75th Anniversary Special: Valentine's Day

by Virginia Haworth-Galt, Learning on Screen

Learning on Screen turned 75 on 14th February 2023. A remarkable achievement for a small educational charity. A skilled shape shifter, Learning on Screen has always put the changing needs of UKFHE at the heart of our development plans.

Why did a group of university teachers decide to form Learning on Screen (or the Universities Film Council as it was then) in 1948? They had a vision to make moving image and sound as important in education and research as the written word. Learning on Screen was set up to solve the problem of how to get the things needed to achieve this vision to the sector. The founders took a pragmatic and incremental approach and initially created networks to share films and filmmaking equipment followed by catalogues about the films and then journals to disseminate articles and views.

Now digitally driven, Learning on Screen is unrecognisable from the organisation created all those years ago. Except, it is still a special and specialist organisation with services delivered by a small team of dedicated experts. It is still on the journey with members to ensure that we can supply what is needed to meet ever-changing teaching and research requirements.

And this journey, from Valentine’s Day 1948 to Valentine’s Day 2023, has been positively Proppian! As in all epic journeys, there have been triumphs and challenges and we gratefully namecheck the BBC, the Open University and ERA for their continued support. With the BBC we are delighted to be helping them open up their incredible archive for educational use. We are equally pleased to host the Open University broadcast portal for their students. Excitingly we are about to embark on a global pilot project with ERA, bringing curated BoB content to overseas students.

It would be churlish and impolitic to talk in any detail of the hindrances we have faced on our journey, but needless to say you don’t get to be 75 without your fair share of battles. Highlights on the journey include government funding granted in 1968 matched by the nadir of defunding in 2018. Stoically we note how liberating financial independence is…

In 2023 the beating heart of BoB, with its archive of over 3 million broadcasts, lives in our high-tech data centres. By notable contrast, our historical paper collections are boxed on seemingly endless shelves in our decidedly lo-tech storage centres. For a while we rivalled Autolycus with our snapping up of unconsidered trifles and consequently our paper archives contain some hidden treasure that we are keen to share with the world. Our vast archive of VHS tapes lives there too and, an ongoing challenge for us, is to try to digitise this unique collection before the tapes deteriorate.

One more specific Valentine’s Day is notable on our journey. On 14th February 2020, Learning on Screen organised the event AI and Audiovisual Archives, aimed at identifying issues and opportunities related to using audiovisual archives to develop artificial intelligence-powered tools for education and research. The event brought together leading practitioners and academics from various fields, including computer science, media studies and law. It helped set the course for the next stage of our journey.

This event was important because it speaks of our future plans, but it is also a marker as it happened mere weeks before a pandemic changed everyone’s lives. In the dark days of March 2020, it was immediately clear that our members were facing massive challenges. We knew we had to offer as much support as we could and we’re proud of our work during this very difficult and stressful time. We made BoB available for everyone and quickly established a Teaching Resources portal to support our member’s necessary transition to online teaching. To further support online teaching, and improve vital copyright confidence, we made our copyright training courses free and online. Importantly, we wanted to document the unfolding media narrative for future researchers and so we set up the Covid-19 Broadcast Media Recording Project.

In 2023, as well as delivering the marvellous BoB, the mighty TRILT and the joyous Learning on Screen Awards we continue to keep moving and expanding our plans and services. In our 75th year, driven as ever by our ongoing conversation with our members, we are pushing forward in all manner of interesting and exciting ways. We have our latest development of speech to text transcripts, we are launching our new research animation service, we’re creating our new filmmaking and copyright law training courses funded by the IPO and of course we’re working on our ambitions for BoB to be opened up as a vital part of UKFHE research infrastructure.

I’ve been happily part of this fascinating journey for the last 9 years and I now hand over the compass to our new Chief Executive Kerry-Jane Packman. Be part of the journey with her, it’s going to be good.

About the Author

Virginia Haworth-Galt was Learning on Screen's Chief Executive from February 2014 – March 2023.