Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Second Report

10.  Memorandum submitted by the Wales Digital College

  The Digital College for Wales is submitting this evidence in the belief that it may be of interest to the Committee to consider the role of digital television in the provision of education and training in Wales. The Digital College, which has been developed through a partnership of S4C and BBC Wales and includes Further and Higher Education establishments and training agencies in that partnership, will use digital television and its interactive potential as the front door to education and training in Wales. It will work closely with the UfI to make full use of the potential of the new broadcast technologies and relate its activities to the learning-for-life goals that have been set by government as part of its plan for the economic development of Wales.

  Given present trends, interactive technologies in general and the World Wide Web and digital broadcast networks in particular will, in the next millennium, have a profound impact on business and industry. Whether a country embraces the new opportunities may determine its long-term success in the global economy. As the traditional relationships between geographical location, marketing and distribution are gradually erased, countries such as Wales which are now on the outskirts of Europe will, if properly equipped, be able to place themselves at the centre of a thriving new market.

  Wales' ability to perform in the technology-based market is already being influenced by the availability of a suitably skilled workforce. Recent years have seen the development of some excellent projects and cyberskill workshops in schools and at FE and HE levels. Only a few educational establishments, however, are properly networked and equipped with multi-media apparatus and have the right skills to use the equipment as a pedagogical tool. Development is being hindered at present by concerns about the implications for education budgets, insufficient teacher training and lack of adequate educational and in particular, National Curriculum and work skills related, IT content.

  Concerns have been voiced; in particular, about the lack of digital materials for those involved in Welsh medium education and the development of Welsh language work-place skills.

  On a global basis, much funding for the development of ICT in schools is being sought through partnerships with IT providers and companies concerned with the production of hardware and software. Private/public educational initiatives such as ACOT and the European Educational Partnership will provide some pump-priming finance for individual networking and software projects. These initiatives, together with business partnership and training schemes within Wales must certainly be encouraged. Ad hoc project based development of networks could however lead to a two tier situation with pupils at schools in some geographical or socially disadvantaged areas being held back.

  The need to train delivery staff to make effective and imaginative use of the Internet and digital broadcast material is obvious and paramount and involves far more than the acquisition of new mechanical skills. If ICT is to develop as an effective learning tool, attitudes to teaching and to the role of the teacher will also need to develop. It is our view that this training, in future, should start in the teacher training establishments and be supported by intensive and regular in-service support. In the short term, however, specific intensive training modules may need to be developed for key teaching personnel who could act as ICT mentors in their own establishments. Broadcasters, with their emerging expertise in digital delivery, should be involved in basic and advanced ICT training. In Wales, this could be accomplished through the Digital College.

  This virtual college will provide programming, information, advice and guidance, and positive interactive learning experiences through the viewer's own television set, initially by means of a set top box controlled by a simple remote control. The College will also provide direct and fast access, through TV-Internet links, to educational and training bodies and service providers. Those who are not Internet or even computer literate will be able to join the on-line training revolution. An education and training council that will work closely with the broadcasters to ensure balanced and effective cross-sector development will guide the College. Industry will be fully represented on the council and at the working party level.

  It is foreseen that core Digital College activity will include literacy and numeracy and business and administration communication skills in both English and Welsh, Welsh as a second language and job seeker skills. It will expand rapidly, through close co-operation with education providers, to include a full range of vocational and non-vocational on-line experiences as well as link-in services for employers.

  Learning in the 21st Century in Wales will be characterised by a wider and more comprehensive demand for provision that will challenge the delivery structures and funding mechanisms currently in place. The traditional boundaries between the sectors will gradually erode and there will be a new emphasis on learner-based programmes and new types of individual, home and group delivery.

  Broadcasters have, in the past, played an important role in raising awareness of opportunities for returning to learning. The most popular campaigns—eg Second Chance, Computers Don't Bite, and Now You're Talking have taken advantage of maximum exposure at peak times on a number of popular channels. As the number of channels and digital services rises dramatically from 1998 onwards and viewing patterns become more diverse this co-ordinated "blanket" approach may become more difficult to achieve. In Wales, early steps to plan multi-broadcaster and distributor co-operation in key awareness fields could alleviate the problem and ensure that efforts are maximised. The Wales Digital College, which already has close links with the public service broadcasters, could play a key role in this development.

  In the past the reaction to the role of broadcasters as educational providers for adults has been mixed. Some have praised that role highly; others have criticised broadcasters for their perceived lack of focus and adherence to distinct educational and training aims and approaches. It is not easy to target specific interest groups on mixed channels. The pressure to attract and sustain large audiences is greater than ever and the contribution of every programme transmitted to the viewing figures is assessed. The substantial increase in digital services available in the future should ease the targeting problem. More channels will mean a wider range of programming and, in theory at least, this should encourage more education and training provision. More channels, however, will also mean more competition for audiences and unless education can be shown to be highly popular, this will inevitably lead to smaller programme budgets—unless, of course, the education and training budgets of those broadcasters with a public service brief can be bolstered.

  As things stand, it is likely that broadcasters will (i) work with others as true partners contributing to the programme cost, (ii) distribute programmes made by other organisations and (iii) distribute "sponsored" programmes.

  The regulations covering the funding of public service and commercial broadcasters differ greatly. If programmes supporting learning are to be made in significant numbers there is an important debate to be had on whether regulations concerning funding should be revised in this particular area. Innovation in attracting funding should be encouraged.

  There is to be massive expansion in digital channel airtime. Few channels have, however, designated "free to air" space for supporting learning. S4C has faced this challenge and has committed substantial space on the SDN Multiplex for the Wales Digital College. Transmission of trial programmes is planned for 1 March 1999 onwards. BBC Wales, a co-partner in the Wales Digital College, will also transmit the College's programmes but final decisions on where have yet to be taken.

  Wales is, therefore, in a privileged position in terms of available free-to-air digital capacity and the Welsh public service broadcasters are to be commended for their commitment. This situation however needs to be safeguarded and supported. If education and training programmes are only broadcast for popular subject areas likely to attract high audiences or on subscription channels, broadcasting will not contribute to the widening of participation and access. An education through subscription situation would further increase the gap between information "rich" and "poor".

  The convergence of digital technologies which make possible the linkage between television, radio and computer based networks will allow new ways of offering a total learning environment. The Wales Digital College is already piloting packages which will lead digital viewers, through the remote control of their television sets to TV programmes, key contacts with hyper links to service providers throughout Wales, advice and guidance from experts, on-line tasters and confidence builders, on-line assessments, instant on-line booking, registration and transaction systems and a range of access languages.

  As the technology develops, colleges in Wales, community education centres, training agencies and schools will be able to access and store these materials for in-house use. This is the vision of the Wales Digital College that combines the experience and skills of educationalists, trainers, business and industry, technology developers and Welsh broadcasters.

Elen Rhys


Coleg Digidol Cymru/Wales Digital College

29 September 1998

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