Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 8 April 2007   Friday, April 20, 2007

ISSN 1748-3603

Cover Page
Feature article
BBC suspends free interactive learning service
Better networked learning
Case studies
A mass collaboration approach to e-learning
Project updates
Conference reviews
EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) 2007
24 Hours to secure collaboration on interoperability
CAL07 Review
ALT news
Same role, new job title
Chief Executive's report
Director's report
Forthcoming events from ALT
News from the Netherlands
Publications from the SURF e-learning website
JISC Updates
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Past Issues
Issue 7 January 2007
January 27, 2007
Issue 6 October 2006
October 30, 2006
Issue 5, July 2006
July 11, 2006
Issue 4 April 2006
April 27, 2006
Issue 3, January 2006
January 30, 2006

More Issues
BBC suspends free interactive learning service
by Stephen Heppell

The suspension of BBC's interactive learning service, branded as BBC JAM, in the middle of March was more than a disappointment. When David Puttnam described it as a betrayal of a generation he wasn't exaggerating. Back in the days when BETT was largely made up of tiny hobbyist stalls at the Barbican it was clear that the UK had a potential to lead the world with learning software development. A happy coincidence of a generation of Spectrum, 380Z and BBC B programmers, allied to a government push to embed ICT in formal education, from MEP onwards, left the nation with a very clear lead. Pioneering work with CD ROM production, multimedia and videodiscs cemented that lead. All this lost its way a little: as we see so often ICT became sucked into a dismal push for productivity (can we do what we did before, but faster, or cheaper) allied to a rather British desire for central control (with managed systems and service providers as a kind of cyber-imperialism). Slowly, the small ingenious, creative companies that constantly delighted learners found they were struggling for survival. But the dream that the UK might retain a place as "the Hollywood of Learning" didn't dim and a very substantial investment by the BBC into what was initially seen as a Digital Curriculum was a very welcome step.

The BBC has a formal learning remit enshrined in its charter and, from its commitment to the BBC computer in schools, through BiteSize and onwards it has been a central player in ICT in schools. The service was launched in January 2006 with many conditions attached, following a rigourous consultation process. The conditions were foolishly restrictive and would have boxed in a lesser team, but JAM, as the service became, was uniquely distinctive with a very clear focus on the learner, at home, at school, anywhere, with full support for Welsh and Gaelic and with a starting point of being seductively engaging. Some of the early commissions were quickly eclipsed by the later ones as the service evolved rapidly. The latest stuff was very, very impressive. As the host of small creative companies, each with real strengths in broadcast and multimedia, received their commissions they found they were able to build real stability in their learning teams. A Hollywood of Learning was maybe possible after all - certainly the talent was there and the commissions developed from within the BBC showed rapid evolution too. Schools started to discover the public service, free to all, software. Education has always been built with a substantial public service component and finding it, once again, in ICT was very, very welcome.

However, from the outset there had been an undercurrent of complaint - a few voices, but powerfully amplified. When the service was suspended by the BBC Trust it followed "extensive discussions with Government and the European Commission about how to address allegations from some in the industry that JAM is damaging their interests." So, now JAM is suspended and many are angry as a result: children, parents (especially those home learners who have been so poorly served before) and schools have had a free service snatched from them. The innovative companies who committed so much to developing teams and projects are facing lay-offs, OFCOM find the EU's tanks on its lawn, so to speak, the BBC finds for the first time ever the danger of EU bureaucrat dictating its editorial policy. BESA, having sided with those members who objected to JAM rather than those who were part of it, is sadly damaged, BECTA is blamed (in my view wrongly) by schools for not saving things at the 11th hour, and an industry that was, at long last, grasping the zeitgeist of 21st century learning is in some disarray. To say that this is a complete mess understates the case.

But I rather think it isn't over yet. BBC Director General Mark Thompson commented "We remain committed to the vision of serving learners with innovative content. In responding to the BBC Trust's request for fresh proposals for how we should carry forward that vision, we will aim to build on the firm foundations of the content launched in BBC Jam. The BBC Trust will subject those proposals to a full Public Value Test, including a market impact assessment by Ofcom." I very much hope that ALT's members will join me in doing everything possible to see that what emerges will be even better, and just as free, as the service that JAM had begun. Learning and public service go hand in hand, alongside a healthy commercial sector. None of that changes in the 21st century.

Professor Stephen Heppell

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