The Emerging and Potential Developments of Interactive and Personalised TV for Learning in the Home

Peter J. Bates,
Senior Partner, pjb Associates, UK

This is a background paper to the presentation given at the "Interactive TV & Online Learning" Conference Café Royal, London 5-6 December 2000. The author is closely monitoring developments concerning the use of interactive digital TV for learning. During 1999 he conducted a European-wide study for the European Commission on the "Development of Digital Broadcasting Systems and Services and its Implications for Education and Training". During 2000 he has been advising the Upgrade2000 Project, co-ordinated by the Basic Skills Agency, which aimed to deliver training in basic skills through interactive digital TV.


The Upgrade 2000 project was based on the notion that 99.4 %(1) of households have a TV set. Therefore, this may be a way of reaching people who have not utilised other methods of learning, as they are quite likely to be early adopters of digital TV for accessing a wider variety of sports and entertainment programmes. Another factor is that digital TV also offers the potential for interactivity, which is considered to be an important aspect of the learning process.

The UK government(2) considers the familiarity of television and the capabilities of digital give this technology the potential to be a prime means for widespread domestic use of the Internet in addition to new and traditional programme services. As television is already the most popular form of public communication(3) it also considers that it will create new opportunities in providing information and education, some of, which will be interactive. Therefore government departments have also been instructed to identify services that they could be provided over interactive digital television.

However, although interactive digital TV and other broadband developments to the home potentially offer new opportunities for bringing high quality learning to the home, a number of barriers are emerging which will influence the direction that those developing such services will have to take. There are many complexities to consider behind the simplistic notion that the TV is the way to reach most people because nearly everyone has a TV.

It is the commercial market that is primarily driving current and future digital TV and broadband to the home developments in the UK. Even the BBC as a public service broadcaster is dependent upon commercial suppliers before it can make available interactive digital TV services.

It is likely that around 40% of households will have digital TV by the end of 2000 with government agencies predicting 47% by 2003 and 76% by 2008(4). However, this figure could be much higher. Although digital TV developments are currently leading the opportunities for providing digital multimedia services to the home, it is only one technology solution. Other broadband technology solutions are also emerging which could provide other routes for delivering such services to the home and improve access to the Internet in terms of speed of access and quality of video-content that can be delivered.

As with any new commercial initiative there are a number of players jockeying for a position and a slice of the market, with a number of different offerings, some compatible and others incompatible. From a learning content provider’s perspective this creates difficulties as to which is the most appropriate technology solution to reach the learners. This has been a problem for the Upgrade Project.

This paper compares the digital technology solutions that could provide opportunities for learning in the home. It highlights barriers to these developments and recommends ways forward for the development of learning services.

Market trends - from "push" to "pull" services

From the home consumers’ perspective television and radio are well established as a means of "pushing" information, entertainment and certain types of education to the home. Digital TV offerings are generally available in a similar mode. The Internet with the World Wide Web has become a recent means of "pulling" large amounts of information. However, there are a number of differences with both methods.

Therefore, the challenge for the industry is to provide devices and services that home consumers demand and at a price that they will pay. The challenge for those in education and training is to try to identify sustainable ways of serving the needs of all home or work-based learners by utilising the most appropriate technologies. However, educationalists and trainers are not in control of these technology developments. The future landscape of technology and service options is still not very clear, although a pattern is now beginning to emerge.

One market analyst is predicting that by 2003 every European home will be a digital home with two out of five households having access to the Internet and one in five having interactive TV(6). Another is predicting that interactive digital TV will reach 80 million European households by 2005 and with a potential base of over 200 million TV sets in Europe it will overtake the Internet as Europe’s primary eCommerce platform(7).

Interactive learning services to the home is only part of a larger market of interactive services that are starting to emerge. Other market sectors include: -

The main focus of commercial service suppliers is currently entertainment and e-commerce. Learning services of various kinds are often quoted, as being the next services that are wanted by consumers but commercial service suppliers are still rather slow at developing such services. This may be because they are able to share the risk of developing interactive entertainment and e-commerce services with other companies in the supply chain and venture capitalists. They may also get a quicker return from their investment compared to the financial return from offering learning services.

It is also important to note that the UK interactive service market is evolving differently from the US. The UK and for that matter the rest of Europe differs from the USA in the ways that interactive TV services are offered. Europe is "TV centric" and the US is "web centric"(8). The pay-TV broadcasters, rather than the Internet or PC industry drive interactive TV in Europe. Interactive services have also been designed and to look and respond the way analogue TV does, and to enhance and expand the TV experience. Therefore the focus has tended to be on new applications such as shopping home banking and interactive advertising. Interactive TV is also primarily a walled-garden experience allowing users access to only proprietary content. This could be a very significant barrier to the development of interactive learning services on digital TV compared to how easy learning resources can be made available on the web.

A last point concerning the development of the market – is the positioning of the stakeholders responsible for the provisioning of the component parts that make up digital TV and broadband services. In order to spread the risk some stakeholders may be responsible for a number of different component parts and over time may increase or decrease their responsibility for these components. This shifting of responsibility is an important aspect of the emerging market. For education and training providers it is important not to "badge" a particular service provider as just providing one type of service.

Accessibility and provision of digital services

Digital services are increasingly becoming available to the home. They are currently tending to be offered in two ways – broadcast digital TV and via the Internet. However, a third option – Personalised TV is starting to become available as broadband technologies to the home start to emerge. Eventually some sort of convergence is likely to take place after a period of perhaps 3-8 years of using a number of intermediate technologies.

Broadcast Digital TV vs. the Internet

In the UK Digital broadcast TV and the Internet are now offering a number of established services for those that wish to subscribe to them. Nearly every European household could access digital TV should it wish to subscribe to such a service and have the necessary equipment to access it. In some parts of the UK households have two or three ways in which they could access different digital TV services with similar and different programme offerings. There may be a few other barriers for some people living in flats or in areas where they are not allowed to install a satellite dish. However solutions are starting to emerge to solve these problems using integrated reception systems(9). Equally so every household in the UK could access the Internet if it had a telephone line and a computer or a lower-cost Internet access device.

Barriers to provision

The financial barriers for consumers accessing digital broadcast TV or the Internet are now probably about the same. The lack of a need to access such additional services is probably a greater constraint to uptake. The complexity and changing nature of the offerings is also likely to be a major barrier causing a reluctance to make a decision. This is causing problems for content providers including those providing learning resources, as they need a critical mass of potential end users on one platform or another in order to provide sustainable services.

Content providers who have the financial resources to invest in the future will enter the digital TV market early in the hope they may gain a large enough share of the market in the future to make a profit. Those without these financial resources will hold back until the market is more mature. This is the case for most providers of learning resources.

Despite the rapidly emerging developments, barriers appear to remain high for education and training content providers to offer interactive digital broadcast TV services. This was first identified in the conclusions to a study conducted for the European Commission(10) during mid 1999: -

"Broadcasters will continue to be the prime gatekeepers of interactive TV services to the home. As they have done with television they will control what the user has access to as well as the quality of the services on offer and the development of these services. Compared to the World Wide Web this may act as a barrier for traditional education and training providers to offer interactive TV learning services."

This is in fact a problem for all "cash-poor ventures" as has been recognised by market analysis Jupiter Communications(11) who quote in their Interactive TV and the Internet report at the end of 1999: -

"TV requires deep pockets; barriers to entry are much higher than the web. It is expensive to create new services for walled gardens, and broadcasters require hefty carriage fees to gain a space in a walled garden. Companies can’t easily port their web sites to TV; rather they must create and support a new service. Because of these barriers, established brand names and cash-rich Internet ventures will dominate iDTV walled gardens."

Therefore barriers are high and a critical mass of users is needed in order to create the economics of scale needed to have access to broadcast interactive TV. Eventually most broadcasters are predicted to allow full web access from the TV(12), but they have been rather slow in doing so. However at least one broadcaster now has plans to offer such a service by the end of 2000(13).

However, the Internet does not have the same constraints for content providers. Publishing materials is relatively easy and at a much lower cost but there are limitations on the quality of video that can be offered. Directing consumers to the materials is also a much more difficult task.

Emergence of Personalised TV

Broadband technologies are only just starting to become available to the home. But as the "pipe" to the home starts to widen this will enable a greater variety and higher quality content to be delivered to consumers. This is leading towards the emergence of Personalised TV – where the user has control over what they want to watch and when they want to watch. They can access or "pull" down services when required.

Convergence of Technologies

There is a considerable debate as to whether the TV and the Internet will converge into one type of system. Some analysts believe that increasingly consumer devices will be linked together with the set-top box likely to become a multimedia hub(14).

Others believe that in Europe TV and the PC are in fact not converging into a single all-purpose device. Therefore interactive TV players should not focus on delivering Web access on TV(15). There are also new possibilities for using personal digital assistants (PDA) for assessing services on the move including in the home. It seems likely that consumers will be offered a number of different ways of accessing digital services before there is a "shake out" in the market leaving only one or two dominant converged devices.

Development of community Learning Utilities

The concept of a community learning utility where all people have access to learning resources in the similar way as gas, water or electricity has been around since the early 1980s. Some interest in the idea emerged in the UK during the early 1990s(16). So far the only really concrete outcomes of the concept are the local grids for learning and the National Grid for Learning (NGfL) which is being developed the local authorities and the DfEE for schools. There are also plans moving ahead for high-speed links to schools through the UK government’s broadband initiative(17). As broadband to the home starts to become a reality over the next decade, the community learning utility concept could also become a reality. Broadband access via cable and improvements to telephone lines will roll out area by area rather than be broadcast across a large region. There are potentially more opportunities for local education and training providers to make more use of the broadband infrastructure for meeting local learning and skills needs perhaps backed up by nationally produced high quality resources. The new Learning and Skills Councils that will be established from April 2001 could have an active role in such developments. A rather more localised solution may also be needed to tackle the problems of those with basic skills needs.

Universal Access

Although there is a current government plan for universal access to the Internet by 2005, this should really be revised to consider broadband access, which will also address quality of service issues. There are some interesting opportunities for housing associations that manage social housing estates to work closely with the service providers, in order to achieve universal access, as well as make new use of the infrastructure for enhancing existing services like reporting repairs that are needed or keeping an eye on elderly people.

It is also interesting to note that a new US focused study(18) considered that regardless of ethnicity, consumers use the Internet for the same reasons and to accomplish the same tasks. Although Asian- and Hispanic-Americans use the Internet more than African-Americans, the racial divide disappears online and ethnic groups exhibit the same behaviour.


  1. Learning content providers are likely to continue to have difficulty gaining access to interactive broadcast digital TV because the financial barriers are too high for entry.
  2. However, some broadcast digital TV producers are increasingly offering informal learning or edutainment in format. They are also starting to offer learning resources or online encyclopedias but these are generally based on their Internet or extranet sites.
  3. Broadcast digital TV providers have yet to resolve the issue enabling the user to link directly from an informal learning or edutainment experience to a site that provides more structured learning. This is because they currently prefer to offer interactive services within a "walled garden" where the price of "space" is still at a premium.
  4. This causes a problem when trying to "push" a passive viewer into an active learner. However, eventually UK broadcast digital TV providers could also start offering open access via web links superimposed on top of TV programmes. This will be similar to what is starting to be offered in the US, although as yet, not for educational purposes.
  5. Therefore, learning content providers will continue to utilise the Internet as the main means of offering remote interactive learning services.
  6. As broadband technologies to the home start to become available high speed access to the Internet or an extranet it will enable easier access video-rich interactive multimedia learning resources. These technology pipelines will increasingly become available from the summer of this year (2000).
  7. It is also likely that by the end of this year dedicated Internet via TV boxes will have the capability of receiving reasonable quality video for viewing on a normal TV set - thus providing a cheaper means of accessing learning resources. However, the user still has to be active and "pull" down appropriate learning modules.
  8. As households start to have access to "always on" broadband pipelines lower cost terminals will start to replace memory-hungry computers. These terminals will be able to access applications from remote servers. This technology option will eventually replace the Internet via TV boxes. But both will be important for providing universal access for all.
  9. A development related to this is Personalised TV which is starting to emerge as another option for accessing multimedia rich content. It has the potential to "push" customised material as well as enable the viewer to "pull" video-rich multimedia learning content. Potentially Personalised TV will also have sophisticated tracking systems that could be utilised for monitoring a learner’s progress. However, it will take time to roll out Personalised TV across the UK.

Strategy for the development of Interactive Learning Services

  1. Focus on developing HTML-based interactive web-based multimedia learning materials – which could be accessed through multiple platforms (DVD, Internet, Extranet, video-on demand) and viewed on a TV set as well as a computer.
  2. Initially use video sparingly until the bandwidth or compression techniques make it possible to view good quality video. Animations may be an alternative and possibly lower cost solution intermediate solution.
  3. Internet via TV boxes should be considered as a short-term solution to providing access to web-based learning resources. These could be used for accessing learning resources off the Internet or an extranet where it is possible to control the quality of service. Consideration should be given to making these freely available for those with basic skills needs. This could be done in co-operation with housing associations that may also be able to share costs and use them as a means for keeping people informed and enhancing other services.
  4. Until broadcast digital TV providers decide to develop interactive links during or after TV broadcasts, it is difficult to utilise this as a means for turning a passive viewer into an active learner. However, it would be useful to monitor these developments and co-operate with any broadcaster receptive to exploiting such a development for education and training purposes. This is particularly important when trying to reach reluctant learners like those with basic skills needs. It would be very useful to develop a relationship with S4C and the Wales Digital College who are pioneering work in this area.
  5. It will be useful to closely watch developments concerning personalised TV and develop a relationship with providers of such services with a view to utilising this medium for education and training purposes.

Recommendations for further work

Further research is needed in a number of areas in order to achieve universal access to multiple media learning on demand to the home: -

  1. What broadband solutions to the home are emerging, when will they be available and what will be the roll out of coverage?
  2. What is required to enable successful, engaging (and measurable?) learning to take place in the home utilising such services.
  3. What is required to enable sustainable learning services to the home to develop?


  1. Joint ITC, OFTEL and OFT advice to Government on digital television Consultation document, May 2000
  2. Joint ITC, OFTEL and OFT advice to Government on digital television Consultation document, May 2000
  3. Press Association source "Government Digital Challenge" 2 December 1999
  4. Joint ITC, OFTEL and OFT advice to Government on digital television Consultation document, May 2000
  5. "NTL slashes cable modem prices"
  6. Datamonitor "Digital Home In Europe: Perspective 2003" February 2000
  7. Forrester Research "Europe's iDTV Walls Come Down" March 2000
  8. Jupiter Communications (1999), "Interactive TV and the Internet – Broaden Internet Strategy to include Multiple Platforms" P8 28 December 1999
  9. Sky press release "Sky extends access to digital television" 13th June 2000
  10. Bates, Peter J. (1999) "Development of Satellite and Terrestrial Digital Broadcasting Systems and Services and Implications for Education and Training – Final Report – A study for the DGXIII C3 Telematics Applications Programme Education and Training Sector, European Commission, prepared by pjb Associates Pvii July 1999
  11. Jupiter Communications 1999, "Interactive TV and the Internet – Broaden Internet Strategy to include Multiple Platforms" P26 28 December 1999
  12. Jupiter Communications (1999), "Interactive TV and the Internet – Broaden Internet Strategy to include Multiple Platforms" P17 December 1999
  13. OnDigital press release "ONdigital announces Internet deal" 5 June 2000
  14. Predicted by Datamonitor in "Digital Home in Europe: Perspective 2003"
  15. Jupiter Communications (1999), "Interactive TV and the Internet – Broaden Internet Strategy to include Multiple Platforms" P7 December 1999
  16. A working model [4] for an "Information and Education Utility" has been in existence since 1981. Jack Taub, inventor of the first computer database - "The Source", conceived this approach. More details in Woods, Bernard "Communication, technology and the development of People" Routledge 1993 pp. 71-72
  17. DfEE press release 12 January 2000
  18. Forrester Research press release "The Truth About The Digital Divide, According To Forrester Research" 14 April 2000