March 15, 2007

Why does toast always land with the Jam side down?

Bbcjamoffair So, BBC Jam is being pulled off air on Monday as Commercial Providers (presumably those not employed in the £150m project to create materials) complain that it is taking away their livelihoods. When the European Commission get involved, better to play it safe than face the daily six figure fines.

I'd have thought it's pretty devastating for the public service - education, the BBC, Government, but above all education - that a free, high quality service which allowed learners to learn without the teacher being there is being pulled.

But instead, it seems to be a situation ripe for the "I told you sos" to get the knives out.

Donald Clark gets the reason for pulling the service all wrong - it's not because some people, like him, think the content is 'appalling'. The BBC Trust is doing its job only in terms of damage limitation and will probably win any European Commission investigation (as it's won two previous challenges to the service).

Rose Luckin over at Futurelab's Flux blog also seems to miss the point:

The key question for me has to be:
“How do we make sure that the next portion of Jam is more appetising”…
To get the ball rolling I’ll suggest a couple of possibilities and invite others to add to the list:
1)    Make sure that learners, teachers, parents and other stakeholders in a learner’s education are part of the design process.
2) Recognise and build upon the fact that ‘Learners are doing it for themselves’, using Web 2.0 tools to create, share and publish their own stuff.

Very noble, absolutely essential and completely what BBC Jam has been doing throughout its commissioning process and in its day-to-day work. I don't know how many Web 2.0 briefing sessions I've led or been part of down at White City and as Senior Consultant on the Applied ICT project this would something that I felt had to feature prominently in this area in particular. The BBC's plans for CBBC SecondLife type activity, BBC Blast and many other interactive projects clearly take this into account.

AB hits the nail on the head for those looking at it from a Scottish perspective: this is disastrous in terms of lost content for those who do not want to pay commercial providers for their locked in material, subsequent upgrades. It gives part of the curriculum, not all of it.

And it's what the BBC is designed to do - read its Charter. The BBC has been producing educational programmes for decades yet ITV, Sky and the myriad of cable cos don't complain - they just make sure they make better programmes and compete. It just so happens it's the first time commercial software developers have had to up their game and compete with something truly competitive. Ask some might say, they've picked up their ball and gone home. Aw, poor souls.

The BBC is not about making programmes, as Tom Loosemore said last Thursday, though is the immediate argument some will make: "they should get back to doing what we pay them to do". Nowhere in its charter is "making programmes" mentioned. Education is mentioned as an aim as is the Internet. Put the two together and Jam is what you get. It's a simple recipe, it's one everyone should get. Let's just hope the European Commission get this quickly, get everyone to kiss and make up, and we can all get back to learning.

Disclaimer: I, like many teachers, work as Senior Consultant and Consultant on several BBC Jam projects. I like the service. There you go.

Update: 50% of the project's financing, £75m, has been or would have been spent on commissions to the private sector, mostly to Small and Medium Sized Enterprise. These are the companies that struggle most against the larger companies, probably the same large companies that are taking the BBC's case to the European Commission. Publicly funded, yes, but publicly funded and straight into business whether in the UK or elsewhere in the European Union. Spending £75 on education is surely a good thing?


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Would agree with all of the above Ewan. For smaller schools many commercial online activities are not feasible as the cost of the license is prohibitive. The Jam materials were good and appealing. From our point of view they were also done in Gaelic, indeed our students took part in some of the trials. Many commercial producers won't touch Gaelic as there is little profit in it for them.

Can you explain how as you say

"It just so happens it's the first time commercial software developers have had to up their game and compete with something truly competitive. Ask some might say, they've picked up their ball and gone home. Aw, poor souls."

other companies can expect to compete with something that is "free" and, by the back door, publicly funded. If I was in the education sector of IT in Europe I would be extremely miffed at how this is being done via the BBC rather than through the normal channels. It is state aid by any other name.

See my wee additional note above, which helps paint the picture of how the public money is allocated - in equal measure to a public education project and to private companies. It's an investment in the sector more than a replacement of its trade with a public version, no?

One thing I seem to have missed in a lot of this online discussion is a simple fact I remember John Russell saying on more than one occasion - "up to 50% of the curriculum" - so it seems to me there is plenty of scope for other content creators to make a considerable amount of money creating content that covers the areas the BBC don't (and contractually aren't allowed to?)

Well put, Ewan. When we are trying to get our students to work as 'independent learners' the more resources you have on offer the better. It's interesting to see that many other 'free' services are now asking for money to subscribe, which makes BBC Jam all the more important as a resource that schools could get into.. My school formed part of the initial trail for BBC Jam, and I know that our students were really impressed with the site...what next?

Well put, Ewan. When we are trying to get our students to work as 'independent learners' the more resources you have on offer the better. It's interesting to see that many other 'free' services are now asking for money to subscribe, which makes BBC Jam all the more important as a resource that schools could get into.. My school formed part of the initial trail for BBC Jam, and I know that our students were really impressed with the site...what next?

Putting the whole European commission thing to one side for just a minute I would like to know what will happen to the resources already created as part of Jam. My understanding is that nothing new has been published since December but the BBC has been working on new resources since then and has a bank waiting to be published. Surely these can't just be dumped. We paid for the through the licence fee so in some ways they can be considered ours.
Not being a legally minded person (see my record) I fail to understand how this has come to this point. £150 million is more than any of us will ever see (at least those in education). This should have been settled before any of the money was spent and now that some of it has been spent we should have access to what it was spent on.
I would also like to know how much of “my” money the BBC has spent on defending Jam – this could have also been spent on education.
If Jam was breaking some kind of rule (and I guess it must have or it wouldn’t have been pulled) why did it ever go ahead?
What about the work BBC has contracted out? Can they cancel the contracts or will “our” money be used to honour these contracts and then will the products ever see the light of day.
I suspect this is far from over, will any commercial producer create the Gaelic resources?

Rant rant rant.

Excellent post, to me one of the big issues is that these resources are aimed at students who will not necessarily have the money to subscribe to commercial content. Students can dip into these resources at home when they want to.

There is still plenty of scope for commercial providers to produce content in the areas not covered by the BBC, they could equally try to compete against those provided freely.

In answer to Alex's comment about surely they can't bin the content already online you should now go to the BBC Jam site. The latest notification does suggest that everything will end on Tuesday next and any student work created on this resource will be lost.

How can we let the big commercial interests shut down a successful childrens resource which has only the interests of school children of all abiliities at heart?

Just had another thought (it does happen from time to time) Much of the BBC Jam content is downloadable and playable in the Jam Pot Player. I'm going to make sure I have dowlaoded all the available resources by next Tuesday and make sure as many people as I know do the same. That way its not all lost.
We probably can't publish it legally but if everyone has their own copy...........

As ever, Ewan, you are finding the brickbats that I could only predict in their generality. The BBC needs its friends right now!

Yup. Ditto John C.

I've been a staff member, most recently as a Producer, on BBC jam for two and a half years. I've never before worked with a more dedicated and talented group of people. This project has been shoved from pillar to post every six months for about eight years now, and still, even today, when we know the machines are being turned off next Tuesday, I look around the office and everyone is still at their desk, knee deep in work, and desperate to get as much finished as we can before we down tools. If it doesn't all work out for the project, we'll all have given it a bloody good go. Thank you so much for your supportive comments; they've made a big difference to what's been a pretty bleak few days. We're all thrilled that you've enjoyed the sliver of the service that's seen the light of day, and desperately disappointed that the huge number of resources ready and almost ready to hit the site aren't likely to be seen, in the near future at least.

Fingers crossed for what the PVT will bring - but noone here is holding their breath. Anyone got any work?

I haven't seen a single educationalist delighted by this decision which has been forced on the BBC.

But I haven't seen a single suggestion barring. Gordon Mckinlay's practical one about things we might do about this.

All those who can should be seeing what lobbying can be done here - Education needs this stuff. Some of the developments were aimed especially at Scottish Learners.

Let's not sit (blog) around and mope - what can we do to draw attention to this loss and are there other positive steps we can take to recover these public assets.

I'm delighted to see BBC Jam go down the tube. BBC Jam and the Curriculum Online initiative with which it was closely associated have been surrounded with controversy from the outset and have helped wreck my little family educational software development and retailing partnership. My wife and I are now drawing zero income from the partnership, and our daughter, our third partner, is stacking shelves in Waitrose's (with a degree in Spanish and German) in order to pay her mortgage.

The comments by teachers in this blog show clearly that they have little or no understanding of commerce. Teachers have the cushion of a regular monthly income. In the commercial world you only draw an income if you manage to make a profit. Read my rant at:

The BBC should stick what it's good at, namely creating high-quality educational TV broadcasts - as in the good old days of Buongiorno Italia, A Vous la France and España Viva. But the unit that created excellent broadcasts like these - more recently the Greek and Chinese series - has now been closed down. This is obviousy what you wanted to happen, so enjoy watching more and more cheaply produced reality TV programmes about people buying and doing up houses.

Not everyone in education across the UK is anti-commerce or ignorant about commerce. But many understand only too well that commerce simply cannot meet all the needs of state education.

If we depended on commerce alone to fulfil the needs of Scottish education, for instance, or of minority subject areas, for another example, many parts of education would be barren places indeed in content terms. Witness the pain that the Content Advisory Board has gone through trying to work out how to fill the gaps that 'commerce' hasn't been able to deal with by itself.

It is this same 'commerce' that has flooded schools over the past decade and more with some very iffy content crowded onto CDs and DVs - most of it not much use to anyone. How many schools are stuck with so-called 'site licenses' for content that they never use? The truly innovative and useful content producers are few and far between.

The figures, finally, simply do not back up those who complain about market distortion or market destruction - BBC Jam has accounted for only a very small percentage of the overall market for digital content in the UK. To date, only just over half of the £75m pounds dedicated to BBC-produced content has been spent - compare that with the half a billion pounds that has been allocated to schools for content over the past 6 or 7 years.

Many 'content entrepreneurs' have done very well indeed out of state largesse in this area in recent years. And, of course, it is in the nature of commerce that some find a niche that works for them while others do not.

Finally, I do not recall anyone in the industry complaining about the 'distortion of market' inherent in the ring-fencing of large elements of the overall funding for content. How much did 'commerce' depend on this ring-fencing over the years to sell content to schools that they might not otherwise have chosen to purchase? Free market? I don't think so.

(And, as for "The BBC should stick what it's good at, namely creating high-quality educational TV broadcasts - as in the good old days of...." - a lack of understanding of the changing face of the media is just as damaging as a lack of understanding of commerce!)

Just to clarify my position: I write with 42 years of personal experience in using technology in the foreign languages classroom at secondary school, FE and HE level, beginning with language labs in the mid-1960s and moving on to ICT in the mid-1970s. I also write with 25 years of personal experience of running a software development and retailing partnership. So I have experienced what it like to work both in a publicly funded environment and a private commercial environment. I am, therefore, not against technology.

I am not against the BBC either. It does a great job. It’s the best public broadcasting company in the world. I collaborated with BBC TV producers back in the 1980s when the excellent series for adult learners were being produced, i.e. beginning with Buongiorno Italia and, with the BBC’s blessing, I developed a few interactive software routines that tied in with these series. More recently, I was employed by the BBC as a consultant in the development of German Steps:

When German Steps was produced I was under the impression that the BBC would probably be developing Web-based materials in tandem with TV and radio broadcasts – which would have been a very good thing. But it appears the BBC is now going firmly down the route of Web-only language learning materials – and I am totally convinced that this is a bad idea. We need mixed media: traditional TV and radio broadcasts – possibly enhanced with the digital interactive technology that is already becoming available via the ubiquitous digibox, Web materials, something to play in the car while driving and, of course, the humble book. BBC books accompanying older courses such as Buongiorno Italia, A Vous la France, Deutsch Direct and España Viva were excellent. I drew on Deutsch Direkt when writing parts of the pronunciation guide and grammar section for German Steps.

Offline materials such as CD-ROMs and DVDs still have a role to play. I have not yet seen a website that offers basic listen / respond / playback activities that work efficiently. Such activities are a sine qua non of the initial stages of language learning. I have developed and used CD-ROMs offering such activities since the mid-1990s. I found such activities particularly useful recently when attempting to learn basic Polish a couple of years ago and getting my tongue round the horrendous-looking Polish consonant clusters. But what did we do when developing German Steps? We invited the learner to “talk to the screen” – i.e. the same approach that we used on the BBC Micro in the 1980s in pre-Web days when most computers did not even have sound cards.

" basic listen / respond / playback activities that work efficiently"

Drill and kill? Efficient but kills any interest in the language as a thing that can make human relationships work.

"Drill and kill"? Rubbish! This just shows that you don't have a full understanding of what listen / respond / playback activities are all about. Yes, they CAN include drill and practice - and who says that drill and practice is not appropriate under certain circumstances? This is ideology gone mad!

Well, plenty of teens say drill and practice is not appropriate under any circumstances when they choose not to do the activities in class or at home. That, for me, is one of the most compelling reasons to try other approaches. Suggesting it's a sine qua non of language learning is to ignore almost every other alternative approach (CLIL, immersion, suggestopedia, extended role play/epistemic game-playing and game-making, active learning, extreme learning...) which have all taken on currency in recent years as highly effective means of both teaching and motivating students.

There are also tomes of research into early edutainment games (drill and kill) and epistemic or off-the-shelf games, comparing what each offers in terms of achieving curriculum objectives. Read Marc Prensky's Don't Bother Me Mom to get the rundown of both sides of the argument.

But, for me, this is now getting off the main topic of my post, especially since Jam was offering far more than just languages resources.

This is not a debate about the rights and wrongs of the content - people had already voted with their feet. It's about competition, making money and whether resources should be free or not.

Can we get back to this argument then? With communcation at its current level, we are only ever a few clicks away from the information we need and the resources to display it. When we find information on the net that costs, our next search is invariably to find it for free. Any forward thinking company would be able to capitalise on this, with a simple 'get these 5 free, but the next 10 will cost you' approach.

The problem here is that companies have complained when significantly more than 50% of a market was theirs for the taking. I'd call that a missed opportunity, but the real losers here are the kids. Never mind though, eh? Thank goodness we have dull, ancient textbooks for them to scribble on and draw all over?

Rant over - for now, anyway!

posted by Joe Wilson:
"I'm delighted to see BBC Jam go down the tube. BBC Jam and the Curriculum Online initiative with which it was closely associated have been surrounded with controversy from the outset and have helped wreck my little family educational software development and retailing partnership."

Would your company produce some Maths lessons in Gaelic? Would you develop software which corresponds with the Scottish curriculum?
If you are like most other software developers, then your answer will be no. Having tested software based on the English curriculum, I gained an insight into how much is spent on developing software for the Scottish curriculum - basically as little as possible - if the content can stay the same as the English software then they will produce a Scottish equivalent, but if the content is different, they don't want to know.
A gap in the market is there that you don't want to fill, and yet you [b]complain[/b] that they are taking work away from you?
Sounds contradictory to me. Why don't you make some software to fit with the Scottish curriculum?

Of course, at the end of the day, the posts by Graham Davies are quite irrelevant to what is going on here. Questions of quality are subjective - obviously - but the suspension of BBC Jam has absolutely nothing to do with issues of quality. It is all about naked self-interest on the part of certain sections of the content and ICT industry in seeking to kill off even the demonstrably small part of the market that BBC Jam covers.

Let's not lose sight of the real questions here - we can argue about quality when we know that BBC Jam will live again.

The other question to be asked here is around the part played by the Content Advisory Board in all of this. I suspect that the CAB has played no small part in the possible demise of BBC Jam by setting bureaucratic hurdles for the BBC that it simply could not get over. The decision by the BBC Trust is probably inevitable given the greed of the suppliers on one side and the impossible constraints determined by CAB on the other. With the BBC falling between these forces, any move to seek a decision from European is probably pointless.


>>>Posted by: Ewan McIntosh | March 15, 2007 at 09:23 AM: "It's an investment in the sector more than a replacement of its trade with a public version, no?"

I think it would help clarify the discussion to recognise that "the sector" is made up of several distinct interests, in particular the educational software publishing industry (as represented by the likes of BESA) and the independent digital content production industry (as represented to some degree by PACT and other trade bodies like BIMA). The investment is clearly in the latter whose interests, for the most part, are far broader than Education and Learning.

Meanwhile, back at the educational software publishers... I don't remember any of them turning down ELCs. So is that jam yesterday and jam tomorrow for BESA and co.?

What I'd like a better understanding of is how the curriculum was divided between the BBC and the software publishers. Can anyone elucidate? Who controlled the process in practice?

So with Jam hearts broken, perhaps we should leave the last word to the Queen:

'I'm sure I'll take you with pleasure!' the Queen said. 'Twopence a week, and jam every other day.'
Alice couldn't help laughing, as she said, 'I don't want you to hire ME - and I don't care for jam.'
'It's very good jam,' said the Queen.
'Well, I don't want any TO-DAY, at any rate.'
'You couldn't have it if you DID want it,' the Queen said. 'The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday - but never jam to-day.'
'It MUST come sometimes to "jam to-day,"' Alice objected.
'No, it can't,' said the Queen. 'It's jam every OTHER day: to-day isn't any OTHER day, you know.'
'I don't understand you,' said Alice. 'It's dreadfully confusing!'

Great! I've found some work at last! I'm quitting education and designing and setting up simple websites for small businesses. This is my first:
No controversial state aid, no problems - just a stack of products that lots of people in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland want and buy year after year. I'll be updating the site regularly.

I think I'll buy a new set of golf clubs with the money I've just earned...

I’ve got a great idea: Let’s get the government to give £150 million to a furniture factory to produce desks and chairs that they can distribute to schools free of charge.

It's always a pity when people take things personally on an issue of national importance such as this.

I've a better idea. There are around 5,000 secondary schools in the UK. Divide the £150 million by 5,000 and give them 30,000 quid each to spend on software, Web subscriptions, authoring packages and other tools to enable them to create their own materials.

Graham - there are over 20 000 schools in England alone. Your post is disingenuous in spreading the money around 5000 *secondary* schools. jam provided content for learners from ages 5-16. Even on the English schools alone your cunning plan would actualy give each school £7.5K with none for schools in NI, Scotland or Wales (although that's the attitude generally from players in the educational ICT market). Bringing the money together under the jam umbrella, in just a maths sense, makes for massive economies of scale.

You have missed one major point of jam though. It wasn't classroom resources for teachers in schools. It was learning resources for un-mediated children at home. It's they who are really missing out.

OK, point taken about children working from home and point taken about the age group covered. But, to come back to the points that I made earlier and which I repeat thus in the ICT4LT blog at:

"The decision to suspend BBC Jam is mainly the result of pressure from publishers’ associations and commercial online companies who complained that BBC Jam has had a negative impact on their businesses. This raises a number of important issues, for example the morality of allocating such a large sum of money to a public organisation, thereby distorting market forces, and to what extent the BBC’s move towards the production of Web-based educational materials rather than educational TV broadcasts was desirable. Bear in mind that the unit that produced the excellent series of TV broadcasts for adult learners of foreign languages has now been closed down."

BBC Jam, Curriculum Online and the general trend towards free online services has unquestionably had a damaging effect on small businesses like mine. But the focus seems to have been mainly on the "greed" of large publishing concerns. These too have suffered. Their software development units are often just a small group of half a dozen people, aided by occasional sub-contractors. Views expressed by exhibitors at last year's London Language Show were full of gloom and doom.

I've nothing against NI, Scotland and Wales being treated as special cases. I'm half-Welsh and married to an Belfast girl of Scottish descent (a Campbell, no less). "Twll din pob Sais. Cymru am byth!" But that's expressing a personal view.

I hope to see you all at EUROCALL 2007 in Coleraine. Just got back from a meeting over there: excellent facilities and the chance of visiting Bushmills Distillery and one of the most impressive coastlines in the British Isles. See:

As some previous comments have mentioned, the suspension of BBC Jam coincides with the planned shut down of the established 'schools TV' production that Jam was meant to replace. So from next week, the BBC will no longer be making any formal educational material at all for children and schools, something that's been a key part of its public service remit for nearly 50 years. Time to make a fuss, write to MPs, BBC Trust, breach of Charter, etc.

You may have seen this already but Stephen Heppell was able to offer a glimmer of hope on the BBC Jam front. See Heppell talks to a Sick Dog.

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Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

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