Interactive TV learning services to the European home

Article in “Inside Multimedia” September 1999

Digital TV is not just creating about creating a large number of new TV channels. It is also opening up opportunities for interactive learning services to reach mass audiences. A new study, just published by the European Commission, assesses the market potential for interactive TV learning services to the home.

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

The study “Development of Satellite and Terrestrial Digital Broadcasting Systems and Services and Implications for Education and Training” was conducted and written by Peter Bates of the UK based consultancy pjb Associates. It covers issues that will need to be addressed by all organisations involved in education and training concerning the developments of satellite, terrestrial and cable digital broadcasting systems and services. The main focus of study is on the development of interactive TV learning services to the home via consumer or low cost receivers. It also covers data broadcasting and developments in digital radio that will also transmit limited multimedia.

A quarter of European homes likely to have interactive TV services within four or five years
As would be expected the development of the market for digital TV interactive learning services in Europe is very much dependent upon the development of the broader market for interactive services to the home. The study compares online Internet based interactive services with those of TV based interactive services. At present only an estimated 2.2 percent of EU television households have access to digital TV. The study concludes that within four or five years a quarter of European households will be capable of receiving interactive TV services. However, online-enabled computer households will dominate for the foreseeable future, providing a major means of enabling interactivity to the home

There will also be variations across Europe as to whether various interactive services via the TV will take off or not. In some countries access to online services using a computer will be the most appropriate means. In other countries with a lower penetration of computers to the home the TV may be more appropriate. The delivery mechanisms used – satellite, cable or digital terrestrial – will also vary across Europe.

UK, Sweden and Italy to lead the way

Generally, there is currently little demand from home consumers for interactive services via TV – a demand will need to be created before consumers will buy the appropriate equipment needed. However, where public awareness has been raised, there is some interest in interactive services and even a willingness to pay for such services including learning. The uptake of interactive TV learning services across the EU will be very uneven. The study considers that the prospects for the development of such services is high in only three countries: UK, Sweden and Italy, with medium prospect in another six countries. However, this may not necessarily put some European countries at a disadvantage to others because other competitive technologies like ADSL technologies may be more appropriate and have a more dominant role. ADSL will enable good quality full screen video and audio through existing telephone lines.

Most interactive TV learning services likely to be “edutainment” in format

Most of these interactive TV learning services are likely to be in an informal or “edutainment” format. Early developers of interactive TV learning services are likely be public service educational broadcasters and commercial operators who may wish to gain a competitive advantage over their rivals like sports channels. However, there does appear to be a demand for language learning, which may encourage the uptake of interactive digital TV. Interactive TV may offer some innovative approaches to tackling the problems of basic skills in an informal and entertaining way.

Separate “TV channel independent” interactive services utilising the return channel are starting to emerge in the form of learning resources related to the national curriculum for school children and online encyclopaedias involving new alliances with traditional publishers.

Some incompatibility issues still exist when providing interactive services that may result in additional costs for early adopters but the industry is moving to resolve these problems. However, until a critical mass of households are “interactive TV enabled”, traditional education and training providers will be reluctant to consider offering interactive learning services via TV.

Broadcasters will continue to be the prime gatekeepers

Broadcasters will continue to be the prime gatekeepers of interactive TV services to the home. As 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 web this may act as a barrier for traditional education and training providers. However, these may find new market opportunities for offering their learning services through local cable networks once they are able to offer broadband accessibility. Most education and training providers will find it easier to utilise the Internet for interactive learning services than for using interactive digital TV.

A critical factor is that multimedia learning resources must be easily adaptable for use on a number of different platforms whether via digital TV or the Internet

Personalised TV likely to develop

There is also likely to be a demand for video-on-demand services which will also lead onto personalised TV where the viewer is able to decide what programmes they want view and when they want to view them. They could access them from a remote server via an existing telephone line or cable network. Or they could be broadcast and stored in a high-capacity storage device in the home capable of holding 18 hours of video or more. The technologies capable of doing this are starting to emerge in the market. This has major implications for those offering learning via CD-ROM or DVD

Establishment of a European forum

The study, which contains a number of case studies of current developments, considers that the products tools and devices are already available and being further refined. But the new ideas and approaches in the context of interactive digital TV learning services are at a very immature stage and limited to isolated pockets of development across the EU. However learning service providers need to be aware of the continuing technical developments and constantly review their potential utilisation. Manufacturers and suppliers of digital broadcasting technologies need to be aware of the potential education and training market for such services and actively exploit it. So, to ensure the even diffusion and transfer across the EU of new ideas and approaches for the utilisation of interactive digital TV learning, human networking of those involved in broadcasting, education and the IT is critical

The key recommendation is for the creation of a European-wide forum by bringing together all the key players in order to stimulate the market and enable the industry to offer cost effective solutions for delivering interactive learning services

Download the full report

Further information from Peter Bates at pjb Associates