The view beyond BSkyB

In the flurry of recent announcements about how the digital revolution is going to transform what we watch on our television screens and how we watch it, developments in educational broadcasting have been somewhat overlooked. Yet these could have no less a significant impact for schools.

The Educational Television Unit is based at the European Broadcasting Union in Geneva. It began operating in October last year and, as an apolitical and technologically independent organisation, has been investigating the feasibility of establishing some form of Euro-channel for schools.

In theory, this would deliver programmes across the continent, in many different languages, around the clock. The problem, as always, lies in trying to implement this in practice.

Educational television in Europe has, in general, had to struggle against reduced funding, reduced airtime and little more than lip service from some channel controllers. However moral the remit, educational television just does not deliver high ratings (it shouldn't need to) and is therefore expendable.

Recent research on European educational television has concluded that action is needed to stem this downward spiral. At the same time, Brussels has begun to show an interest in the new digital technologies and the ways in which they can be harnessed to deliver huge educational resources at a fraction of the cost of traditional broadcasting.

As more and more schools are using the Internet and Intranet it makes sense to incorporate this as a part of a "digital bouquet" rather than create a formal single channel. The first steps have now been taken to create a base which owns, or clears, a catalogue of educational material for a wide variety of media uses and for the international market, not just for Europe.

When the Unit was first formed it had one principal objective: "to promote the broadcasting and use of educational television programmes, both nationally and internationally". Since these first few days, the word "broadcasting" has rapidly become outmoded and should perhaps be replaced by "diffusion".This reflects the greater emphasis on the Internet and on-line distance learning rather than traditional televisual broadcasting.

The EBU's Educational Unit now trades across all media and across all frontiers, setting up new co-productions, arranging distribution deals for existing programmes and archives, and developing on-line and CD-Rom hybrids. The main aim is to co-ordinate and deliver educational resources and teaching materials to the highest standards, and in the least expensive manner, in a uniform way across Europe.

The new Educational Unit helps its subscribers by aiding with the clearing of rights and introducing and developing new concepts across this new digital horizon. It sees the idea of a SchoolsNet - a pan-European network of schools - not as an alternative or add-on to the traditional broadcasting of educational programming, but an integral part of schools educational television.

A Euro-channel and a Schools-Net could co-exist quite happily - there would be common technical conditions for both of the options. The new channel would have links to other "knowledge resources", like Web sites, and could at a stroke revolution ise the concept of a linear, scheduled single television channel.

We look forward to the day when the Internet, or Intranet, will also be able to download and play, within a reasonable bandwidth and speed, both live video and audio in sufficient time that this can compete with straight broadcasting.

In the meantime it is encouraging to note that many public service broadcasters in Europe are putting their limited funds on the line to actively support and fund this new unit.

So not all the digital revolutions begin and end with BSkyB. There is much happening to educational television in Europe and perhaps technology will help deliver new life to teaching methods and resources. Whatever the new channel looks like, or however it is delivered, it is providing a focus that is now encouragin g many new players to get involved in educational broadcasting.

Robert Winter is head of the Educational Television Unit, European Broadcasting Union

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