BBC Jam: a personal view
Graham Davies

Links checked 29 February 2012

The BBC Jam educational website had noble aims - making educational software available to schools and home learners free of charge. But it was embroiled in controversy from the outset and was finally suspended as from 20 March 2007. It was clear to me from the beginning that BBC Jam (originally referred to as BBC Digital Curriculum) would be a scandalous waste of money - 150 million pounds of TV licence payers' money in fact. The BBC actually asked for 170 million pounds originally, but it was reduced to 150 million. Read the whole story here:

BBC Jam was tied in closely with the UK government's Curriculum Online initiative, which was launched in January 2003, with the noble aim of providing ring-fenced funding, known as e-Learning Credits (eLCs), to schools in England to enable them to buy software and online services to support their teaching. Unfortunately, the initiative was surrounded with an atmosphere of controversy from the outset, resulting in court action against the BBC, accusations of high-level bungling and a very expensive and complex Curriculum Online website. The Curriculum Online initiative came to an end in August 2008.

There are around 5,000 secondary schools in the UK. If the 150 million pounds had been divided between them to enable them to buy their own choice of software then this would have amounted to 30,000 pounds per school - a nice sum of money to play with. Alternatively, the BBC could have used this money to do what it's good at, namely producing high-quality TV broadcasts for learners of foreign languages - as it did in the good old days - but the unit that produced the excellent TV series for adult learners of languages, e.g. the series for learners of Greek and Mandarin Chinese, has now been closed down. The "rush to the Web" has undoubtedly resulted in an impoverished broadcasting service.

BBC Jam French materials - reviewed by Graham Davies, November 2006

The BBC Jam page at (NB the website has now closed down) opens with a Flash-driven sequence consisting of menus bouncing up and down - very jazzy, but this caused me a lot of problems as I had to upgrade to a new Flash plug-in, which caused my computer to crash every time it accessed the Web. It took me days to find a solution.

It took me some time to work out what I had to do in order to call up the French materials and then find out whether I had to register as a user in the boxes inviting me to do so or just dive straight in. I decided to dive straight in.

Have the designers of BBC Jam learned nothing from the development of computer assisted language learning over the last 30 years? A lot of effort has gone into flashy presentations and not enough into the pedagogy. It's mainly linear point-and-click stuff, but dressed up with flashy presentations. The slowness of interaction will probably frustrate youngsters used to fast action video games.

The BBC Jam French materials display two fundamental weaknesses, namely a lack of structure and a lack of a clear contents page indicating what's there and where it can be found. Above all, the site breaks the No. 1 rule of instructional software design insofar as it fails to provide a "default route" (v. Laurillard 1996:36: "the route through the material that the author believes to be optimal").

Laurillard continues:

Completely open-ended program structure can make students anxious - they like to know what they are supposed to do. It must always be possible to deviate from the default route, but it should be clear what it is, so that they can just follow it through. This saves students having to make decisions at every turn, and may also encourage them to consolidate, rather than keep moving on.

Providing a clear indication of what a software package contains and where it can be found saves teachers time. My frustration with BBC Jam French is due to a large extent that I haven't a clue where I am and where I am supposed to be going. I don't have the time or patience to find out things by trial and error. Have a look at Module 3.2 at the ICT for Language Teachers website (ICT4LT), which focuses on the design and implementation of software for language learning: There are some lessons here that the designers of BBC Jam could have learned. Have a look too at the ICT for Language Teachers blog - which is tied in closely with the ICT for Language Teachers website - and have your say:

Laurillard D. (1993) "Program design principles", Hull: TELL Consortium, CTI Centre for Modern Languages, University of Hull. This document is incorporated as Annex 1: "Program design principles" into Laurillard D. (1996) Formative evaluation report, Hull: The TELL Consortium, University of Hull.

Donald Clark's view

Donald Clark appears to agree with me. He describes BBC Jam French as a "sticky mess" in his blog at:

Donald writes:

Thought I'd try the new stuff from the BBC as I have kids at the right age. Confused from the start. Menus that bounce up and down on the screen may look good but the designers need some serious help on interface design. Basic design errors abound. For example an icon with a tick on it is the confirm button, yet the meaning seems to be 'you got it right'. You have to press exit twice from each section, one would have sufficed. There's also too much loading time, this was disruptive with endless countdowns and waits. Some just didn't load at all, with no explanation.

First episode is a few cartoons - linear and next to zero learning. The second is video broken down into phrases, but some edit points are in the middle of words! Identifying the parts of the car was fine, although the vocabulary (windscreen wipers, licence plate, gears etc) seems a little advanced for this age. In another you have to identify words as you hear them, but this is just identifying what's said, divorced from the meaning of what's said. In some interactive exercises when you get things wrong there's no formative feedback to tell you why or what the right answer is. The 'make your own comic' is fine, but is an exercise in sorting sentences and takes too long to navigate and complete. The DJ game is simply to identify masculine, feminine and plural, this is OK, but the vocabulary is too complex at this stage.

Nothing changes, this was a problem with 'A Vous la France' (BBC), where a crew seems to have simply gone out to film, then someone had to build a language programme around what was shot. It was, in fact, impossible to learn French from that package.

The whole thing is VERY clunky and clumsy in navigation, style, interaction, vocabulary and learning. 'I was fiddling around with it for ages and nothing happened. It was just a movie. It was crap. It's confusing. I didn't know what to do. I felt like it was, like, I should have been getting involved more as I was getting a bit bored. I thought it'd be better cause it's BBC.' Carl (12 years old). Oh dear!

Donald Clark has also reviewed the Business Studies materials:

Donald writes:

Now had time to go through the 'Business studies' stuff for 11-12 year olds - it gets weirder. Take one of its 'star' businesses, wait for it…. Eidos! Sorry about picking on Eidos. I'd love to tell you about the other businesses, but hardly anything loaded and worked.

What the BBC case study doesn't tell you is that Eidos was days away from bankruptcy last year as their bank wanted to pull the plug after massive losses, missed deadlines and bug-ridden releases. In the end, after a collapse in the share price, it was picked up by SCi, a much smaller player. The company profile makes no mention of this. In fact Eidos, as a company, doesn't really exist, it is really only a brand and consumer marketing vehicle. SCi is the listed company. Click on the TV in the BBC simulation and you're taken to the SCi website - that should confuse the learners! As an assignment you are asked to do a SWOT analysis of Eidos - that WOULD be interesting, if you had the real and current data to view! The only interesting bit was the ability to explore the Eidos offices, but again, it was a lot of effort for very little reward. You wonder why all of the Eidos senior staff were posing about for BBC film and photo-shoots at the very time the company was sinking - they should have been trying to get their lamentably late games out.

In general, the whole thing is a scrapyard mess. The repeated animations are just annoying - the same images over and over again - it makes you scream with rage. E-learning is about the user being in control. This is what you get when TV people create interactive content - thinly disguised broadcast material. Interactivity is the name of the game. Here you spend more time hanging about waiting, often on just simple pieces of repeated animation, than learning. Most of the time it's like an animated PowerPoint in extreme and painful slow-motion. Try the Library - you may lose the will to live waiting on results.

See Also Donald Clark's more recent blog on the axing of BBC and the comments it has attracted:

© Graham Davies 2008. This work is licensed under a
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