A More Public Role for Public Broadcasting: Education

Imagine a broadcast network in America that was dedicated to education, where the best educators had the opportunity to produce its programming, and where individuals as well as institutions could develop a new genre of wide-ranging educational programs? Educational programming could elevate the role of teaching in our culture and promote the value of lifelong learning. This blog post explores why education is a more important role for public broadcasting in America, a new role that would re-align PBS with its original mission as an educational network.

Our public broadcasting system should re-invent itself as a network for educational programming. Moreover, it should specifically focus on increasing public interest and engagement in science and civics. This is a vital public mission — promoting science and technology literacy and creating a greater understanding of our own system of government.

Even in an age of YouTube, broadcast television has the ability to reach even those people who don’t have ready access to the Internet. Television is a lowest common denominator, technologically speaking, and so it serves nearly everyone. That’s why we should still care that some portion of broadcasting be allocated to serving a public good.

With digital TV, PBS stations now have four channels, which mostly run traditional programs at different times. The new capacity is not being effectively utilized for new programming. One if not two of these new channels should be dedicated to serving a public educational mission. And there are lessons to be learned from the Internet in how to produce new educational programming for these channels.

PBS is a network of independent affiliates, who are much more independent than their commercial counterparts. This somewhat fragmented network structure can be positive, if it strikes a healthy balance between national and local or regional programming. It’s important that a good portion of this educational programming be locally targeted, perhaps in conjunction with local colleges and other educational institutions.

Educational Broadcasting in America

Our nation’s founders recognized that an educated public was crucial to the sustainability of American democracy, which led to public funding of education. Today, education happens in the media as well as in school. It is important that we use the media of television, in combination with new media, to support educational goals. There is even greater opportunity to combine a public broadcasting network and the interactive capabilities of the Internet to create a new hybrid framework for lifelong education.

The American public broadcasting system began when President John Kennedy authorized the first funding for the build-out of a national educational broadcasting network in 1962. Then in 1967 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, which authorized the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), he said the bill would give a “stronger voice to educational public radio and television.” He added:

So today we rededicate a part of the airwaves–which belong to all the people–and we dedicate them for the enlightenment of all the people.

Johnson made the analogy to land-grant universities and the setting aside of land for public use. It is the notion of a commons, not controlled by commercial interests, that is available to serve the broader goal of educating the public. In its early days, statewide educational networks broadcast lectures into schools across the state. (I remember taking a math class in 7th grade in Kentucky in which the instructor came to us via a TV monitor.)

It’s time to re-invent public broadcasting system as a plaform for innovation (to borrow Tim O’Reilly’s framing of Government 2.0).
It needs to be an open platform that encourages varied uses by the greater community, ones that frankly we can’t even imagine today. It should also be a platform that integrates the Internet and takes advantage of community-building that is possible online.

Re-defining the Educational Network

The public broadcasting service can provide the forum for educating Americans of all ages and backgrounds. There are many sources of content for programming. Here are some ideas for this educational network:

  1. Identify great high school teachers and give them a new forum for reaching a broader audience. Let us see what good teacher do and let more people learn from them.
  2. Work with universities, many of whom are already providing open courseware. How can broadcast television increase usage of open courses?

  3. Adapt presentations from conferences and public forums where speakers present on a range of important topics — a scientific summit on climate change, for instance.
  4. Use television to present short excerpts of educational content that can be explored in full online.
  5. Explore new tools for presenting complex information such as
    Al Gore used in his Inconvenient Truth presentation.

  6. Create a “live” national forum that showcases invited speakers on a wide range of subjects of national interest.
  7. Encourage the audience to participate via Twitter, perhaps even displaying a stream of the tweets live on the broadcast.
  8. Do more with less. Choose lightweight production methods and produce more content rather than placing big bets on large-budget productions.

  9. Promote in-person learning opportunities in the local community as well as those online.

  10. Shine a light on education itself, and examine in detail various programs and initiatives.

Science Programming

Science is a national priority and it deserves greater coverage on public broadcasting. (We don’t need heavily produced video magazines on science.) Science is not just a subject but a way of thinking, which can be learned and applied by anyone. This is the goal of science literacy — understanding how to apply evidence-based thinking across a wide range of subjects. An educational network should explore important societal issues from a scientific perspective. Economics, neuroscience, medical and health issues, and energy are some of the topics that could be covered regularly.

Civics Programming

Civics is about educating citizens. According to Wikipedia, civics is “the study of government with attention to the role of citizens in the operation and oversight of government.” The educational network could help us understand our system of governance, which is not the same as politics. As a rule, the educational network should avoid standard political fare, particularly the coverage of elections. Is there another view of government, which is not covered in the news? Is there an opportunity to go beyond journalism in covering government? I’d like to hear more directly from a variety of government officials who might discuss their priorities and explain the decisions they are making and how they reached those decisions.

Civics programming can tell the story of how American governs itself — at local, state, regional and federal levels. More people need to be involved in telling that story and it’s a story that deserves a larger audience. The Internet can be used to encourage more participation.

A program schedule could feature extended coverage on issues like foreign policy, defense, transportation, defense, health care and social service. Sadly, we know more about sports teams than we do the State Department. We catch glimpses of a war in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Public affairs programming on TV has diminished in America and some of it was so uninspired that it deserved to go. Yet isn’t public affairs worth doing on TV and can’t we come up with new ways to do it well?

In View of All Citizens

In his speech introducing the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson said:

At its best, public television would help make our Nation a replica of the old Greek marketplace, where public affairs took place in view of all the citizens.

But in weak or even in irresponsible hands, it could generate controversy without understanding; it could mislead as well as teach; it could appeal to passions rather than to reason.

Can we reinvent our public broadcasting service and bring education into the media marketplace, in view of all citizens? I believe a public broadcasting service can help make education an even higher national priority and contribute to creating a more educated and engaged public.

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  • claymeadow

    Thank you for posting this! I’ve been self-involved in learning about civics, specifically how my local/regional/state/national government work for the past 10 years by participating in an online forum. My background is sci/eng/tech so my education dollars/time are spent on that front so it’s been important for me to be involved in learning about civics in an alternate format, in my case an online forum. Civics programming would be a great channel for others like me who are occupied by their main pursuits to become more educated about the civics that occurs near/far them.

  • Research Channel, Link TV, FSTV, BYU and UCTV coupled with learner.org, the ideas network of Wisconsin Public Broadcasting make for a pretty good substitute until Dale’s suggestions come to fruition.

  • This is what I thought public television was when I was a kid in the early 80’s. I remember waking up very early on Saturday morning for cartoons. Of course I’d wake up too early and there was only snow or tone and color on most stations. But my local public TV station would be showing telecourses. I remember watching these introductory college lectures from the Annenberg/CPB Project about cosmology and relativity and actually understanding it! They had illustrations and didn’t do much math, but relativity, dopler shift, all of that stuff, it was stunning and made me realize what an amazing and curious universe we lived in. I couldn’t have been more than 8 years old. Only a couple years before that Cosmos lead me through a similar fantastic, charismatic and up-beat view of science, scientists, and the future. These things dramatically shaped my interests and dreams in my life.

    I’d nearly forgotten about Public Broadcasting’s role in that. In the last 30 years Public TV changed for me to just the News Hour and children’s programming.

    But many people of all ages are shedding TV completely. If Public Broadcasting is going to be relevant in the future they need to think about the message, not the medium. If it’s going to remain relevant it might well need to remove the “broadcasting” from it’s name.

  • Dale,

    Thank you for bringing the critical topic of public broadcasting’s educational mission to the forefront!

    Almost every PBS program such as NOVA and new series, like Ken Burns’s “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” offer tons of online educational resources. A great example: PBS FRONTLINE’s Digital Nation project (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/) is fully interactive, inviting users to submit their stories online to share with others and be a part of the upcoming documentary that airs in early 2010.

    PBS is re-imagining children’s television for the next generation with new programs such as SID THE SCIENCE KID and DINOSAUR TRAIN, which introduce kids to science, math and technology concepts, and interactive Web sites, like PBS KIDS Island (http://pbskids.org/read/games), an immersive site that combines online reading games from many shows and offers backend tracking of a child’s progress in key literacy skills and PBS KIDS GO! (http://pkskids.org/go) the first truly Broadband service for kids 6-8. (Try them! They’re free!)

    We have focused on low-income families with PBS KIDS Raising Readers (http://www.readytolearnreading.org) (a literacy initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education using TV programs, multimedia content and community activities for parents, teachers and caregivers to help children from low-income families, ages 2-to-8, build their literacy skills.

    Perhaps the biggest new initiative is a multi-year project involving dozens of our stations to identify and provide effective digital media in the classroom. PBS is aggregating all of its educational content to make it more accessible and practical for classroom use. We are developing the Digital Learning Library, a comprehensive source of public media “digital learning objects,” including video, audio, images, games, and interactive simulations designed specifically for classroom use, and delivered to teachers exclusively through local PBS stations, starting this school year.

    For years, PBS has offered extensive multimedia resources and services for educators through PBS Teachers, PBS TeacherLine, and PBS Educational Media (VHS tapes and now mostly DVDs), and through partnerships that offer streaming video for schools. PBS Teachers (http://www.pbsteachers.org) is the Web portal designed for preK-12 educators to access PBS’ educational services and a searchable library of more than 9,000 local and national standards-based teaching activities, lesson plans, on-demand video assets, and interactive games, and simulations. PBS TeacherLine (http://www.pbs.org/teacherline) provides high-quality, affordably priced professional development for graduate credit and recertification through more than 145 courses that span the entire preK-12 curriculum, including math, science, and instructional technology

    To your points #1 and #7, teachers do come together to share best practices, and discuss ways to effectively incorporate new technologies into the curriculum on our PBS Teachers’ Media Infusion blog and our online learning community on PBS Teachers. We also invite viewers to share their feedback and ideas in PBS Engage (http://www.pbs.org/engage), an online laboratory for experimenting with new media. Here’s a directory of all the PBS programs and staff on Twitter: http://www.pbs.org/engage/twitter.

    But, at PBS we strive to continually improve. I was intrigued by some of your suggestions, such as working more and better with universities, and would like to discuss this further. We want to hear from you so that together we can help public broadcasting continue to re-imagine its educational programming and services and engage the community. What should we do next?

    Rob Lippincott Senior VP, Education, PBS

  • David Brugger

    I was glad to Rob Lippincott respond because the vast educational resources of public broadcasting (PB) are little recognized bordering on unknown except for those who use its specific educational resources. PB is not universal in all of its services because the money simply is not there and the educational component of localstate stationsnetworks are a function of the governing and funding sources of the locale.
    “Public” broadcasting has not lost its desire or investment in education to the extent of its available resources. There are also issues with educational institutions who have their own ownership and competitive issues, even within universities who have their own noncommercial station license. I know about these issues because I have worked for stations licensed to local school boards, states and universities and fought many of the battles to make them more educational than simply the broadcast program.

  • David Brugger

    I left your page too soon. The next article I read started this way:
    Education to endure 58 percent of budget cuts « Iowa Independent
    By Jason Hancock
    Even Iowa Public Television will face nearly $1 million in cuts. David Miles, president of the Iowa Board of Regents, said in a statement that he will ask the board to enact a system-wide freeze on hiring and a moratorium on all new …
    Iowa Independent – http://iowaindependent.com/
    The next article was this one:
    Pennsylvania budget update: Funding for public television is slashed
    By DAVID N. DUNKLE, The Patriot-News
    October 08, 2009, 5:45PM
    WHAT’S IN THE BUDGET: $1.5 million for public television technology and $1 million for public television station grants

    WHAT IT MEANS: A major cutback in state support for public television. The Pennsylvania Public Television Network category, which last year totaled $12.329 million and included operating grants to public stations such as Harrisburg’s WITF, has essentially been eliminated from the budget. One former PPTV category, station grants, has been moved to the executive offices portion of the budget, and will receive $1 million. Last year, that category was budgeted to receive $8 million. Another category, public television technology, is also included in the executive offices budget. Funding there will be $1.5 million.

    The House passed a $27.8 billion spending bill on Thursday that cuts the level of spending by $400 million from last year.
    And this is happening all over the country so things look better for two wars than for an expansion of educational resources.

  • Tiengow

    Excellent argument. I would add English to your list of topics. Much everyday writing varies from ungrammatical to borderline illiterate, and this is not a matter of language purity, but of communication. Bad spelling or word usage confuses meaning. Remember the Mars spacecraft that crashed because the programmer confused English and metric units? Wrong choice of words of syntax can have the same result. If we can’t speak and write precisely, we can communicate precisely.

  • Alan Casey

    Too late,

    Who cares about PBS – kill it because it is a dying medium.

    Any org who wished to publish content may do so. From Grammar Girl’s podcast, to lectures from MIT, to Make TV. The content is out their on the internet.

    No need for PBS – Defund it!

  • Joe P

    Alan Casey it may benefit you to download a few more episodes of Grammar Girl’s podcast wherein you will learn that the words “their” and “there” may sound the same, but have different meanings due to the way they are spelled, and each are used in different contexts. Anyway your point about defunding PBS was..

  • Joe P

    “..BOTH are used in different contexts.”
    Sorry had to correct b4 I got flamed for that

  • Kim Kaufman

    I’m concerned about the corporate influence in PBS. I know they need money but the influence is undeniable. There was a show on healthcare based on a book by T. R. Reid, who travelled around the world finding out about various health care programs in each country. He came to the concusion that single payer — or very heavily regulated private insurance (such as in Switzerland) is what works best. The show censored itself and would not talk about single payer. Reid took his name off the show. This is very disturbing to me and it’s really hard to want to see more corporate-influence in “public tv.” Look at who the sponsors are: coal, Archer-Daniel-Midland, Exxon, etc., etc. They can never do any serious investigative journalism because of this.

  • Ian Lee

    I agree with Alan Casey. PBS is irrelevant anymore. Between the internet and the dozen other educational channels out there today, there’s just no need for a government sponsored station anymore. Besides, the educators couldn’t keep their politics out of the lectures and stick to the subject long enough to make it a respectable station.

    Joe P, you’re an idiot.

  • David Brugger

    OK. I’m sorry I commented on this blog. I thought that it might be populated with intelligent people rather than those simply looking to rant and hate and degrade those institutions functioning in society to make life better to live. I guess every blog turns into Fox Noise these days. How sad the angry lives of Alan casey and Ian Lee must be.

  • L. Schuelke

    PBS, most certainly, is not irrelevant. I am raising three young boys. We don’t watch much TV, preferring to be engaged and interacting with each other and the physical world around us. When we do watch, it is usually PBS. In fact I found this blog posting because my PBS station aired Make TV and I was so enthralled by episode 105 that I looked it up to show my sons and husband. PBS is continuing as a force for education and one that is available to all! If people are not watching what’s on PBS, it’s not because there’s nothing there for them to learn from – it’s probably because they are not interested in learning. That’s a much bigger problem.

  • Stuart Gannes

    Good and provocative points Dale,

    Another interesting direction might be to explore how the public TV bandwidth could be used beyond traditional content broadcasting. HD seems unnecessary. How about real time science experiments with data feeds? Or maybe there could be some “fractional” digital bandwidth service that allows PBS to host and distribute apps and data for use by schools and citizens for educational purposes.

  • This is a nice idea that will never happen. At least not without a huge change in direction for public media and government (i.e. voters).

    Whether or not education / lifelong learning was in the 1967 PBA is now irrelevant. Public media institutions have drifted far from education over the years and aren’t coming back. Why? Because education doesn’t make enough money to be self-sustaining. Which is why taxes pay for schools and students pay for college.

    With all due respect to Mr. Lippincott and other former colleagues in public TV, let’s get real. PBS’s best work is done in children’s programming and it’s marginally educational. The only way it’s strongly educational is with deep parental involvement (rare) or direct classroom tie-ins in schools (limited for political and time management reasons).

    To make the Education mission a reality in public media, taxpayers would have to agree to foot the bill of perhaps $1-2 billion annually. That would be cheap for what we could get, but not likely. Further, it’s becoming very clear that education via online video and other means is exploding and to do this work via TV is anachronistic if not downright wasteful.

    The short-run plan for PBS: keep doing what it’s doing until it collapses financially (by 2015, I’m betting). Once that happens, the children’s programming will remain in a reformatted PBS, the news content will go to a reformatted NPR, and WGBH will gobble up the rest and become a national superstation.

    If, on the other hand, you consider quality news a form of education (which, in truth, it is), then you’re talking about NPR for the most part, and they’re the shining hope for public media.

  • Mark Ryan

    Working at a PBS station, I see the capability that we, collectively and locally, have and are not tapping to its fullest. One thing to remember that one of the strengths of PBS are its local stations, not just major national producers. That people support public television at a very local level says a lot, especially when we operate in an environment where they have so many viewing choices.

    I think the bigger issue here is relevance, not just content. National resources provide a lot of great content to local stations. Local stations, through programming, productions and off-screen services that fit each of the communities we serve, provide that relevance. To bring this full-circle: If local stations are just repeaters of a signal from the mother ship, 24-7, they lose their relevance and PBS becomes a simulacrum of cable channels out there in a viewer’s perception, becomes less worthy of support and will die.

    Secondly, working in a market where I witness a huge gap in access (those that live in cable/broadband served areas and them that don’t) is a major issue. We think about all our viewers and users, not just those within reach of the Web or a cell tower or sat dish. We found this out for at when many consumers ditched their cable/broadband bundles when the economy tanked only to find they could pull (locally) up to digital 18 channels off the air for free and for a lot of folks, we, and terrestrial broadcasting suddenly became relevant and affordable again.

    Mr. Profitt makes a key point, not so much for radio, but in how the two mediums are used. TV demands the attention of a viewer. Radio can run in the background. If you think about DTV’s capabilities for datastreaming and other tools, better education content delivery in a rich digital environment becomes a reality. In the 90s, many stations experimented with this, sending out news and other data along with our regular analog signal. It works. The hangup: reception. There needed to be a special card and antenna to get this from the air and onto a computer. Then you had to know about it. Not too many people did. So, what is there out there from the consumer electronics industry to support this? Not a lot, unless it is the best kept secret other than the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa and Osama Bin Laden. We can build capability all we want, but unless someone gets the chance to actually access this and use it, either affordably or free, it’s pretty useless. PBS stationa already deliver access and content for free through TVs. Not the most modern, but certainly an equal-opportunity medium.

    In the end, the symbiosis between PBS and its member stations will be critical to the future of each, and I believe, to being able to bring expand the reach of what we currently do to more people. Programming, you can tweak; if people want to see more educational or distance learning programs, find the programming people at your local station and tell them that’s what you want. It works. Likewise, if the desire for more science and civics programming is out there, there is a bigger challenge: find corporations and underwriters to produce these shows. Production and presentation is money driven, just as it is in commercial TV. Convince an underwriter of the mission, the desire and the need for this and maybe they will opt to do something more useful with their ad dollars than sponsor the latest pseudo-reality show on other networks. Show the underwriter that our audiences are more loyal, steady and liable to tune back week-after-week for their faves and this will help.

    This needs to work on the national AND the local level. So does not fearing the expansion of our mission into digital media.