as part of its educational remit and as part of the licence fee."
The BBC conducted a consultation exercise with schools, members of the public and commercial educational publishers during the autumn, and is now awaiting a green light from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
A statement by RM welcomes anything that helps drive a vibrant market for high-quality multimedia content, but adds that: "Whilst the BBC curriculum superficially looks like it might have something to offer, we are concerned about the broad impact it could have on the developing learning-content market."
The British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa) has been even more forceful in its opposition to the BBC's plans. "One anticipates a high percentagetake-up by schools to the digital service, with the consequent and almost immediate total destruction of the market for paid content," says Dominic Savage, Besa's director-general. Besa director Ray Barker adds that small companies have traditionally developed the best software and the BBC's move could destroy their market.
Frank Flynn disagrees with these arguments and says that investing in online educational content is a high-risk strategy, with the result that there is relatively little good curriculum content online.
Flynn also denies that the BBC's move is anti-competitive. "If the digital age is provided entirely by the private sector, families on stretched incomes won't have access to extra materials and this will widen the digital divide." The argument that the BBC could become a monopoly provider of educational content is "nonsense", he says. "Not even Microsoft can achieve that."
So how will commercial companies flourish? Flynn describes TDC as offering a "spine of provision". "Commercial companies will flesh out the spine with specialist content, by adding more depth and offering new services."
A large percentage of the content developed for TDC would be produced by companies outside the BBC, says Flynn. The BBC is also keen to develop partnerships with commercial companies.
At the time of writing, the BBC was waiting for the DCMS's response. One suspects that we'll see a compromise, with the BBC's highly ambitious plans curtailed to some degree. If this happens, the commercial sector will need to show that it is willing and able to provide good, affordable content for all.