Learning the price of quality

January 9, 1998

The UK will only have excellent multimedia in education when it pays for higher production costs, says Jeremy Keenan

Terry Speake and James Powell's recent article in The THES ("The Missing Link in Multimedia", November 14) argues that the United Kingdom is failing to produce a generation of cross disciplinary managers essential to avoid "multi-mediocre" learning packages.

The mediocrity which Speake and Powell, and almost everybody else, lament is not so much the result of poor management and leadership within the production companies - it is more a consequence of "education on the cheap".

Let me explain. I think few in the industry, either as producers or consumers, would disagree with Speake and Powell's conclusion that there has been a proliferation of what they aptly describe as "awfulware". There would also be few who would deny that this country does have the skills available in the form of video producers, programmers, graphic artists, sound specialists and educators, to produce high quality learning resources.

So why are we plagued with so much mediocrity? That is the question raised by Speake and Powell in their THES article and in their report for the Training Technology Unit of the Department for Education and Employment ("Skills for the Missing Industry"). Their conclusion, essentially, is that production companies have failed to recognise the existence of these skills and to bring them together creatively. The need which they single out is for the media industry to concentrate its efforts on developing a new breed of leader, one they describe as "a creative leader of creatives".

Such a need no doubt exists, but it is not the fundamental reason why multimedia learning products in the UK have been so mediocre. The reason for this "mediocrity" has more to do with the nature of the market, something which is scarcely considered in their argument, than whether we have a sufficient availability of skills or the right forms of company management structure to manage these skills.

The market for multimedia learning products in the UK is characterised by a number of structural problems.

First, the retail market is an effective duopoly (W H Smith and PC World - owned by Dixons). For products to be retailed through these outlets they must be packaged appropriately (approx. Pounds 2.50 per unit) and priced at the level the market will bear. In a consumer market which equates multimedia with games more than learning and is used to paying Pounds 12 or thereabouts for an audio CD, consumers are not prepared to pay much more for a multimedia CD-Rom, containing, say, 10,000 pages of text, up to 3,000 graphics, maps, charts, video and sound.

Second, with the retail market unable to support the sort of high quality multimedia learning materials that British media companies are capable of producing, companies must turn directly to the education market itself, a market which is highly segmented and grossly underfunded.

The "volume" end of this market is the primary and lower secondary level. Here the problems of under-funding have been compounded by the legacy of Britain's ill-advised attempt in the 1980s to develop its own computer marque. These machines, which are incompatible with most international software, are still widely used and therefore make the potential "volume-end" of the educational market a minefield that many production companies have chosen to avoid.

The upper end, or what I loosely refer to as the post-16 end of the market - sixth forms, further and higher education - is fraught with its own problems.

It is a very small market, and one that is almost ludicrously fragmented. Consider the national divisions between the Scottish and English systems and the smaller differences (more in administration than syllabi) in Northern Ireland and Wales. Then consider the huge range of courses with constantly changing syllabi offered. That is just one reason for the lack of multimedia resources at that level.

How can company managers wanting to introduce and develop new technologies, to maximise the quality of the output from their creative teams, cope with such market fragmentation and instability? The answer is - with great difficulty.

But that is almost the least of their problems. Having located and ascertained the nature of these tiny market segments, ephemeral though many of them may be, this poor, much-maligned production manager is then faced with the stark reality of under-funding. Few or any of these market segments can afford to pay for the sort of quality of production which they would like and which production companies are capable of producing. The real business decisions being made by managers within these companies are not how all these creative people will be brought together and managed, but which ones can be cut out and sacrificed to produce a product which is "within budget" and yet still meet educational and learning needs. "Within budget" refers to what sort of budget schools, colleges and universities have at their disposal. When Speake and Powell cite production companies whose drive for profit overshadows the creative process, they are referring in almost all cases, I suspect, to companies having to cut back on the use of creative skills because budgets cannot, in many cases, stretch to the basic minimum. Until it is appreciated that one cannot have high quality education "on the cheap", production managers will have to cut their cloth accordingly. Multi-mediocrity will prevail.

Jeremy Keenan is managing editor, VK Research Ltd.

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