The BBC has brought together many different partners to deliver its Make it Digital season - but partnership working hasn't always sat naturally with the BBC. Could the BBC adopt now a permanent strategy for education that uses its reach and digital capabilities to help audiences from all walks of life access the best educational materials on offer from partner organisations?
When Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC, launched the Make it Digital initiative in March 2015, he said ‘this is the kind of BBC I believe in - working closely with others to achieve things none of us could do by ourselves’. More recently, he has spoken of his vision of an ‘Open BBC for the internet age’.
Indeed, Make it Digital (a season of programmes, events, apprenticeships and online resources which aim to turn young people from digital consumers to digital creators through making games, coding and learning digital skills) has leveraged partnership working more than perhaps any other BBC initiative, with over 50 organisations involved - from tech employers, to education partners and organisations that inspire young people. As Tony Hall said: ‘without our partners, Make it Digital simply couldn’t happen’. But partnership working hasn’t always come naturally to the BBC - which has been much criticised in the past for being monolithic and imperialistic, lacking the ability to balance the ‘gives and gets’ that true partnership working requires.
Certainly, when it comes to equipping young people with knowledge, skills and training, industry, formal and informal education, cultural institutions and communication channels need to work together. The digital skills field is a good example of the need for coordinated effort from industry, government, educators and wider players - addressing factors ranging from the inspiration and demystification of tech skills, industrial strategy setting and the national curriculum, through to accreditation and recognition. The recent techUK white paper is one of many calling for ‘more ambitious and better organised collaboration’ to close the digital skills gap at scale and ‘supercharge UK digital talent for the benefit of all’.
While a Doctor Who coding game, and 1m Microbits (a pocket sized entry-level coding device) issued to every year 7 child are exciting elements of the Make it Digital season, Nesta has focused its efforts on the Mixital platform and we think it may hold the blueprint to a more open, enabling BBC in the education space.
Mixital is a new platform, currently launched in beta, that provides young people with the tools and wherewithal to get digitally creative with BBC assets - through creating, remixing and sharing digital creations. Nesta supported Code Club to develop the Robo Dancer channel on Mixital, where bots in Strictly Come Dancing attire can be programmed to strut their stuff, for example. And the Eastenders soap maker will allow fans to create and share their own comic-book style story using some of the classic lines from the show. In future it is hoped Mixital will become the place where audiences can get digitally creative with other BBC assets - so when it’s Shakespeare season again, you go to Mixital to mash up Macbeth.
Two things are exciting about Mixital, and point to a potential new way of working for the BBC. Firstly, big-name brands such as Strictly Come Dancing and Eastenders are opening up their assets for audiences to play and create with - something that many brands aspire to but few have the guts to do. This is a new level of hands-on engagement for audiences, and what better way to engage young people in learning than through the brands and artists they already care about?
And secondly, it doesn’t just have to be BBC brands on Mixital (as piloted by our 3-way project with Code Club and the BBC). It’s not hard to imagine Mixital becoming a portal for young people to mix and mash up assets from other entertainment brands (whilst simultaneously honing their digital making skills), or arts and cultural organisations such as museums or galleries. Kind of like a digital ‘do tube’.
Through Mixital, and other ways of working collaboratively and openly in the education space, the BBC may finally be able to excise the ghost of BBC Jam - a high profile initiative launched in 1999 to develop a new digital curriculum of freely available multi-media educational materials. The content of the service was connected with the UK’s National curriculum across a variety of subjects and was designed to provide free, independent computer-based learning for school children. But established commercial players in the education market fought against it and the plans were referred to the European Commission on the grounds that license fee money was being used to intervene in a commercial marketplace. Eventually the service was pulled - but not until hundreds of millions of pounds had been spent. Overlooked at the time was the upside for new media education companies who were actually set to benefit from the BBC’s investment in BBC Jam and its promise to spend half of the content budget with external suppliers. Many fingers in the BBC Trust were badly burnt by this brush with big commercial interest, and it has erred towards caution when assessing its commercial impacts, possibly at the expense of true public interest at times.
Mixital and Make it Digital show that, rather than competing with the education world, the BBC could use its vast reach and its technological capabilities to curate and help audiences access and navigate the best educational materials on offer from partner organisations. This could offer a permanent strategy for the BBC’s approach to education, beyond the one-off Make it Digital season, involving:
More and better resources to help learners and parents navigate the educational resources available, and which ones really work. As Tony Hall said recently, In the internet era, it is easier to find information but harder to know whether to trust it.
Facilitating connections between schools, parents and the informal learning opportunities in their area - for example, Nesta’s Young Digital Makers survey found that Teacher awareness of digital making resources for young people outside of the school curriculum is very low, and only 12% of parents were able to signpost their kids to online or in-person resources to help develop their digital making skills.
Using the BBC Connected Studio model to develop new education tools and content for others to meet identified learning challenges.
A ruthless focus on democratising access to the best education materials and priority skills like digital literacy.
As Tony Hall said recently: “We’ve always sought to bring the best to everyone. Now we will have the opportunity to bring the best from everyone too” - delivering this in the education space could hold one of the keys to a revitalised BBC.