Teaching by telly

With the new Digital Curriculum, says Michael Stevenson, joint director of Factual and Learning at the BBC, teachers will become guides on the side, rather than sages on the stage. But will they - and should they?

Toby Marshall

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‘By using the characters from EastEnders or Grange Hill, we can fire the popular imagination and bring learning to people who thought education wasn’t for them.’ (1)

This was how Greg Dyke, then newly appointed director-general of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), mapped out the corporation’s future in November 1999. The BBC, argued Dyke, was in a unique position to lead Blair’s ‘learning revolution’, as it could use the popularity of its existing TV and radio channels to build interest in new digital ‘learning journeys’.

Eighteen months on, Michael Stevenson, joint director of factual and learning at the BBC, is the man responsible for developing these new digital learning journeys. A classics graduate of Christ Church, Oxford University, Stevenson has spent his professional life in broadcasting. After joining the BBC 18 years ago, he moved swiftly up the ranks to become a producer for On the Record, and by 1992 he had been appointed as secretary of the BBC. Dyke’s recent shake-up of the BBC finally brought Stevenson to the top table.

The new service of ‘digital learning journeys’ must, notes Stevenson, be approached from an educational perspective. He cites Howard Gardner’s voguish theory of ‘multiple intelligences’ as a key influence, while ultimately settling for a pragmatic, almost atheoretical, approach. ‘Our main concern has to be with what works for learners’, he suggests, because ‘if something works for any particular child in terms of a broad range of learning outcomes, that’s good enough for me’.

At the core of these digital learning journeys will be a new ‘Digital Curriculum’. This service, to be initially launched in September 2001, will be developed over six years and will contain modules on all the main primary and secondary school subjects, as well as some post-16 level subjects. In terms of the usage, it will be accessible via interactive whiteboards, desktop personal computers and digital TV, by both teachers in the classroom and pupils at home.

But Stevenson is well aware that, in the past and the present, many have vehemently opposed the use of educational media in the classroom. As far back as 1975, the iconoclastic Rhodes Boyson warned of a growing ‘visual and electronic cult’. ‘Chalk and talk’, Boyson concluded, are ‘the most effective visual and aural aids, and the more equipment that is put into the classroom the more they are downgraded’ (2).

More recently, traditionalists have warned that the introduction of ICT into the classroom might lead to a digital dumbing-down. Writing the UK Daily Mail in February 2000, Anthony O’Hear, professor of philosophy at Bradford University, argued that ‘there is no solid evidence which points to the desirability of computer learning’. The idea of organising education around this technology, he added, ‘fills me with horror’.

Stevenson, however, has thought through his response. ‘There’s no sense here that what we’re trying to do is dilute and water down. We want to work with the grain of the National Curriculum’, he says, to ‘imbue it with a creativity that’s going to make learning highly ambitious and challenging and attractive to a wider range of learners’.

And in terms of the use of different types of information, Stevenson suggests that this is a question of balance. ‘It’s certainly true that some pupils appear to respond more to visual imagery on the screen, and we are very conscious of how children have responded to computer games, where the visual imagery is rich. But sometimes a simple text-based screen can be more effective.’

Perhaps more controversially, Stevenson suggests that the growing use of ICT in schools will alter the relationship between the teacher and the pupil. ‘Somebody said recently that [with the development of ICT] they would become the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage. I thought that was rather neat as an encapsulation.’

But doesn’t this downplay the role of teachers and teaching? No, argues Stevenson, as ‘teachers will play the whole range of roles that we have traditionally known’. He adds, however, that ‘there is no doubt at all that the emphasis is going to move towards guiding, mentoring, supporting, stimulating, challenging, as opposed to that more central sage on the stage role that teachers have classically played’.

Whether ICT will simply be another teaching resource, such as radio and TV, or whether it can be used to reorganise teaching practice fundamentally, remains to be seen. Yet both New Labour and the BBC have invested heavily, perhaps disproportionately so, in the broader educational potential of this technology.

For New Labour, ICT is one of the central components of its wider plans for raising educational standards. Speaking at the BETT education technology conference earlier this year, Michael Wills, minister of learning and technology, announced that by 2004 New Labour would have invested some £1.8billion in centrally provided ICT resources and training, on the basis that it ‘is a uniquely potent tool to help us transform educational attainment in this country’ (3).

But how much will ICT be able to compensate for the broader problems of education, particularly in relation to the loss of direction at the level of the curriculum?

For the BBC, in its promotion of ICT and education, the stakes are equally high. As Raymond Snoddy noted in The Times (London) in December 2000, Greg Dyke has ‘played the education card’ with at least half an eye on the government’s support for the license fee (5). But if ICT fails to meet the inflated expectations that many seem to hold for it, this may well lead to a wider questioning of the BBC’s current funding arrangement.

Rhodes Boyson was right when he pointed out that policy-makers have often mistakenly introduced educational media in the belief that it will provide a quick fix to the deep-seated problems of pupil attainment, even if he needlessly conterposed the use of new and old media in the classroom. This equally true with ICT, which is frequently used in the belief that it will be able to reach the less able; pupils who in fact in need more, not less, direct teacher input (5).

It is actually the more able – those with highly developed literacy and numeracy skills – who are most likely to profit from the use of ICT; if there is any weakness in the way in which the Digital Curriculum has been conceived, it is that it is being pitched at both the able and the less able.

Despite these potential pitfalls, however, we are at the beginning of a great educational experiment. It is only through constructive and critical comment, and a good deal of trial and error, that the most appropriate uses of ICT in education will be clarified. And Stevenson’s Digital Curriculum will no doubt make a useful contribution to this process.


Toby Marshall lectures in media (toby_marshall@hotmail.com). He spoke at the session ‘Surfing or reading: does the medium matter?’ at Creativity, Curricula and ICT, a two-day event organised by the Institute of Ideas at the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts

Read on:

From ABC to ICT, by Helene Guldberg

spiked-seminars: The lessons of ICT and education, by Toby Marshall and Chris Yapp

ICTeachers – a revolution in schooling?, by Toby Marshall

Computers and teachers: a lesson, by Joanna Williams

spiked-issue: Education

(1) ‘An Education Vision for the BBC’, G Dyke (1999), available from the BBC website


(2) The Crisis in Education, R Boyson, Woburn Press 1975, London


(3) Speech at BETT 2001, M Wills


(4) Fragmenting Education, Toby Marshall and Dave Perks


(5) Why Dyke could harm education, R Snoddy, The Times 1 February 2000


(6) Computers and teachers: a lesson, Joanna Williams

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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