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Bitesize and GCSE results

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John Millner | 12:11 UK time, Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Students looking at their exam resultsIt's GCSE results week, and for 700,000 16-year olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland it's a real rite of passage, marking the end of their statutory schooling, and a decisive milestone on the way to either continuing education or the world of work. Class of 2010 did better than any previous cohort, with almost 70% getting a Grade C or above and nearly 23% scoring an  A or  A*.

Most of these young people will have been supported in their studies by Bitesize, one of the BBC's best known online products. Bitesize is a web phenomenon. It has well over half a million users a week, and is regularly rated among the top three sites, along with Google and Wikipedia, for usefulness as a study aid. With a reach of 75% of all 11-16 year olds, Bitesize is arguably the BBC's most successful venture ever into the teen audience. Part of this success is down to the fact that there's been a technology revolution in teaching and learning since Bitesize was launched in 1998, when the world wide web was just a few years old. Teachers now use networked or online classroom resources more than printed ones, while going online has become for most students the default way to get help with homework, coursework or revision for exams. Bitesize came at the right time and with the right functionality to ride the wave of this learning technology revolution, and the service is now an integral element - along with a wide range of non-BBC online curriculum support products -  in the UK's digital learning landscape. Today there are getting on for 15,000 pages on seven separate Bitesize sites, covering the four key stages in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, plus Standard Grade and Highers in Scotland, and Bitesize TGAU in Welsh.

GCSE Bitesize homepageAnother big factor in Bitesize's success has been addressing itself directly to students.Teachers use the sites too of course, and teacher recommendation has been immensely important in spreading the word. But the Bitesize format, language and style is fundamentally student-oriented - delivering  just-in-time, curriculum-tailored learning in easy steps, using rich media, interactivity, quizzes and games to make the experience engaging and  fun. The Bitesize production team have developed a distinctive voice which is no-nonsense and functional but also often wry, playful, ironic. A quick scan of the secondary Bitesize message boards shows that students  feel at home in this environment. They feel Bitesize is their site.

They'll only continue to feel this, however, if Bitesize adapts and changes as fast as teens' online behaviours and expectations do. The Bitesize sites have re-invented themselves several times already, experimenting with different navigation styles, media, formats and platforms such as red-button and mobile. Online technologies change with lightning speed. National curricula, testing regimes and exam specifications are also entering a period of likely flux.  So to stay relevant in the next decade, Bitesize must continue to evolve.

Exactly what kind of Bitesize emerges from this evolutionary process can't be predicted with certainty. I think it will be more flexible, more disagreeable, more customizable than it is now. It will support more community and creativity, become more media-rich, link more widely, and probably move increasingly onto mobile platforms. It will not develop in the direction of a managed learning environment or tracking tool for teachers;  if anything, it will become even more learner-facing, more open to the web and more playful than it is now.

Bitesize faces massive challenges over the next 18 months. 2010 will be its last year in London: by this time next year the main Bitesize editorial team and their design and technical colleagues will be settling in to their new home at Media City, Salford, while attempting a complete design overhaul and migration to a brand-new technical platform. But we've a really good reason for rising to these challenges: those thousands of school students across the UK who rely on BBC Bitesize to enrich and reinforce their learning, and help them reap the benefits of a successful education.

John Millner is Learning Executive for 5-19 Learning


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