Will Auntie's lessons survive the e-volution?

14th July 2000 at 01:00
How will the BBC's commitment to schools' broadcasting fare in the new digital age? Alison Brace reports.

WHEN Lord Reith stated in the 1920s that one of the main objectives of the new British Broadcasting Company was to educate, little could he have envisaged how that role would develop over the following 70 years.

Lessons with "Auntie" around the wireless set and later in front of the TV screen, as overseen by the BBC's first director general, have been complemented by the arrival of books, videos and now online education.

But by far the most radical step is yet to come; in the next few years the BBC will develop a bank of digital interactive material to support the national curriculum for four to 16-year-olds.

New director general Greg Dyke has made education his watchword and told education programme makers: "With the digital revolution your time has come."

However, producers in the BBC's education department are not so sure. Instead of rejoicing, they fear the corporation's obsession with all things digital could spell the end of schools' broadcasting and a proud tradition.

"We are used to being the Cinderellas of the BBC," says one of the 250-strong team. "But it seems to us, that Cinderella is now going to the ball, but it's not the same ball and Cinderella has undergone a major character change."

There are currently six hours of educational programming every day - two-and half hours in the morning for primaries and the rest during the night for secondaries to record. Between 6 and 10 per cent of primaries still watch the programmes at the time of broadcast. Overall, the BBC is used by 90 per cent of British schools.

All these programmes are made by a body of education specialists - many who are former teachers - who make films tailored to the needs of their viewers. What they fear is that Greg Dyke and the new director of education Michael Stevenson now see all BBC factual programmes as ripe for repackaging for educational use and they claim that they are not hearing enough reassuring noises.

In a recent speech Dyke invited producers of factual broadcasts to see the educational content of their programmes - and to capitalise on it. He also alluded to the fact that for some, the "e-word" was "the kiss of death", with programme-makers trying to disguise the educational potential of their programmes.

The fact that one of Dyke's first moves as director general was to subsume education into a new division called factual and learning has done nothing to alleviate the fears of the producers.

"We have a long tradition of providing innovative, award-winning material on popular television, and it seems we are going to be reduced to delivering the national curriculum - or even video gobbits - to fit in with interactive courses," says one.

The argument goes that highly successful, but costly, BBC productions, such as Walking with Dinosaurs and The Human Body can be repackaged for schools or linked to online courses for the casual learner at home.

However, education producers say repackaging is not that simple: a programme made for primetime entertainment is not structured in the same way as a teacher requires in the classroom. Teachers do not have time to untangle the educational content of a programme - they need it in a simple-to-use, logical format which leaves no questions unanswered.

The BBC has been at the forefront of harnessing the potential of broadband technology as a learning tool and there is no doubt that the focus of its education policy has now been thrown forward to the digital age. Last month, BBC Online - the largest and most visited educational site on the web - was awarded the Royal Television Society's Judges' award. It was followed by an announcement of an extra pound;9.6 million for educational output, with the promise of double next year.

However, the fact that 93 per cent of secondary schools and 62 per cent of primaries are now connected to the Internet does not tell the whole story. Most teachers are still not conversant with digital technology and the number of schools which can access the new digital interactive material are still relatively few.

But Frank Flynn, the BBC's head of commissioning education for children, says the corporation is having to look forward. "Web TV will not just be for the privileged few. It will kick-in in four to five years time."

It will take the BBC between five to seven years to roll out the entire curriculum on its digital interactive service, he says.

"We know the convergence of TV and computer will happen. But this does not mean we are abandoning TV. We will continue to transmit analogue programmes where there's demand and we will market research that demand each year. We will not disenfranchise anyone. Schools TV won't go. It will simply go through a period of transition."

Programmes like Words and Pictures, used by 70 per cent of primary schools, will continue to be commissioned in traditional form - but in future there will also be a digital interactive offering to complement the series.

But those already at the cutting edge of using the new technology in the classroom believe that it will spell the end for schools' TV. Paul Kelley, head of Monkseaton Community high school in Whitley Bay, says: "I think digital interactive learning is the death knell for school television, but it is also its rebirth as well. Digital learning will fundamentally change the rules of the game.

"One thing which is clear from our experience is that pupils are very attracted to short bits of television," says Kelley, whose sixth-formers study for Open University degrees online. "Education bores most students because the pace is too slow and they have an ability to absorb information a lot more quickly than their teachers."

But he too believes it would be wrong to lose schools' television for the moment. However, he also believes that that it would be right for a shift in resources from television to digital learning.

With the Government doubling its investment in schools' technology to pound;405m, with an additional pound;230m for teacher training, it seems it is only a matter of time before digital interactive learning becomes a reality for all schools.

Indeed, ministers see digital learning as a prime tool for not only improving standards in the classroom but also among adult learners. Following pilots in GCSE science, history and maths by the BBC, Granada Media and Anglia Multimedia, an announcement by the Government is expected this month about the future of digital education.

"We are not Luddites," says one BBC education producer. "We believe that digital interactive education is a brilliant new tool for resource-makers for kids. But we don't want to do away with TV and radio, which are the most democratic delivery methods for children at the moment."

vA beginner's guide to e-learning Greg Dyke told education programme makers: "With the digital revolution your time has come".


What do you need?

A new digital transmission system which uses computer technology instead of standard signals to transmit sound and pictures as computerised digits. These digits can be received by standard aerials, satellite dishes or by cable - but they have to be decoded either by a set-top box or by a decoder built into a television set. This is called a broadband connection.

What does broadband mean?

To access the Internet via your computer requires a narrowband connection, but digital systems require a higher capacity link - a bigger bandwidth. In other words, a broadband connection.

So how can this technology be used in schools?

Digital interactive education - e-learning as it is now becoming known - allows any text, computer programme, internet source or clip of educational TV to be delivered directly into the classroom at the time the school wants to use it.

For instance in a science lesson, you could potentially access footage which shows what happens if you put two chemicals together.

Does this mean everybody will be working on their own?

Not necessarily. Digital TV means that whole classes can participate in using the same material with teachers using electronic whiteboards.

Computer images can be projected on to these boards enabling teachers to incorporate text, animation and TV into whole-class teaching.

How will digital technology affect pupils at home?

The same course of study could be pursued at home using computerised TV screen or Web TV. Half of homes are expected to have a digital TV by 2005.

It will also mean that you can access educational material related to a programme you have just watched as well as being able to watch sports coverage from different angles or create action replays using your remote control.

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