Development of interactive TV and Internet-based learning services to the home and its impact on
traditional and distance learning institutions
Peter J. Bates, Senior Partner of pjb Associates, UK and Senior Research Associate (part-time) Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom (1)
New opportunities for using interactive learning services to the home are starting to emerge. A recent study (2) written for the European Commission, stated that a market for digital broadcasting technologies is developing with a number of suppliers already offering products and services for data broadcasting and digital TV. In particular, digital TV with fledgling interactive services is emerging within a consumer market. Other competitive technologies including TV-based high-speed access via existing telephone lines are also emerging rapidly. These could provide alternative solutions for interactive learning services to the home. Of course, the Internet accessed through a computer and a telephone is already providing millions of people with opportunities for utilising a wide variety of information resources - although currently predominately available as textual materials.
Interactive digital TV developments are starting to bring multimedia learning resources right into the living room of peoples homes, accessible, just by touching a few buttons on a remote controller of their TV set. This is also leading to new opportunities for reaching people who would not normally have access to rich learning resources. This ranges from basic skills needs, through DIY (do it yourself) skills and techniques to those requiring professional updating.
Greg Dyke, now the Director-General of the BBC, recently in a keynote speech quoted (3) Professor Michael Porter of Harvard Business School. Porter stated that Britain is doomed to fail if it continues to follow the path of trying to compete on prices, as there are just too many places in the world where cheaper labour is available. This could also apply to many other European countries. Porter believes that the future in a competitive 21st century will be as a knowledge society and that the essential condition of such a society is a well-educated workforce.
Dyke believes that the really significant aspect of the digital revolution is not the proliferation of channels. It is interactivity, which instantly transforms communications from one-to-many to one-to-one. And one-to-one communication is perhaps the best and most natural basis of effective learning. Interactivity of course has always been close to the hearts of educationalists who have embraced online learning. Now the broadcasters are beginning to think in this way.
These developments are not just in the form of a traditional formal or informal educational television broadcast. It is already possible to watch "blockbuster" films through video-on-demand services. This not time-shifted films broadcast over a number of channels - it is really "on demand" at the press of a button. It is even possible to pause, stop, rewind and fast forward the video-stream from the remote video-server owned by the service provider. No longer is it necessary to watch a programme when the broadcaster wants you to view the programme, nor do you have to bother to set the video recorder. Interactivity through these services is only just around the corner. These "on-demand" services are also creating a "demand-led" rather than a "supply-driven" environment.
This paper will not expand on the various technology solutions that are just beginning to emerge with digital TV. The final report of the EC study is a good starting point for those that want to know more. Further updates on their potential will follow (4). However, this short paper will highlight key market developments followed by a number of key research issues which need to be addressed in order to provide a better understanding of how this medium can provide an appropriate learning experience. Traditional and distance learning institutions need to be seen as leading research and influencing developments, otherwise they will be left on the sidelines.
The current driving force for such on-demand services is sport and entertainment. However, education and training resources are often cited, as the next service required by viewers. Such services are starting to emerge. Stream, a commercial digital TV service provider in Italy has an interactive language learning channel which enables people to answer multiple choice questions and receive feedback. It is associated with a separate TV - language learning channel. NTL in the UK are about to launch a Knowledge Channel that enables the viewer to access interactive learning resources supplied by an educational publisher and an educational multimedia and online service provider. The Department for Education and Employment in the UK is currently funding and evaluating three pilot projects - two lead by commercial multimedia providers and one by a public service broadcaster. The ultimate aim is to set-up a digital interactive educational channel used in both the home and the school.
The BBC has its own separate digital TV learning channel - BBC Knowledge. It also has an associated web site with extensive educational resources, which often relate to the TV programmes. Currently it is looking at ways of integrating them together to provide a truly interactive experience once the various delivery platforms make this possible. In many ways the technology is already capable to doing this, but the consumer devices in the form of set-top boxes may still have limited capacity due to the need to keep their price down.
Consumer demands bite-size, just-in-time, on-demand and highly relevant
The BBC also has this notion of learning experiences to be "bite-size", "just in time" and "on-demand". The UKs University for Industry (UfI) now being marketed as Learndirect is also taking on board this notion of "bite-sized learning". This involves providing just the right amount of highly relevant learning experience to meet the immediate needs of the learner. Therefore it is demand driven not supplier lead. This is compared to traditional and distance learning institutions that currently supply what they think the learner should know as a whole course, on a timetable dictated by them.
Digital technologies will soon make it very soon enable the learner to pick and choose what they want, when they want and in the amount they want. As pressures for professional updating continue to increase they will also demand accreditation for just that module of learning they have experienced. Suppliers will need to meet these needs and if the traditional learning institutions dont do so, other non-traditional players are starting to emerge to fill this gap. New players include commercial as well as public service broadcasters, IT and telecom companies who are starting to view the learning market as creating new opportunities for supplying "value added" services over their technical infrastructure.
Opportunities and threats for traditional and distance learning education providers
For traditional and distance learning providers these developments pose opportunities and threats. They are likely to have little control over these technology and market developments. So they have to wait until the infrastructure has been set-up by the network service provider. But will they have the skills and know-how to utilise new interactive delivery systems? If not the consumer will start to reject their offerings and move to new more accessible suppliers. Traditional and distance learning institutions do have a tremendous asset knowledge and know-how in providing effective learning experiences and methods of assessment. But they need to adapt rapidly to the changing market otherwise they will start to die. Activities like "re-engineering" towards the "virtual campus" or "virtual university" has been the subject of a number of papers recently.
Some of the research issues, which need to be addressed.
Sociological issues The TV is often at the centre of home life. Interactivity could create a family learning experience but it could also create conflicts of interest. More than one TV set also creates a number of new set of dynamics particularly as currently the technology only allows one digital stream to the home.
Pedagogical issues How can you more a passive viewer into an active learner? What levels of interactivity are needed for the wide variety of learning experiences that are possible?
Usability and design issues Viewing a TV is a "sit-back" experience compared to using a computer, which is a "lean-forward" experience. This has all sorts of implications for type and size of text, graphics and video. Quality of video is another issue.
Technological issues - Which is the most appropriate digital TV technology configuration for interactive learning? These configurations need to be matched with the levels of interactivity required for the different types of learning experience aimed at different types of learner.
Management issues How does a traditional learner provider (university, training organisation) gain access to the various delivery platforms available by the broadcast and network service providers? What are the costs? What skills are required?
Standardisation issues - The broadcast and network service providers will dictate hardware and software standards. But content providers will also have to take on board the emerging standards related to the various learning objects (video, text, graphics, sound, simulations and assessment modules) in order that they can be easily assembled, disassembled and reused to reduce costs.
The Upgrade2000 Project (5) is addressing some of the management, organisational, technological and design issues related to creating an interactive multimedia environment ultimately for viewing via digital TV. The project is partially funded by the European Commission under Objective 4 European Social Fund. Partners including the Basic Skills Agency, BBC Education, Cambridge Training and Development Ltd, Tyneside Training and Enterprise Council plus City and Guilds (an accreditation body). The Institute of Education, University of London are project evaluators. Sheffield Hallam University is taking a major role in this project under its Virtual Campus Programme.
The project aims to deliver training in basic skills to employees at home and in small companies using digital TV, multimedia/DVD, the Internet and traditional methods. Research has indicated that in excess of seven million adults in Britain have basic skills deficiencies. The project is seeking to address their needs in a format that is acceptable and convenient to the learners. Research has shown that the target group of learners watches more television than others watch and are less likely to attend more formal education and training. This project which has recently started aims to address at least some of these research issues in order to utilise know-how possibly for other course offerings.