New opportunities for mass-market personalised learning through Personalised TV and its implications for traditional providers of open and distance learning

Peter J. Bates*

A paper in proceedings of the “ODL Networking for Quality Learning” Lisbon 2000 European Conference  19-21 June 2000


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 personalised TV 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.

A recent study (Bates 1999) 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. 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. 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.

These personalised TV services 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.

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.

Market Developments

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. 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.

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.

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 UK’s 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 who generally supply what they think the learner should know as a whole course, on a timetable dictated by the institution.

Traditional broadcasters are starting to change

Greg Dyke, now the Director-General of the BBC, recently in a keynote speech quoted (Dyke 1999) 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!

Implications for traditional ODL providers

For traditional providers of open and distance learning 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 need to be seen as leading research and influencing developments, otherwise they will be left on the sidelines. The first EDEN Research Workshop in Prague (Bates 2000) earlier this year has started to address some of these issues.

Upgrade Project – turning passive viewers into active learners

The ESF funded Upgrade2000 Project (Upgrade2000) 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 including 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 a target group of in excess of seven million adults in Britain 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.

* Peter Bates is Senior Partner of pjb Associates, UK and Senior Research Associate (part-time) Sheffield Hallam University, UK. Email: web site


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 Full paper

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 March 2000. Full paper

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

Upgrade2000 The original website is no longer available, but a paper about the project can be found here