Lights, camera, interaction!;Platform;Opinion

7th May 1999 at 01:00
Digital revolution may be fast and frightening. But it will open the door to an entire world of learning, which must be good, says Jane Drabble, outgoing BBC director of education

Five years ago I took on one of the biggest challenges of my BBC career when I became director of education. I am moving on soon, so this is an ideal time to reflect on my time in the world of educational broadcasting.

It's been a fascinating and rewarding experience. Since I became director of education we have set up BBC Learning Zone. We have also enabled nearly 200,000 people to use computers for the first time through the Computers Don't Bite campaign, and last week launched Webwise to do the same for the Internet.

We have also established what has become the most popular education website in Europe ( - if you are not a regular user already).

From my first day in the job I knew the BBC was on the threshold of a new era. This new age would bring new technologies, new ways of thinking about broadcasting, and a changing relationship between those who've traditionally been responsible for education, and those who've consumed it.

Put simply, digital technologies mean that, in future, just sitting on your sofa, you will be able to access the whole world.

So, if you are the BBC, you have to think quite differently. You don't just think about one medium - television - you think about text, and animation, and graphics. You don't just produce one composite programme that, hopefully, appeals to different sorts of people; you have to learn to tailor your programmes for different audiences.

Those of us who have traditionally edited, packaged, and organised material will have that control taken away, whether we like it or not. Instead we shall have to learn to think of ourselves more as facilitators, or guides.

This creates uncertainties and dangers. We could find ourselves losing control over our intellectual copyright. We could find it increasingly difficult to make our services as useful for those without the new equipment as for those who do have it. Competition will come from unexpected places - from people we've not even thought of before.

However, there are many reasons to be confident - optimistic, even. The BBC has access to some of the best creative minds in the world. We have a guaranteed income from the licence fee. We're widely trusted.

What's more, we have already started down the track. When we launch the first free digital learning channel, BBC Knowledge, next month, it will be quite unlike a conventional channel.

From the start, it will come with interactivity built in (albeit via a PC, while the TV technology catches up). We'll expect people to go off and find out more at the end of the programme. We'll involve viewers in the programmes, creating communities of those who are interested in the same things.

Further ahead we can start to apply these same principles across a much wider range of BBC services. And it doesn't take much imagination to see the opportunities in the future for educational broadcasting.

For instance, schools programmes - or parts of them - will be stored on a server; so you can download and use them however you want, mixing video with other resources like text or graphics. You'll be able to search by keyword - so you could download all the erupting volcanoes, say, or different performances of Macbeth. You'll be able to share notes with other teachers - not just in this country - and with parents as well.

The consumer is going to have more power, and rightly so. People crave learning opportunities from television, even if they don't particularly want to be told that they're learning!

Our research tells us adults and children alike want the benefits of education. The courses, exams and qualifications are the means to a better job, to impressing the lads in the pub, or to travelling more widely. Comparatively few people have as much learning as they need, or want.

But in the race to meet this demand, providers who insist on restrictive times, places and modes of delivery will lose out to technologies that give freedom and power to the consumer.

This technological revolution may take five years, or 25. It may be fast and frightening, or slow and messy. But if I didn't believe it will ultimately be a good thing, I wouldn't have made on-line services and BBC Knowledge such priorities. The BBC believes in them. So should you.

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