A `quiet revolution' in higher education: learning by TV

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Next fall, more Americans than ever will be able to get college credit in subjects ranging from business to physics to English -- and never leave their living rooms. Starting in September, some 285 Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations around the country will offer a physics course (``The Mechanical Universe'') or a language course (``The History of English'') to viewers able to register at one of 1,000 colleges around the country. This is twice the number in 1981.

These two new PBS series are among the 32 courses -- including the popular ``Vietnam: A Television History,'' and ``The Constitution: That Delicate Balance'' -- that PBS stations, in collaboration with local colleges, will make available for college credit next fall.

PBS is not the only group offering college credit on TV. There are various compacts between TV stations and local colleges. But PBS is by far the largest and fastest growing.

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Two weeks ago, Dee Brock, vice-president of PBS Adult Learning Service (ALS), announced that since 1981, the number of students going to college in front of the TV has risen by 280 percent. Some 400,000 students have been in the program over the past five years. Brock calls this a ``quiet revolution'' in higher education.

The idea of home schooling with a video twist is not new: Since the 1950s there have been scattered experiments with college on television around the country. For example, the lecture-format ``Sunrise Semester'' aired at 6 a.m. -- or earlier -- in the 1960s.

Such offerings did not take hold on commercial television. During the '70s, local community colleges pioneered a more sophisticated ``TV college'' primarily as a service to disabled and elderly persons, or to Native Americans living in remote parts of Alaska or the Southwest.

But it was not until national public television became established in the late 1970s that PBS began to bring a national focus to such learning.

Today, new ALS research shows an increasing market among younger, working viewers, many of whom are using the TV as a way of getting back into school. In turn, more four-year colleges have begun offering ALS. (Last month, Northeastern University and Florida State signed on.) Currently, about 40 percent of participating colleges are four-year schools.

Ms. Brock says that of the 135,000 students using ALS yearly, 60 to 70 percent have full-time jobs, over 50 percent have family responsibilities, and most are between the ages of 25 and 45.

``These people have decided a college degree is something they want,'' Brock says. And while it is not possible to obtain a full degree on TV alone, she says that the programs ``help students -- many of whom have a full workweek -- move faster toward a degree.'' It keeps them motivated, she says. Carla Shehan, for example, is taking two business courses a semester at Prince George's Community College in Maryland, while holding a full-time job. ``I'm hoping to open my own business someday,'' she says.

Many of the students are middle-aged women, looking into college for the first time. Ray Pirkl, who administers ALS programs at Portland Community College in Oregon, says: ``Time and again I see women taking courses in business -- or whatever -- and saying at the end: `I found out I wasn't dumb.' ''

Thus far, the most widely used programs deal with applied subjects -- such as business, accounting, and writing -- rather than the arts and sciences.

A common assumption about TV courses is that they are featherweight -- easy to pass, and lacking serious content.

That, says Dee Brock, is a myth. In the History of English course, for example, a nine-part documentary hosted by PBS news anchor Robert MacNeil, students are expected to read a companion book co-authored by MacNeil before viewing the programs. During the series, students read a standard text and follow a study guide containing writing assignments, key points, and terms. They meet twice with a teacher, and are generally required to write papers and take essay tests.

Further, ALS official Eliza Shanley says, the program -- filmed in England, Scotland, Ireland, and the United States -- was put together under the advisement of such notable scholars as Morton Bloomfield of Harvard University, and the late John Ciardi of Rutgers. Other programs use scholars of similar repute.

Many new students are ``shocked'' at the actual amount of work required for the typical TV course, says Brock, who also points out that colleges and universities have put their credentials and reputations on the line by agreeing to use, and staff, ALS courses.

Still, many academics are wary of TV credit. They say there is no substitute for a classroom environment with a good teacher who can ask provocative questions, and with classmates who respond accordingly. This is the stimulation that makes for learning, they say.

ALS officials say TV is not a substitute for the classroom, or college -- but is an effective addition. They point out, for example, that it would be impossible to get key Johnson administration officials such as Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and Gen. William Westmoreland to come to a class studying the Vietnam war. But students using the PBS series on that war see and hear these figures at length.

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