Development of Interactive TV and Internet-Based Learning Services to the Home and its impact on traditional campus-based Institutions

Research Paper

Development of Interactive TV and Internet-Based Learning Services to the Home and its impact on traditional campus-based Institutions

Peter J. Bates

pjb Associates and Sheffield Hallam University (part-time), Virtual Campus Office, Surrey Building, City Campus, Pond Street, Sheffield, United Kingdom S1 8HD Email


A paper presented and in the proceedings of ISTEP 2000 “International Symposium on Telemedicine and Teleeducation in Practice”, Kosice, Slovak Republic 22-24 March 2000

Abstract. This paper draws upon some of the conclusions of a recent study written for the European Commission on developments towards interactive TV learning services to the home. It tries to assess the likely role and impact of interactive TV in these developments compared to services being offered via the Internet, before assessing the latest thinking, technology and market developments towards personalised TV. This leads on to exploring the concept of “community learning utilities” before focusing on the Upgrade Project which aims to address the needs of those with basic skills through the utilisation of Digital TV. Lastly the paper looks at the impact these developments could have on traditional campus-based institutions and argues the need for them to manage these changes by “re-engineering” themselves towards the creation of a “Virtual Campus” and the “Virtual University” by thinking globally and acting locally.

Keywords. Digital TV, Interactive Digital TV, Personalised TV, Personalised Learning, Individualised learning, Community Learning Utilities, Re-engineering, Virtual Campus, Virtual University, Learning Services, TV and PC Convergence


As Europe along with the rest of the world is moving to an era of lifelong learning a key issue for those offering multimedia learning services is to find the most effective way of reaching their target audiences.

Over the next decade learners will increasingly have access high quality interactive multimedia learning services in their own homes. This will not just be via online computer systems. Access via Digital TV-based (broadcast and personalised) services is likely to be widespread. In fact towards the end of the decade it is very likely that these two mediums would have converged.

Results of EU Study

A recent study [1] 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.

The study concluded that the uptake of interactive TV (broadcast) learning services across the European Union countries will be very uneven. Prospects for the development of such services is high in only three countries and prospects will be low in another six countries as indicated in the table 1. However, this may not necessarily put some European countries at a disadvantage to others because other competitive technologies including TV-based high-speed access via existing telephone lines are also emerging rapidly and may have a more dominant role.


Tab. 1. Prospects for development of interactive digital TV (broadcast) learning services with EU Countries (cross (X) indicates the level of prospect)
Tab. 1. Prospects for development of interactive digital TV (broadcast) learning services with EU Countries (cross (X) indicates the level of prospect)

Widening access to learning

These developments are 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. Of course, as it becomes technically possible to offer such services to the home, it will be equally possible for the same or enhanced services to be available in the workplace of large or small enterprises, schools, colleges and libraries. Such interactive learning services could also be established in learning or study centres set-up in other non-traditional environments like football clubs or cafe-bars.


Streaming Video via the Internet

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. Streaming video is possible but its quality is variable due to varying bandwidths over the Internet.

Edutainment TV channels

However, digital TV developments are starting to bring multimedia learning resources right into the living room of people’s homes, accessible, just by touching a few buttons on a remote controller of a TV set. Digital TV delivered via satellite, cable and terrestrial broadcasting has already started to make hundreds of TV channels available in the home. A number of these thematic channels like Discovery or the National Geographic provide a rich means for informal learning in the form of “edutainment”.

Interactivity via digital TV

Digital TV also enables various forms of interactivity to take place. Interactivity can be divided into two types:

  • Enhanced TV
  • Interactive Services

The method of accessing interactive services is through the remote controller or a remote keyboard sending an infrared signal to the set-top box that converts the digital broadcast signal into a format suitable for viewing on a normal TV. The set-top box then requests that information be displayed on the TV:

  • If it is already stored in the set-top box
  • From regularly updated data re-broadcast on a carousel basis
  • The set-top box may request specific information via the “return” channel through an existing telephone. This information may come back via the broadcast link or via the telephone line depending on what service is requested.
  • Alternatively, with cable networks the request for data is sent via the cable system which itself is a two-way broadband system if the cable system is an advanced one.

Enhanced TV means that the viewer can do more than passively watch a TV programme. For example, they could be:

  • Watching a travel programme and click on an information icon which provides more detail in the form of text and graphics about the location of the activities
  • Watching a football programme and being able to view the match from a number of different camera angles with a split screen
  • Competing with studio competitors in a quiz show and having the results displayed at the end of the programme
  • Placing an order or requesting further information about a product whilst watching an advertisement
  • Accessing a directory of words or phrases during a language learning programme.

Interactive services involve accessing information independent of a TV channel. For example, it could mean:

  • The electronic programme guide (EPG) which is used to select channels through a menu system and also regularly updated to ensure the programme timing is up to date – with additional information about the programmes
  • Selecting information from an enhanced teletext type service which will display a screen in the form of high-quality graphics, various fonts, pictures, sound and video clips
  • Answering multiple choice questions and being informed whether the answers are correct or not
  • Accessing an electronic encyclopaedia requesting information about a particular topic.
  • Using an online banking service
  • Sending and receiving electronic mail
  • On-line shopping
  • Booking airline tickets or other services
  • Accessing the World Wide Web
  • Video-on-demand services
  • Interactive games.

Many of these services are also becoming available via the web. In fact interactivity through the TV and through the web are bumping alongside each other on an imaginary racecourse. But the finish to the race is not clear and the convergence of the technologies over time may mean they become integrated together before they reach the finishing line.

Personalised TV services

There is also the emergence of personalised TV services that 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. Personal profiles for each member of the household can be set-up enabling a person to be alerted to something of specific interest to them. Interactive video games are also accessible through the same type of system as well as a wide variety of information services. We are only a short step away from interactive learning services.

These personalised services can make use of both server and client-based (home) technologies. Server solutions are where the multiple-media is individually streamed to a client set-top box in the home – video on demand (VOD). Client solutions involve the multiple-media being broadcast and then stored locally in the home in the set-top box.

Server solutions. Video on demand services are starting to emerge via cable and ADSL technologies. This enables the viewer to request programmes, audio or video clips and information services and play interactive games. These are stored on a remote server and streamed to the set-top box in home. Examples of services merging in the United Kingdom include:

  • Yes Television – has a commercial trial to 200 homes in the Cardiff via NTL cable with MPEG2 films, interactive games and information services
  • Video Networks has a video on demand service using ADSL but MPEG1 films
  • Kingston Vision (Hull) in conjunction with Yes Television has a VOD service over ADSL delivering MPEG2 at 4Mbs

Client-based solutions. This involves having large hard-disk storage capability 30-50Gb within set-top boxes or separate digital or personal video recorders (DVR or PVR). They have the ability to download multimedia content and store for future viewing. Examples of services in the United States:

  • TiVO
  • ReplayTV

Personal TV Characteristics. Emerging characteristics could include:

  • All solutions have the capability to view, pause, rewind and perhaps fast-forward
  • Interactivity will be possible
  • Personal profiles very likely
  • Cut & paste may also be possible if copyright issues are resolved
  • Cash, including microcash payments will become possible via credit cards or billed to be customer


Shift to “demand-led” environment

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. These “on-demand” services are also creating a “demand-led” rather than a “supply-driven” environment. Digital technologies will soon enable the learner to pick and choose what they want, when they want and in the amount they want.

Emergence of non-traditional players

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.

Digital TV learning channels emerging

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 TV 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 led 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.


The BBC has this notion of learning experiences to be “bite-size”, “just in time” and “on-demand”. The UK’s University for Industry (UfI) [2] – 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 generally supply what they think the learner should know as a whole course, on a timetable dictated by the institution.

Tracking learning modules for accreditation.

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 don’t do so, other non-traditional players are starting to emerge to fill this gap.


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!


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. He saw the potential of the technology for assisting children with learning difficulties. Of the five million children with learning difficulties in the United States, a significant number of them are bright. As a result of their backgrounds or of a very poor early experience in school, they become bored in the traditional school, which leads to them becoming disorderly in class and rude to teachers. Thus the underlying problem is not their learning disability but the inability of the conventional educational system to cope with learners from widely differing backgrounds and with differing learning speeds and styles.

Taub identified that the technology to reach five million children with learning difficulties could also be used to reach fifty million children in US schools. Therefore, Taub, set the objective to create a system that would:

  • Realise the potential of interactive, digital technologies for delivering information and learning materials individually to the desk of every US child;
  • Permit all users to inter-communicate;
  • Use the capacity of the same technology to assist the management and administration of schools and education systems
  • Be equally available to children at home and to other community users;
  • Be affordable for poverty stricken education authorities

This vision of envisaged in the early 1980s is now beginning to become a reality. The Internet is beginning to lead the way but it is starting to converge with digital TV technologies leading to the creation of an infrastructure of a rich personalised learning environment accessible to all.

These technology developments like personalised TV are also making it possible to reach adults with learning difficulties. Equally it could also serve the needs of those in need of updating their professional skills who are unable to attend traditional face-to-face courses because they have to work when these courses are available.


The European Social funded 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. Partners all based in the UK include the Basic Skills Agency, BBC Education, Cambridge Training and Development Ltd, Tyneside Training and Enterprise Council with the Institute of Education, University of London as project evaluators. Sheffield Hallam University is taking a major role in this project under its Virtual Campus Programme.

The project aims to provide interactive learning experiences in basic skills to employees at home and in small companies primarily using digital TV technologies to reach a target group of in excess of seven million adults in the UK who have basic skills deficiencies. 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. The key is to find the most appropriate way of making use of these digital TV developments to reach those people where other learning institutions have failed to reach.

It involves turning a passive viewer into an active learner by creating a learning experience in a format that is acceptable and convenient to the learner. A starting point could involve a story line in a popular “TV soap” concerning a character with literacy or numeracy problems. Those viewers that identify with the character could be drawn to a number of interactive learning experiences accessible through the same TV in the privacy and comfort of their own homes. This could eventually lead towards them taking part in other types of learning experience.

The practical realities of achieving such a vision are in fact fraught with a number of difficulties. The Upgrade2000 project is aiming to find the most appropriate learning model utilising the most appropriate digital TV-related technology configurations available at present. It is also aiming to identify which of the emerging digital TV technology configurations could be most appropriately used in the future. In addition it is having to address management issues around bringing together a team of organisations and people with various skills, that have not traditionally worked together, in order create an acceptable and highly relevant learning experience over a mass-market consumer device – the TV. The experiences, knowledge and know-how acquired from this project could eventually be utilised in a wide range of personalised TV interactive learning experiences including professional updating at postgraduate level.


For traditional, and for that matter 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.

The corporate university

The emergence of the “corporate university” is already starting to erode the base of traditional and distance learning institutions in some parts of the world. It may not be long before these new players start to join forces with the IT, telecom or broadcasting companies who already have the infrastructure in place to reach the home. In additional as personalised TV starts to take off advertisers will also be seeking new alliances to find new channels to tell their clients products. Learning through sponsorship is highly likely, particularly if it is free.

Utilising assets

Traditional and distance learning institutions do have a tremendous asset – knowledge and know-how in providing learning experiences and methods of assessment. But they need to adapt rapidly to the changing market otherwise they will start to die.


Bacsich [6] considers that universities will need to “re-engineer” themselves towards the “virtual campus” or “virtual university” in order to meet the new challenges that many are now experiencing. In a university system he considers that the main objectives of re-engineering are:

  • To extend “reach” so that off-campus students can engage in education.
  • To attract new audiences, particularly post-graduate degrees and advanced non-degree students from around the world.
  • To motivate staff, perhaps by using new media to re-invigorate their interest in their subject.
  • To reduce costs or other performance indicators, not just incrementally
  • To use telematics and multimedia where appropriate
  • To use telematics and multimedia tools on-campus as well as off-campus.

Traditional and distance learning institutions need to be seen as leading research and influencing developments, otherwise they will be left on the sidelines. Some of these issues are being raised at first EDEN Research Workshop in Prague [7]


The development of personalised digital TV-related technologies is openly up new opportunities to create local and global community learning utilities [8] available “on-demand” just like water and electricity for all types of interactive learning experience. In the same way that water and electricity brought new opportunities and prosperity to the population of all in a town or a village, this is now becoming possible with learning. Traditional learning institutions need to embrace the opportunity of these new digital technologies in order the bring the equality of personalised learning for all


[1] Bates Peter J. pjb Associates “Development of Satellite and Terrestrial Digital Broadcasting Systems and Services and Implications for Education and Training”, A Study for the DGXIII C3 Telematics Applications Programme Education and Training Sector July 1999, pp. vi-ix More Information

[2] Original link no longer available but Ufi became Learndirect and there is now a Ufi Charitable Trust

[3] Dyke Greg BBC Deputy Director-General and Director-General Designate “An Education Vision for the BBC” The Spectator Lecture 18 November 1999

[4] Woods, Bernard “Communication, technology and the development of People” Routledge 1993 pp. 71-72

[5] The original website is no longer available, but a paper about the project can be found at

[6] Bacsich, Paul “Re-Engineering the Campus with Web and Related Technology for the Virtual University – Insights from my work in Europe analysed in the context of developments in the US – Part 1” Learning in a Global Information Society Issue 14-15 31 January 1998 pp. 9-13 (link no longer available)

[7] Bates Peter J. “Development of interactive TV and Internet-based learning services to the home and its impact on traditional and distance learning institutions” Workbook of Essays – The First Research Workshop of Eden Prague due March 2000 Full paper

[8] Bates, Peter J. Editor, “Editorial” and “A Community Learning Utility – a new way of thinking” Using Telematics in Education and Training Issue 14 January 1994 pp. 1-5