Some thoughts on the future of BBC jam

Introductory note: This article is written in the aftermath of the suspension of BBC jam, which took place in March 2007. I have been very involved in the development of the jam service, having been Executive Producer on five different projects, which, at the time of suspension, were in various stages of production – from about to be made live, to very initial project initiation meetings. For details on the suspension of the service, view the links at the side of this blog; for more details about me, see the profile available from a link on this page.

There are a number of objections to a BBC learning service: many are spurious. I’m not going to cover those here as it would be going over ground which others will doubtless examine in detail. However, there is one argument which has logical integrity and considerable appeal, and which consequently needs to be looked at seriously. The purpose of this article is to take that argument, examine it, and outline my conclusions about the future of jam on the back of this examination. I should say that much of what I am posting is not original and has been discussed with and by others – I cannot take the credit for all of the thinking!

The powerful argument against a BBC learning service might be described as the “free market” argument. This is characterised by the line taken by Richard Charkin of Macmillan, amongst others – his espousal of it is particularly interesting as he has no vested interests in the UK educational publishing market, and he is a significant figure in the international publishing industry. The argument goes something like this: the best and most efficient way for educational materials to be developed for, and distributed to, their users is through a competitive, open market, in which all budgets are devolved to teachers and schools. Commercial publishers should compete to create materials for this market and sell them into it. Institutions and educators can consequently have the widest choice possible, created in the most efficient way possible. Materials which are fittest for purpose will survive and prosper; those which are no good will fall by the wayside, at the commercial sector’s expense. Commercial companies, driven by profit, will be much more efficient than public sector institutions. Note that I am talking about “educational materials” here: whether or not these are electronic is actually not important to the argument.

The “free market” argument has the apparent advantages of simplicity, cost to the taxpayer and ease of implementation. However, it misses some vital points:

1. The market for educational materials is not a pure market.
Arguably, no markets are pure, but this one in particular bears little relation to a market in sugar, oranges or timber. It is driven, uniquely, by government. The DfES decides the basis on which teachers are measured and incentivized – for example, the way in which school league tables are calculated (and the fact that we have league tables at all). Given an agenda set by DfES, QCA decides and regulates how the curriculum is delivered and measured, sometimes via exam boards. (Clearly, these arrangements are different in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but a very similar infrastructure exists in these nations). Successful publishers make materials which are absolutely in line with the measures, incentives and curriculum.

The educational publishers make good money out of change in education – particularly when major initiatives introducing new measures and incentives happen (for example, the National Literacy Strategy, or changes in GCSE syllabi). There is not a demand for educational materials in the same way as there is for coffee – it fluctuates much more wildly and is decided by one organisation only. Indeed, one argument about the “failure” of e-learning credits goes that the market is now saturated with materials it doesn’t need because the government created an artificial demand in the market. The educational publishers have had many battles with government about the nature and timings of new initiatives – and DfES has sometimes worked alongside publishers to ensure that they can bring out materials in complementary ways and timescales to suit such initiatives. This is not the ruthless mêlée of the trading floor.

2. A commercial market will be only reactive
Fine, might say the free marketeers – so much the better. Let the commercial sector ride the waves of demand and suffer the consequences. Better they waste private money than the public sector waste taxpayers’ funds. If the DfES wants to prioritize particular things, send the money that way – whether it is SEN children or teaching grammar better. However, there is a more fundamental problem. This centres around a decision as to whether we want educational materials to be reactive or, in themselves, agents of change and debate.

There is little controversial in saying that our current education system is outdated and in need of dramatic reformation. QCA itself openly admits this and has been pursuing its interesting and rigorous QCA Futures programme for some time on this assumption. Curricula in both Scotland and Northern Ireland are in the process of changing dramatically. Many questions around these curricula will by necessity remain unanswered until they are implemented, and in some cases the curricula themselves are seen as “works in progress” – things which can be changed as initially theoretical practice and pedagogy are put to the test in real classrooms.

New pedagogy can emerge from new educational materials – few would dispute this. Yet, in a market which is purely reactive to government diktat, there is no room for experimentation outside the boundaries set by government. There is no room for innovation, transformation or debate – or even joy or play, things which are much underestimated in terms of educating kids better in a highly uncertain world which is nevertheless obsessed with the artificial certainties of measurement and targets. A BBC learning service, or a similar public sector initiative, presents us with an opportunity to open up the debate; to experiment; to be unexpectedly excellent; potentially to transform. Commercial publishers’ efficiency will always create materials which are pragmatically fit for purpose. Don’t we need the space to debate the purpose itself?

Clearly, the opportunity to create such new materials should be as open as possible, and the previous jam setup did not allow this as much as it should (see below for some suggestions as to how this might be improved). Yet one jam project I have worked on undoubtedly started to change pedagogy in a way which is potentially in conflict with government (it implies more spending is needed to provide blind learners with particular equipment if we are to maximize their chances of participating in society).

3. Getting practical
Finally, we need to look at where we really are rather than a world of abstract theory. The government moves very slowly and painfully, and its course is often dictated by short-term political gain. Most UK educational publishers are similarly slow to react (this is arguably one of the reasons why they are in such trouble right now). This is not a lightning-quick market responding to change, but one substantially populated by lumbering behemoths, who cannot deal with the investment risk profile of truly innovative electronic publishing (electronic publishing: very high fixed costs relative to very low variable ones; print publishing: low fixed costs, high variable ones). It is a market where a business model of rep forces and large multipart textbook schemes may have had their day, but organisations are finding that they cannot assess this risk fast enough. I should say that there are of course exceptions to this in the commercial sector who produce great and/or highly profitable things, usually smaller companies not (currently) owned by the multinational publishing giants. I work for one or two…

Jam has shown that the BBC – or at least the BBC with its production partners – can make materials very quickly. Unexpectedly, and perhaps more by luck than good judgement, the BBC seems to have found a mechanism to create innovative things at speed. We should harness that to get great things out to our children as soon as we can.

4. An aside: if taken to its conclusions, what does this argument mean for the future of the BBC?
This point does not dispute the logic of the “free market” argument: rather, it takes it to its conclusion. This conclusion is: we should pay for the BBC on subscription, and that it should be financed purely on this basis, rather than via a flat tax (the licence fee). BBC1, BBC2, Radio 3 and Radio 4 (and many other things the BBC does) are little different to BBC jam in the way they compete with real or putative commercial competition. I suspect that Richard Charkin would be perfectly happy with this arrangement. Would you? Where does “public value” begin and end for you?

5. Characteristics of a future service
A future service, in my view, therefore needs to display the following characteristics. Many of these were features of current or future putative commissions in the currently suspended jam service.

  • It needs to engage with the cutting edge of what learning materials need to be, might be and should be for the twenty-first century. This has interesting implications:
    • Projects must fail sometimes. If they don’t, the new service isn’t trying hard enough. Projects should, of course, be subject to scrutiny and tight management – but they should be difficult, challenging, highly ambitious and beautiful. Failure isn’t necessary waste, if the learning from the failure is captured and made public.
    • The service needs to do really big things as well as medium-sized and small things. Only the BBC and the DfES can spend really big money in this area. I’ve made my point about the DfES.
    • Subject boundaries may become unimportant in what is developed. Jam 1 was straight-jacketed by the 50% curriculum coverage requirement. Projects might be problem-based, topic-based, application-based, story-based – who knows?
    • Most difficult of all, this means that the BBC is commissioning against a continually moving target – what is innovative one year might be accepted as orthodoxy two years later, and “productized” by the commercial publishers thereafter. The BBC should be catalytic with the service as well as doing things the commercial publishers will never be able to do – but it needs to scrutinize its projects regularly and openly.
  • It needs to be a service not a product. Jam 1 required a “fire-and-forget” development model – static resources were developed, made live, and could not be developed or managed thereafter. The advent of user-generated content and collaborative technologies make a mockery of this model for an innovative learning service.
  • It needs to do what the BBC can do that nobody else can. This includes:
    • exploiting the power of BBC brands (for example, using links with soap operas to draw in users);
    • profiting from the global reputation and reach of the BBC (for example its international bureaux);
    • working for poorly-served minority interests (e.g. the visually impaired; Welsh and Gallic speakers; those with learning difficulties, and more);
    • doing interesting things with the BBC archive (rather than using it as “wallpaper”).
  • It needs a better commissioning process. The former commissioning process was dialogue-free and left little room for things to develop in stages or organically. Bizarrely, it was nothing like the model which exists elsewhere in the BBC. Note that I mean the commissioning process here – the process by which suppliers received invitations to tender and responded to them, not the development process (which in my experience was very collaborative).
  • It could be open, and open source – sometimes or all of the time. What if one project was to develop web services which could be accessed by commercial publishers’ applications for integration into other products? What if some or all of the content created could be re-used in other places, or adapted for local needs?

Defining this service in terms which allow it to fly but nevertheless have its wings clipped where necessary is hard, requires bravery, and necessitates trust and some level of scrutiny from the commercial publishers and education community. I hope that the publishers will be big-hearted enough to give such a service a chance. An interesting parallel debate is that about the notion of a public service publisher – see Ofcom and the Open Media Network for more details.

What does all of this mean for jam?
We need to make a decision here. Are we happy only to have educational materials which are ruthlessly pragmatic, or do we want to create a situation in which these co-exist with select resources which push the boundaries of what can be done, and raise the bar of expectation? Do we want to innovate, or wait?