New wave of learning

An interactive project involving the Open University and the BBC allows educational journeys to begin at the television screen. By Yvonne Cook
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The Independent Online

Viewers of the spectacular BBC ocean life series, The Blue Planet, are being invited to "go in deeper" and develop their interest in the subjects of marine science and oceanography through a specially created Open University course.

In a new development in the long relationship between the BBC and the Open University, the university is getting involved in "learning journeys", where a television broadcast is no longer a one-off event, but part of a network through which viewers can follow up the interest that has been sparked by an inspiring programme in a variety of ways.

The Blue Planet series website has links to a diverse range of activities and learning opportunities related to the sea, including an introductory course offered by Hull University and the more in-depth OU short course Life in the Oceans: Exploring our Blue Planet. The course, available from February, incorporates video sequences from the television programme and the BBC book which accompanies the series, as well as OU-produced material, both written and on CD-Rom.

Michael Stevenson, who is the BBC's joint director of factual and learning programming with responsibility for education, outlined the thinking behind learning journeys and the OU's potential to contribute:

"The origin of learning journeys is our belief that the new interactive media provide learning opportunities which are more powerful and potentially more popular than the opportunities offered by traditional TV and radio – because the interactive media allow all aspects of the learning process to be done by the learner at the screen.

"The success of the project depends on how the BBC organises itself and how it creates partnerships in every way with national and local bodies.

"Critically we have re-thought our 30-year partnership with the OU so that when we offer learning journeys, they can come with support from the Open University – who knows better than anyone how to lead people into learning and to keep them there."

Unlike the traditional OU/BBC relationship, other universities are being involved in areas where they have particular expertise. But in one critical sphere exclusivity remains intact.

"The BBC will carry OU course-related programming in its schedules for some time yet, and the OU will be investing in the BBC's peak time TV schedules, building on the success of programmes like Renaissance Secrets," said Stevenson. "To that extent, nothing changes. The quality of OU programmes in peak time is set to go from strength to strength.

"As we develop courses with universities off the back of our TV series, some will be with the OU. We hope that even when we develop courses with other universities, where these have a particular expertise, there may be a triangular partnership so that the OU will be in there as well." Relationships between BBC factual programmes and the OU are "closer than perhaps they have ever been", Stevenson added.

But the learning journeys of the future are likely to look somewhat different:

"At the moment, in some ways it is not a perfect world – you watch a programme, then trot upstairs to boot up the website. With the coming of interactive TV, viewers can use their remote to go beyond the screen to pursue whatever they want.

"But we are very conscious that not everyone has digital TV, and so for the foreseeable future we will offer the Web and interactive TV but we will also offer the traditional written material and phone."

Paul Manners is education executive at BBC Bristol, and has been involved in the creation of The Blue Planet learning journey. He said: "The majority of viewers won't want to take an Open University course, but a significant number will watch The Blue Planet and then go on and take that first step into higher education – or in some cases return to higher education doing something that feels connected with what they have been watching.

"The idea is to provide a range of things for people to do. On The Blue Planet's website you can pilot a submersible, or be a research scientist. But we also want to provide real-life activities. We have encouraged aquariums, marine societies, libraries, colleges, etc. all round the country to set up events."

The OU's science faculty is to work with the BBC on further learning journey developments, said Anne Stevens, who is managing the university's side of the partnership. OU short courses in genetics and fossils will form integral elements in future learning journey developments, she added.

Beyond the science faculty, there are plans to launch some online learning modules linked to family and local history; a number of others modules are in the pipeline.

"The collaboration is designed to bring learning opportunities to a wider audience by providing a staged approach to learning with support and advice at each point," Stevens said.


Life in the Oceans: Exploring our Blue Planet runs four times a year and lasts for approximately three months. For details call 01908 659521, quoting ALBOE. 'The Blue Planet' website is at