For the last few weeks my wife has been working her way through the BBC's online Italian Steps language course, so that she can make herself understood next time she visits the Italian relatives in Garfagnana. She reckons it's actually just as good as the Italian evening course she signed up to at the local college. I had a look at it, and yes, using interactive web technology, it looks quite effective. And of course there are other courses for other languages.
So do I think that the Beeb has done us all a great service, enabling people around the world to pick up at least a smattering of other languages before they go abroad? Certainly, but the trouble is, it has done this on my nickel. Or my £142.50, to be more accurate, the value of the licence fee. And in the process, it has queered the pitch for other language course publishers and online providers (such as Berlitz, Rosetta Stone, Linguaphone et al.). Why pay for something you can get free from Auntie?
I'm sure that most people who worked through an online language course like this would not mind paying a pound or two, just as they pay a dollar or to to download tracks from iTunes. I am certain that they would not mind a few ads in the sidebar. Maybe not even a bit of product placement ('Scusi, un cappuccino Lavazza per favore'.) So why should the BBC provide it to users for nothing, and charge licence payers – the vast majority of whom will never hear of its existence, let alone actually use it?
This, like so much on the BBC website, should be privatized. Spin it off into a private company and let the licence payers pocket the sale price. Going right through the website, this could bring in quite a bit of cash, just when we all need it.