The field of education is influenced by two growing pressures, i.e. a) the need to exploit the new opportunities and benefits offered by digital or two way interactive media and b), at the same time, the financial deprivation in the educational sector, both at local school level and at national educational level.
Digital platforms, and I include in this broadcast, CD-ROM/DVD and Internet Online support services and products, clearly offer considerable advantages to teachers, and to the whole business of teaching and learning. The benefits of active learning, with audio, text and video, plus self assessment, group or network connectivity and discussions, schools twinning, Language Learning in real time, across borders and between different cultures, delivers the teachers a powerful new teaching device.
The teacher is given a virtually infinite knowledge resource library and immensely new and effective teaching device - the electronic blackboard. One teacher at a recent conference at the European Commission dubbed HTML, the programme language of the Internet, as Having The Means to Learn.
The Primary and Secondary schools market is notoriously short of funding. The penetration of information technologies in schools remains low with only isolated exceptions of some uniquely supported projects and networks. The abilities of such schools to provide technology and content developers with a healthy financial return on investment is severely limited.
The present scenario for most public service television broadcasters is characterized
by strong competition and by financial problems, too. The Educational broadcasters
have found that educational television, certainly to this age group, is National
Curricula led, and mostly Mother Tongue language, and inevitably is not suitable
for cross border or international sales and therefore can derive little or no
additional income. In many countries, the educational slots and schedules have been moved to overnight transmissions, the programme funding budgets have been reduced, and the surplus airtime and cash has been used by the stations to prop up greater audience pulling shows and programmes. This was one measure amongst others to defend the "licence fee."
How can a sector of our society so deprived of core funding respond to this challenging situation? An important answer to this question is "New Partnerships." In the following I shall discuss some concrete models of partnership and the potential role of public broadcasters within them.
The establishment of the "European Education Partnership" (EEP) in 1998, under the auspices of the European Commission, could signal a potential major sea change in the responsibilities for the delivery of educational television in Europe.
In December 1996 Mme Cresson, the European Commissioner responsible for education, announced the formation of this private-public partnership association and the benefits that this would bring to European education. At a political level, education has been seen as a neutral ground on which many of the ECs financial and industrial aspirations for pan European co-operation can succeed. The benefits from these educational partnerships can then be taken through to other areas that may have proved more political or too tricky to originate. Education is a sector in which most EU Member states have similar strategies and objectives, and many of the commercial corporations see a benefit in co-operation and mutual development, mixed with a sense of a social conscience in "being seen to be doing good." By having the European Commission "get behind" education, and the development of new technologies for education, it has helped them to mould together a greater number of private-public partnerships than if the platform had been, say, regulatory frameworks on the convergence of telecommunications.
The EEP is therefore an association of commercial companies, including France Telecom, Belgecom, Deutsche Telecom, BT, ICL, Apple, IBM, Cisco, Sun Microsystems, and others to follow, targeted at European Education. The Educational Television Unit of the EBU and BBC Education have joined the EEP as observers, and importantly, the only current representatives of content providers. The idea of such private-public partnerships in public service television is not unique.
In the USA the public service broadcasters have a similar association for educational television called simply "Private-Public Partnerships." This was also formed in 1997 and is seen as a main battleground for PBS in the USA.
Besides this comprehensive approach to initiate new partnerships on a European level, there are many projects and initiatives for co-operation between partners in the educational field. In the schools, the partnerships between the public and the private sectors are growing rapidly. Individual schools and networks are flourishing. Education in the next century is now mostly about being entrepreneurial.
A school in Bristol in the UK is a classic example of what is happening. Here the Headmaster has opened a Media Lab for his pupils. The pupils have all gained IT and Computer literacy. They all have their own Home Pages on the Web, and they have all published schools projects on the Web. The Media Lab costs the school around £35,000 per year to run. So the Headmaster hires out the Media Lab to adults in the evenings and the week ends for IT Training. He charges fees for this training and thus raises the funds to keep his Media Lab "free to use" for his pupils. This model is being repeated across Europe and is a core objective of the EEP and of respective national programmes, e.g. "Schulen ans Netz" in Germany.
What is the payback to the commercial companies and why should this affect public service television? The answers are in adult education, as per the school in Bristol. Adults expect to pay for, and usually have the means to pay for education, training, and core skills training. The financial rewards come from Distance Learning, Media Labs, "Life Long Learning" and other such courses, also aimed at SMEs (small and medium sized Businesses).
These rewards allow the commercial companies to invest in new networks, new software, new channels and new sectors of the community that they would otherwise not be able to reach. They can be seen to be helping the community with education in the schools, while cashing in on the skills training and employment sectors (though this is not intended to be a criticism at all).
Most colleges, Universities and Job/Skills training centres have already formed partnerships. Digital Open Universities and Distance Learning Colleges have been developed and are proving extremely lucrative. The BBC, of course, has been working with the UK Open University for many years, and is now across Europe.
S4C in Wales has opened a new "Virtual University". But so have IBM, Oracle and others from the commercial sector and on a global basis not just national or regional. When ESA, the European Space Agency announced earlier this year a call for new proposals for digital channels using their satellite service, they were inundated with responses. These did not come from traditional broadcasters, but from Universities such as Leuven University in Belgium and corporations such as IBM, which alone submitted two educational channel proposals. From all across Europe similar consortia of commercial enterprises partnering Universities submitted formats for niche educational channels.
It is extremely likely therefore that the future of European educational television, as it is now, will be in the hands of these private public consortia, made up of Universities, Colleges, Public Libraries, Software developers, Telcos and technology companies. These consortia will deliver education to adults, but also to the schoolrooms, and the shared Media Labs.
This development causes big challenges for public service broadcasters, who,
over the last years have to face growing problems in funding the educational
sector. They have had fewer opportunities, flexibility and options for
commercial partnerships, and have had to deal with how to fund new digital developments. They need additional funding to support these options, and they need help to provide technology expertise in maximising the benefits of the new technologies. More importantly, they need to help to provide direct connectivity between the schools and themselves and to learn about "two way broadcasting", not just "one way." The broadcasters now need a cultural change in order to learn how to adapt to this new market and to sell themselves to the new commercial partners.
To attract the funding that they need and the technology connectivity that they need, they will have to compete in a market that is already very competitive. Broadcasters such as the BBC Open University, S4C, YLE in Finland, UR in Sweden, Südwestfunk and ZDF in Germany and La Cinquième in France are competing and entering this new market as best they can. Again most of this attention has been to the adult market where there are immediate and good financial returns.
The remaining public service broadcasters have to recognise that this distinct sea change is taking place and embrace these new partnerships. While the commercial companies have funding and technology expertise at their disposal, they do not have content. Swapping good educational content production expertise for funding and technology is where the broadcasters can win. But they must be prepared to enter into these partnerships now and provide that content, as commercial independent producers are already getting there first.
The alternative is that educational television simply becomes "edutainment". There is a considerable growth in the general "education" TV channel market. As there is little or no income from delivering simply schools education, you either shut up shop, or you can develop educational programmes for a broader audience and international market. Hence we now have the Discovery Channel, The Learning Network, The National Geographic Channel, the Knowledge Network, and presumably, many more to follow. These schedules are filled with programmes that fall between documentary, information, education and entertainment. They attract audiences and advertising revenues. They are not as bland as game shows and quiz shows, they are not specialist, and they make for "easy viewing". At the same time they deliver information or education in its broadest sense and a "feelgood factor" to the viewer who watches them.
Take education in its purest form out of the public service remit, and we could see two dramatic changes. Firstly the Licence Fee system will come under even greater threat. If a commercial consortia promises to fund schools education via new technologies, for free, as well as re-train and provide adults with "Life Long Learning", how will the smaller public service stations compete? And for how long will they keep their distinct Licence Fee funding? Secondly, for how long will commercial consortia keep education to primary and secondary schools for free? Education is a term often used by commercial media companies when presenting their plans and applications for broadcast or cable franchises. In truth, the depth and style of the content that is actually delivered has more of an eye to audience figures and advertising revenues than it does to our childrens education and the education system.
"Access for all" and the end of "Social Exclusion" must surely be a war cry of the public service broadcasters for free educational television as well as for the provision of new technologies for schools.
About the author
Robert Winter, Head of Educational TV Unit EBU, Geneva Switzerland
Tel: +41 22 717 2419
Fax: +41 22 717 241