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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