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BBC to invest £6m in AI to help transform its education services | BBC


The BBC plans to use a multimillion investment in artificial intelligence to transform its educational offering and attract the licence-fee payers of the future.

After being heavily relied upon by desperate parents during the pandemic lockdowns, the BBC is to announce a new £6m investment in BBC Bitesize to make learning more personalised and interactive for students from primary school onwards. The money is part of an effort to lock in young users’ relationship with the public service broadcaster.

Helen Foulkes, the BBC’s head of education, said: “It’s a significant investment in BBC Bitesize to turn it from a really brilliant, trusted digital textbook, to a much more personalised learning platform. We’re taking our education service and making it fit for the digital age, so the learning adapts to the user.”

Marking 100 years since the broadcast of its first educational programme – an experimental schools radio programme heard only by Garnetbank school in Glasgow in February 1924 – there will be a special Live Lesson on CBBC and BBC iPlayer on Monday, giving young viewers tips on how to produce their own report for the channel’s Hacker T Dog radio show. Foulkes said the move would build on the BBC’s trusted educational brand. “When you use the BBC you know it’s safe, you know it’s trusted, you know it’s right and that does help as a parent,” she said.

But in an acknowledgement that the BBC is in danger of being left behind by more fleet-footed digital content providers, the home of Newsround and the magic pencil is taking a leaf out of the book of AI-powered learning tools such as Duolingo to better use its vast database of educational content.

New tools, which are under development, are likely to provide personalised testing and identify holes in learning, while, like a “spinach version” of YouTube, users are also likely to find suggestions for follow-on content to deepen understanding of a subject.

The BBC is also testing out a new service for A-level students, providing content to help them widen their knowledge around a subject. Piloted around English literature, students studying Jane Austen could find they are offered a BBC adaption of Pride and Prejudice. “We’ll test it with students and teachers to see if that is a useful supplementary offer,” Foulkes said.

In the context of £700m annual savings the BBC’s director general, Tim Davie, has said need to be found to ensure the broadcaster’s survival, £6m is something of a drop in the ocean.

But the move appeared to be a nod to a promise he explored in a landmark speech at the Royal Television Society last month: that while the broadcaster ruled out the use of AI in its journalism, it was developing “unique ethical algorithms” to increase personalisation for users. Davie said the BBC would proactively deploy AI on “our terms” to create tools that helped it build relevance”.

It also spoke directly to the broadcaster’s founding Reithian purpose to “inform, educate, entertain”, said Foulkes. “Education is the jammy bit in the middle – it’s really important,” she said.

Foulkes pointed to the role the BBC played during the pandemic, when Bitesize had 3.8 million weekly users during the first term. “Only the BBC could have provided that pandemic response, because it’s got 100 years of education behind it,” she said. “It was great that the general public really understood that’s what the BBC can do as a public service … It’s something the team is really proud of.”

But there may also be a little benign self-interest involved. Last year, the BBC annual report revealed the broadcaster was struggling to attract younger audiences. Its reach among 16- to 34-year-olds had slipped from 81% using any BBC service in a normal week to 76% over the course of a year. The figure was worse for the under-16s, with 72% using BBC services in an average week, well behind YouTube.

“I think what the BBC wants is for people to value the BBC and use the BBC, whatever their age,” said Foulkes. “And any touch points that you’ve got with that younger audience, it’s really important to make sure we’re both supporting them both on the children’s entertainment side and … on that educational side, and then introducing them to the rest of the BBC.”

Key dates in BBC education

John Craven presents BBC Newsround, which was first broadcast in April 1972. Photograph: BBC

February 1924 The first experimental schools radio programme, heard only by Garnetbank school, Glasgow, in broadcast.

October 1930 Broadcast of Here and There, the first regular news programme for children, presented by the playwright and naval commander Stephen King-Hall.

June 1940 Broadcast of Kitchen Front, a BBC national programme to help children with cooking skills while improving morale during wartime

September 1957 BBC Television for Schools broadcasts its first programme, Living in the Commonwealth, looking at life beyond the classroom.

April 1964 Play School brings play and structured learning for three- to five-year-olds on air, and will run for 20 years.

April 1972 John Craven presents the first Newsround, with short news reports for a younger audience.

September 1982 Adult education series Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery, brings the prospect of homemade English curries into UK homes.

May 1997 Adrian Chiles and Carol Vorderman promise to demystify words such as CD-rom, ram, megabytes and floppy disks in the six-part series Computers Don’t Bite.

April 2009 Horrible Histories is broadcast for the first time on BBC Two.

February 2016 Launch of school video resources BBC Teach and Live Lessons, whereby pupils and teachers take part in real time.

April 2020 First broadcast of Bitesize Daily, a virtual school experience providing lessons during the pandemic.

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