Taking learning to a new dimension

24th February 2012 at 00:00
From a childhood love of Doctor Who to a leading role in broadcasting for schools - Michael Shaw finds out how the head of BBC Learning intends to unite education and entertainment

In 1973, an 8-year-old boy in Bedford wrote a story based on his favourite television programme, which he titled Doctor Who and the Grogmen. The plot involved the time traveller realising that his police box-shaped Tardis looked out of place in modern Britain and trying to give it a new disguise.

However, when the pupil handed this story in at his junior school, his teacher was unimpressed. "I was criticised by my teacher for coming up with something derivative, as it involved television," Saul Nasse says.

Today, Nasse is the reason why more than a thousand British primary schools are encouraging pupils to write their own Doctor Who stories and submit them in the hope that they will be filmed. The Script to Screen competition is actually one of the smaller projects he has set up since becoming the head of BBC Learning two years ago. But it clearly tickles him. Even when he worked as a university science researcher and lecturer in his twenties, he wrote regularly for Doctor Who Magazine and, although he is now a respected senior BBC executive, he retains a disarmingly geeky streak.

The first time I met Nasse was in the autumn, near Basingstoke, in a school hall full of shrieking pupils. Three of the pupils had won last year's script competition, so Oakley Junior School received a visit from a sinister alien Ood. The pupils' screams ("Oh my Goddd") grew even louder minutes later when another surprise visitor arrived - the Doctor himself, actor Matt Smith.

The script project is part of Nasse's push to bring out the educational side of popular TV programmes - and not just Doctor Who. Last year, BBC Learning commissioned the EastEnders online youth spin-off E20, which was designed to provoke discussion on secondary PSHE topics. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of prime-time BBC documentaries, such as Wonders of the Universe, are having their voice-overs re-recorded to make clips from them more explicitly relevant to the curriculum.

"I can remember sitting down at school and watching educational programmes being played off a reel-to-reel video recorder, which the teachers had to spool up," Nasse says. "But I can't, for the life of me, remember any of them. I remember much more the programmes I was watching at home."

One such programme was Carl Sagan's popular Cosmos series on astronomy and the Universe. This was among the inspirations for BBC Two's recent Stargazing Live series, produced with a host of educational events and resources - including short films for early years and key stage 1 children, and even a podcast for toddlers.

When I meet Nasse for the second time, it is at Macclesfield station, where we share a taxi to the observatory at Jodrell Bank. In a room in the shadow of its giant radio telescope, a simple studio has been set up and we sneak inside just as a class of secondary pupils begins to receive a lesson from the host of Stargazing Live. Professor Brian Cox is stood at the front by a video screen, clad in jeans and trainers. "To set the scene, I want to start with the Universe," he says.

Out of this world

Most of the attentive teenagers present are from The Morley Academy in Yorkshire, who won the lesson in a competition set by The Big Bang Fair science show. A small group is also present from Saints Peter and Paul Catholic College in Widnes. They are there separately to cover the event as journalists for the BBC School News Report scheme.

Yet they are just a small fraction of the full audience: the lesson is being streamed live online and watched by classes in hundreds of schools. When Cox finishes his talk, he takes questions and they are emailed in from pupils dotted across the UK. The secondary pupils want to quiz him about the search for the Higgs boson and whether he really thinks that neutrinos can travel faster than light.

These questions turn out to have more straightforward-sounding answers than the cuter-seeming questions sent in by primary schools. "Why is space black?" leads Cox into a challenging digression about the 30 billion year expansion of the Universe.

The whole event is filmed on multiple cameras by a full crew and produced as seriously as if it were live on TV - yet is being viewed only by science classes, many of whom would probably be happy just to watch a Brian Cox lesson on Skype.

However, the high production values are deliberate. Nasse says afterwards that he wants to "make educational television feel as much like it's mainstream television as possible".

"I think we fail with students if they are watching our content and they feel that it is made for the classroom," he says. "This should feel like stuff that they'd expect to come across at home, therefore it feels like a treat in school."

Of course, the way teachers use video in the classroom has changed dramatically over the past decade. The rise of websites such as YouTube and the spread of projectors and interactive whiteboards mean that teachers are becoming increasingly adept at interspersing lessons with short clips instead of just plonking the class in front of a half-hour video.

BBC Learning has responded by creating Class Clips, a bank of more than 9,000 video and audio clips from educational, news and factual programmes, tagged by teachers to different parts of the curriculum.

Between a quarter and a fifth of teachers in Britain are already estimated to be using the site and many of the clips are now "embeddable", meaning that savvy teachers can fit them into their PowerPoint presentations.

However, one thing may be preventing Class Clips from becoming a "killer app" in the classroom: the videos need to be streamed off a broadband connection and teachers are not always willing to gamble their lessons on the reliability of their school's network.

Yet that is about to change. Nasse reveals that BBC Learning is working on making the clips downloadable for offline use this year. "What we're doing is re-engineering the technological back-end to make it possible - we'll be using the iPlayer-type technology where stuff is available for download," he says.

Innovation is key

The steady growth of Class Clips and the BBC Bitesize revision materials stand in stark contrast to another major BBC digital curriculum project, which became a notorious disaster. BBC Jam launched in 2006 at a cost of pound;150 million and aimed to provide materials for 5- to 16-year-olds in a wide range of subjects.

Education software makers and suppliers in Britain complained that Jam was unfair competition and were not mollified when the Labour government gave schools hundreds of millions of pounds of "e-learning credits" to buy their products. The suppliers took their complaints to the European Commission and the BBC Trust shut Jam down in 2007.

The service was closed more than three years before Nasse joined BBC Learning and he insists that the experience has not made the department's work any less innovative. However, he acknowledges that his team are trying to create something less "monolithic" than BBC Jam with Class Clips, and stresses that the clips have been made available to other educational organisations including the whiteboard suppliers Promethean and TES's own online resources bank.

"I don't think we're in competition with anyone because we're not running a business - we're a public service broadcasting organisation. I think our approach has been changed much more by the evolution of technology and how students view media."

Nasse is keen to stress that BBC Learning has far from abandoned more traditional types of educational broadcasting. Indeed, it is now investing more than pound;4.5 million a year in new programmes for the Learning Zone, which is broadcast on BBC Two between 4 and 6am, Tuesdays to Fridays. Do teachers really still set the video recorder for such programmes? "Oh yes - there are probably some who record it on VHS."

Children and adults continue to crave linear storytelling, he argues, whether it is in a half-hour programme, a 15-minute drama or "a five- minute film on why popcorn pops". He begins to reel off a list of the high-profile names who have contributed to new Learning Zone programmes being broadcast in the spring, including Bill Gallagher (who scripted Lark Rise to Candleford) and Sanjeev Kohli (behind Goodness Gracious Me), who have both written short educational dramas.

Nasse's own team consists of about 200 staff, some of whom used to work as teachers and others with a background in television. BBC Learning was one of the broadcaster's first departments to make the controversial move from London to new offices in Salford last year, so many of the staff are new and they are still recruiting.

"We've got people who've got degrees in interactive education, but then we've also got people who could make Strictly Come Dancing - you need that mix," he says.

Nasse himself oversaw the launch of the Indian version of Strictly Come Dancing while working as the general manager of BBC Worldwide in Bombay between 2007 and 2009 - "It was very similar but very, very Bollywood - so even more glamorous and sequinned".

His previous roles have included overseeing the world's largest HIV campaign for the World Service in India and head of religion for the BBC, which he notes makes him probably the only person to have ever edited both Strictly Come Dancing and Radio 4's Thought for the Day.

However, his career owes the most to a programme he loved even more than Doctor Who. It was first broadcast on the BBC in the same month he was born in 1965, although he did not begin watching it until he was 7, when his family returned to England from Houston where his father had worked as an engineer for Texas Instruments. "I can remember coming home and watching the science show Tomorrow's World and just thinking it was amazing - Raymond Baxter demonstrating these incredible inventions and just doing amazing experiments. And that switched me on to science."

Nasse went on to study natural sciences at the University of Cambridge, then to work at Cranfield University in Bedfordshire researching photochemical machining and lecturing. Yet he continued with his creative writing, including about Doctor Who, and with trying to get a job at the BBC. After a few years, his science background and writing work helped him get an interview for Tomorrow's World and within four weeks he had abandoned his PhD to write one-minute scripts for national television.

His happy memories include some of the sillier gadgets "like spray-on gloves and a barbecue in a suitcase" and covering the internet in 1991. It also led him to travel the world and meet his wife, Carmen Pryce, who was a presenter on the programme. "So it was life-changing."

In 1997, he became Tomorrow's World's youngest editor but, unlike many of its viewers, he has no regrets about the series finishing in 2003. "I think the future had arrived in 2000, so it had kind of run its course," he says. "When the programme started, it was about inventions that were going to shape the world of tomorrow and they were great things to point cameras at - but by the time it finished it would be another line of code."

So, with his Tomorrow's World hat on, what does he predict for the schools of the future? "I think as children spend more and more of their out-of- school time with their interactive handheld devices it's bound to be the case that lessons will start to revolve around those devices more and more.

"So teachers won't say, `The lesson's started, turn your mobile phone off,' but `The lesson's started, turn your mobile phone on.' Technologically that's bound to happen - and you see in schools that it's happening already."

Nasse also hopes that recent government announcements about the ICT curriculum mean that teachers of other subjects will be given greater flexibility. "For us, it's great if we can put content out there that teachers want and can find a way of using themselves - rather than everyone working to the same set curriculum. The more flex in schools, the more interesting our creativity can be with them."

Meanwhile, he is confident that the BBC will stick to the aims set down by its first director-general: to "inform, educate and entertain". Whether they involve news presenters, Brian Cox or Doctor Who, he wants to see more programmes and projects that do all three at the same time. "I think the genius of that trinity is that the things aren't separate."

BBC Class Clips for a growing range of curriculum topics are now available from the TES Resources bank. www.tes.co.ukteaching-resources

Saul Nasse's CV

1965: Born in England

1972: Moves back to the UK from Houston, Texas

1984-87: Studies natural sciences at the University of Cambridge

1988-90: Researcher and lecturer at Cranfield University

1990-97: Writer and researcher on Tomorrow's World

1997-2001: Editor of Tomorrow's World

2001-03: At the World Service Trust, Delhi, leading the world's biggest HIVAids campaign

2003: Worked for Greg Dyke, then BBC director-general, on his culture change project

2004: Head of religion at the BBC

2005: Head of development for specialist factual

2006: Creative head of the India and Pakistan season

2007-09: General manager of BBC Worldwide productions in Bombay

2010-present: Controller of BBC Learning

BBC coming up .


A range of Stargazing-related materials are available for pupils of all ages.


Last year, close to 1 million people used this website, and the BBC plans to relaunch it this autumn with a new look and new content. A current focus is adding more key stage 3 material, including history, geography and ICT modules, which will be followed by French, German and Spanish modules.

Computer programming

BBC Learning is expected to launch a scheme in the next few months that - like the BBC Micro program in the 1980s - helps a generation learn how to program computers.

Shakespeare Unlocked

BBC Learning and the Royal Shakespeare Company are producing a series of short films and digital resources for teachers and secondary schools. Three of Shakespeare's most widely studied plays - Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Macbeth - will be "unlocked" by exploring pivotal scenes.

Class Clips

Many of the 9,000 clips on Class Clips are already "embeddable". Later this year, teachers should be able to download them to play offline too.

Learning Zone

This will continue to be broadcast in the early hours on BBC Two. Programmes coming up include a series of 15-minute shorts for 7- to 11- year-olds.

Doctor Who - Script to Screen Primary schools can already enter the competition, which requires them to create a new sports-themed mini- adventure.

Visit www.bbc.co.uklearning.

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