Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Augmented Reality? Feedback from the BBC Trust on Jam

As a follow-up to an earlier posting on BBC Jam...
First of all, if you don't know what Augmented Reality is, watch this - it's a commercial company's presentation, so it's not completely committed to education:

Now read about what Jam was going to do with AR - I was fortunate enough to see a demonstration of this at a Becta Expert Technology seminar - and it really is phenomenal (imagine what it looked like now if it looked like this three (three!) years ago...) It was presented by Adrian Woolard, from the BBC's Creative Unit - you can view the slides here while you listen to the audio from the presentation below...
Now, the Press Office which issued a glowing article on the BBC's use of AR is the same one which says it's time for it to bite the dust. But where did all this come from?
Just before Easter (at a date I can't quite remember - actually, it was the 20th March) I sent an email to the BBC Trust about the withdrawal of the Jam service. Nothing happened for a very long time. I heard all sorts of comments about why it was withdrawn:
  • because it was rubbish, or because the BBC thought it was rubbish
  • because it didn't have enough users, or they weren't "real" users
  • because other software suppliers in the industry would have controlled its direction
  • because the BBC recognised that it had stepped outside of its remit

and some others... anyway, things bubbled along on the Naacetalk list, I had a few conversations with people from Jam, from BESA and others who move in these sorts of circles. The BESAesque view appeared to be that the BBC had finally admitted that Jam was rubbish after all, while the insiders' view was that Becta, whose role had moved from an advisory one to a policymaking one, would instruct the BBC Trust to make Jam and its ilk subject to a content-focused version of the Becta Content Advisory Board - which would have representatives from [insert a list of names of large educational software suppliers here] who would basically set the direction and remit for the BBC - like asking Sir Alex to allow Arsène to pick his team and choose tactics I guess. A look at the schedule of the CAB shows that it didn't meet for ages in 2006 and then met in December (here's the agenda in PDF - shortly after this BBC Jam was frozen) and then it apparently met again in January, shortly after which Jam was suspended. In this situation it doesn't take too much thought to see why the Trust would pull the service and this situation was described as such in a letter to a recent edition of the Guardian's Link E-Learning section, but it appears not to be on the site - unless someone can find it for me!

Anyway, I eventually got a reply from the Trust... nothing gripping but it's instructive to read the minutes of various meetings of the BBC Trust which mention Jam (page 6 of 24-01-2007 and page 9 of 21-02-2007) - the phrase you're looking for is "witheld from public minutes" - which probably tells you all you'll find out about the real reasons...

4th May edit... thanks to Leon Cych, here's a QuickTime of Adrian Woolard showing a demo of the BBC AR software (which was available for a six month period for free):

1 comment:

  1. Dear Ian,

    Another very long comment, I am afraid, but as you know, I have also been following this closely. I asked my MP, Oliver Letwin, to ask a number of Parliamentary Questions regarding the CAB and requested its minutes under the Freedom of Information Act. I think I can fill you in on the reasons why the Digital Curriculum was suspended.

    The original DCMS conditions for the Digital Curriculum included the following:

    "4. ...The service, taken as a whole, should be distinctive from and complementary to services provided by the commercial sector."

    "11. The BBC will work closely with the Curriculum Online Content Advisory Board and, where possible, follow its recommendations."

    "13 The functionality of the Virtual Learning Environment for teachers and students should not increase during the lifetime of the Digital Curriculum beyond the initial level proposed in the BBC’s application."

    "18 The Secretary of State will review the service within two years of the launch of the service, for the purpose of satisfying herself that the BBC is acting in accordance with the facts and assurances on the basis of which the approval was given and these conditions have been complied with. The review will include an independent assessment, encompassing an assessment of the service’s impact on the market, and a public consultation. DfES and OFCOM will have a role in the review as appropriate."

    These conditions were imposed after industry went to Europe to complain that the government was destroying its commercial marketplace - and that under European law, this is not permissible. It was only on the strength of these conditions that the Commission allowed the DC in the first place. So, unless you think that governments do these things better than industry (and the evidence runs, I think, very strongly in the opposite direction) the existence of the safeguards, in principle, was reasonable. Which is not to say that the conditions were the right ones or effectively drafted.

    You think that the problem is that Becta became more proactive and started regulating in the interests of big industry. I think that the problem was that Becta did not regulate sufficiently early or sufficiently consistently or sufficiently transparently in the interests of an open and free market (i.e. in the interests of small industry, innovation and education).

    My own interest in this was interoperability, in particular, runtime interoperabilty, which I believe is vital to the implementation of e-learning. The problem is that there is an impasse: there is no commercial case for interoperable platforms while there is little or no interoperable content; and no case for interoperable content while there are no interoperable platforms. I saw the DC as a chance to break this log-jam by making available a large quantity of interoperable content which would stimulate the market for platforms to run it - particularly as the BBC were not allowed to develop their own platform. But this would have required the BBC to be very open and talk to the platform producers about what back-end support their content required.

    They did the opposite: they talked to nobody for the good reason that they were (against the DCMS conditions) developing their own platform (which they called a personal online space in the pretence that it was not a VLE). The CAB highlighted concerns in the industry at the lack of interoperability in its 3rd report to the Secretary of State, in December 2005. Its proposed solution was that the DCMS conditions should be reviewed (i.e. lifted). The first and only time the watchdog was required to bark, it decided to go back to its kennel instead. Its recommendations were rejected by Lord Adonis in the DCMS and Owen Lynch retired (a year early) shortly after. The CAB tried its best to let the BBC's plans go through on the nod but this would not have been swallowed by Europe.

    The 3rd report also told the BBC to consult with the industry on interoperability and the BBC held a series of technical seminars starting in June 2006. It was immediately apparent that there were a number of issues:

    1. some relatively trivial errors in their content packaging, which were fairly easily corrected.

    2. they were extending the standard for content packaging to include functionality which their own platform supported. While there was nothing wrong with the extensions themselves, it is important that any extensions are done publically through a recognised standards body - and not that anyone who has both content and platform should create proprietary extensions which shut out the rest of the market and undermine the whole point of having an open standard.

    3. by far the most significant, they were not supporting the runtime exchange of data with 3rd party platforms; but their content was designed to run with their own platform using entirely proprietary protocols.

    I raised (3) as a serious objection immediately with the BBC. A meeting with the BBC team was arranged and then cancelled, to be replaced with an open conference at which my objections were summarily dismissed. I therefore raised my concerns about interoperability with Becta and met Stephen Crowne in early October. I was assured that my concerns would be raised as a serious matter - although it is now clear from their minutes that my concerns were never raised on the CAB.

    The objection that carried weight against Jam was the question of "complementarity" for the reason that it was being backed by Europe. The minutes of 25th January 2007 state that at that time, the Commission had given the UK four extensions to their deadline and the government could not reasonably ask for a fifth; and that the Commission was arguing "that the BBC has breached a main EU condition (not a DCMS condition) of state aid law." In other words, the CAB was procrastinating as hard as it could, but was running out of rope and however much they fudged the DCMS conditions, they could not fudge European law.

    I imagine I would agree with you in thinking that the whole "complementarity" condition was a mistake. To return to our earlier discussion about gobbledegook, what does it *mean*? Is it realistic to expect the BBC to introduce completely new technologies or pedagogies or to address only obscure areas of the curriculum that no-one else wants to touch? I would have ensured a free market by providing (a) a scheme for eLCs which need not have been quite so generous in the first instance, but which would have continued for longer and which would have included proper accounting procedures, and (b) effective regulation on interoperability. I suspect that this would have been acceptable to the Commission, who in my experience do not dictate detailed conditions themselves, but look to see that conditions that governments apply are (a) reasonable, (b) clear, and (c) enforced.

    The Commission's position in this case hinged on the fact that no-one had defined what "complementarity" meant so it had to be defined now - and the new definition may turn out to be very inconvenient for the BBC which had already developed a lot of content which may very well not fit the new definition. There was also a question of timing. If the term had been defined in 2003, it could have been defined with reference to the market as it was in 2003. In 2007, it would need to mean "complementary to the market in 2007". (Not, in my my view, that the market has moved on very far in those five years).

    Why had the word not been defined? Because Becta never defines anything (try "learning platform" or "interoperability" for comparisons). It likes it that way, because no-one can then hold it to account for any of its numerous cock-ups. "Fudge and fix" is how it works. Becta would say that it was not responsible for drafting the DCMS conditions - though I cannot believe that it did not have considerable influence.

    The "fix" in this case lay in the idea that the BBC should review itself (or at least appoint the review panel). The main industry representative on the CAB is David Warlock, who was quite rightly very unhappy about this idea, and the minutes of the meeting of 20th February indicate something of a stand-off between Warlock and Crowne. Warlock "raised concerns about the BBC Trust leading the review" which "is likely to be regarded by the private sector with considerable suspicion". he continued to say "that lawyers who advise the BBC are the same people advising the BBC Trust. CAB running the review process was acceptable, but the BBC Trust managing it may well prompt industry to return to the European Commission (EC)."

    Warlock's objection was squashed by Stephen Crowne, Chairman of the CAB and Chief Executive of Becta: "Industry has a right to voice an opinion but CAB cannot commit to making changes to the review process based on that opinion". A typical example of Becta arrogance, rail-roading through their policy while ignoring reasoned objections. What matters is not *who* makes an objection, but is it a *reasonable* objection. We had exactly the same line from Chris Stolberg (DfES) at the first and only meeting of the Becta Learning Services sub-group: "it does not matter what you [industry] think [about the Learning Platform procurement] - this is government policy and it is going to be implemented". (repeated, as far as I can remember, more or less verbatim). The plan for a self-review went forwards, but when presented to an industry forum in early March, I understand that all hell broke out - as anyone living in the real world could have easily predicted.

    The point (in answer to your suspicion that big business wanted undue influence over the review process) is that industry did not want to conduct the review itself, but wanted to the review to be clearly seen to be independent and credible - and was prepared to go to Europe to ensure that it was. And that Becta now lacks any credibility as a regulatory authority. I was talking with a well-respected industry observer who said that industry now generally spoke of Becta with "open contempt".

    Until recently, the Becta website showed no meetings for the CAB after March 2006. Concerned that nothing was being done at all to watch the BBC's activities, I asked Oliver Letwin to ask the following parliamentary questions:

    1. How many times has the CAB met since March 2006?

    2. What is the DfES doing to ensure that the BBC meets the conditions under which the Digital Curriculum operates?

    3. Is the DfES satisfied that the Digital Curriculum is interoperable?

    The answers were

    1. "December 2006 and January 2007". June was missed out, as became apparent when I asked for the agendas. After an email discussion with Becta, they agreed to update the website - although the old custom of posting some output from the CAB in the form of reports has apparently lapsed, and there is no sign of the next report to the Secretary of State. Although, as things worked out, there was only one meeting actually missed, I have a strong suspicion that Becta wanted to wind down the CAB altogether, and were caught on the hop by the European Commission's involvement.

    2. "It is not the responsibility of the DfES to monitor the BBC's conformance to DCMS conditions".

    3. "The BBC is endeavouring to ensure that its content is interoperable".

    Answers (2) and (3) (quoted from memory) together amounting to "Nothing to do with us, guv".

    When responding to my request for minutes under the FOI, Becta stated

    "As part of our response, we should like it noted that the Content Advisory Board is an independent body chaired by Becta’s CEO, with Becta staff providing the secretariat function."

    i.e. "Nothing to do with us, guv". So the CAB is described by the DCMS as the "Curriculum Online [i.e. DfES] CAB"; it reports to the Secretary of State for Education, has the effective power to issue instructions to the BBC regarding the Digital Curriculum; in its reports to the Secretary of State, talks freely of monitoring the Digital Curriculum; is Chaired by the CEO of Becta who rail-roads through the Becta/DfES agenda; has its meetings packed with Becta employees (sometimes Becta and DfES together outnumbering everyone else) - but it is an "independent body" for which neither Becta nor the DfES takes responsibility, for which the minister does not answer in Parliament, and which is itself not responsible for the fiasco of £75 million wasted on the Digital Curriculum.

    What surprises me in all this is the feebleness of the press. The only coverage that the suspension of Jam received in the national press was short paragrphs copied from the BBC press release. Maybe there are now so many government-managed fiascos, that this one is small beer. The closure of the TES Online magazine and what appears to be the downgrading of the TES to what is predominantly a lifestyle magazine probably does not help.

    As for "augmented reality" - it looks very sexy to me, though I suspect there is long way to go to make this type of technology, developed for commercial applications, useable in the classroom. What is really needed is layers providing interactivity, tasking, assignment and tracking (well fancy that - a learning platform!) and on that education is already ten years behind the game - and Becta has just kyboshed any significant progress for at least another four by foisting its non-interoperable platforms on the market.

    I'll stop before I get too deeply into rant-mode. Drop me an email at if you would like to see the CAB papers.

    All the best,