Video Options Go to the Head of the Class
As TV-assisted learning gains momentum with new programs and technology, its overall role in American classrooms remains unclear. First in a three-part series.
LOS ANGELES — FROM university consortiums and community colleges without walls to four-year degrees in your own home; from kindergartners with computers and video-cassette recorders to teens with interactive videodiscs: The TV revolution is turning more and more students in the United States toward electronic lessons and television classrooms. Teachers now can be seen and heard from here to Timbuktu, the curriculum can be as varied as aardvark mating or zeppelin repair. Some programs, like the Channel One news broadcast with commercials now reaching 400 schools in the United States each day, have sparked controversy. Technological costs have come down. Program software and production values have soared. And a bewildering array of ways to produce, send, store, use - and interact with - material for the video screen grows almost weekly.
TV is no longer just ``the tube.'' The new catchwords are ``distance learning,'' a networking option for teachers and students alike made possible by an ever-growing - and less expensive - supply of linking cables, satellites, and microwave dishes.
``Distance learning is based on real-time interaction between people, which makes it an entirely different phenomenon from traditional, instructional TV,'' says Linda Roberts, senior policy analyst for the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). For example, when Mississippi 12th grader Albert Moore practices his Japanese twice a week, his instructor, Chizuko Takechi, stands not at the head of the classroom, but in front of a camera in Lincoln, Neb.
In higher education, the number of studesnt enrolled in television-taught courses nationwide is 650,000 - up 150,000 from 1983, according to the OTA. The increase is in traditional telecourses, taught using videotaped programming.
In grades K-12, few states had plans for distance learning in 1983. Ten states promoted it by 1987, 33 by the next year, and now virtually all states have an interest or involvement the OTA says. This year 12,000 to 15,000 students in 40 states will study such previously unavailable courses as Japanese, Russian, trigonometry, and calculus through satellite education.
``It's become the way to go for the traditionally underserved,'' says Frank Withrow, designer and administrator for the federally funded Star Schools Program, which began during the 1988-89 school year and is distributing about $20 million in two-year grants to four projects that will expand educational opportunities for elementary and secondary students in isolated, small, and disadvantaged schools in the US. ``The idea is to bring equal access and choice to students regardless of where they live,'' he says.
All this has not yet engulfed the average classroom. But the speed with which options have come within range of the average school budget is making this revolution different from TV's first time around.
In the early 1960s, television was touted by many as the panacea for education's woes with its potential of bringing the best teaching minds and material into every school. For various reasons - cost, scheduling problems, doubts that passive, TV-watching equalled learning, and a failure to harness the medium's creative potential - the medium has not met that promise.
Despite lower prices, cost is still a major problem. But observers say the other hurdles are largely cleared. By now, some researchers say, the jury is in: The small screen can teach. Twenty years ago, ``Sesame Street'' fused learning with entertainment and led the way. Now the first ``Sesame Street'' generation is not only growing up to expect the same in higher educational fare, its adherents are also beginning to take the administrative reins, making decisions that call for TV-use as integral, not just supplemental, to learning.
```Sesame Street' cut a whole new way of thinking about TV as education,'' says Tom Wilson, director of instructional media programs at the University of South Florida. ``The old model was putting a teacher in front of the camera and letting her talk to students. The model that has grown ever since is in using graphics, music, animation, trips to exotic places - anything that was not equal to the teacher in the traditional sense.''
Since about 1980, educational fare from such outlets as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) has offered educators superior programs and series across the humanities and social sciences and in science and mathematics. Private funding has allowed some of the best minds in the country to create high-quality course material for new, 24-hour cable channels like The Learning Channel, a national cable network that broadcasts 24 hours a day.
Independent film and video producers have followed in their wake. In five years, highly-specialized ITV (``instructional television'') offerings have more than tripled in some states like California.
Last year, Whittle Communications in Knoxville, Tenn., and Cable News Network in Atlanta made headlines with programs offering current events for daily school broadcasts. Despite criticism of Channel One's commercial messages, this year Whittle signed agreements to beam its program to 2,900 schools with an audience of 1.7 million teenagers in 34 states. Other producers, such as the Discovery Channel and the National Geographic Society, have bolstered commitments to educational programs.
Today, Roberts and others point out, there is not only a burgeoning and varied curriculum, but a different architecture of delivery and storage open to schools. These new systems add to traditional broadcasts as a way to get programming to schools. Computer controls tailor usage. Interactive video-discs multiply options.
``The biggest change that has occurred in the last couple of years is that the price of the VCR has come way down to consumer range,'' says Peter Dirr, executive director of the Annenberg/CPB Project. Since 1980, his project has been spending $10 million a year creating and delivering video-based courses on cassettes through public television and cable stations. ``Now teachers at every level have the control to use all this television fare when they deem convenient and appropriate.''
With all these options, what is the actual use of TV in the classroom? Since education is primarily a locally driven enterprise, national statistics on the extent of television use are nearly impossible to come by, say researchers. An OTA report last year for Congress shows that 99 percent of the nation's 15,000 school districts reported VCR use in 1989 - more than double the 1982-83 figure of 40 percent.
``This leads us to believe that virtually every school in the country has TV,'' says OTA's Roberts, ``but we can never know how much they are in use per day [and] by which teachers.''
Jerome Johnston, an associate research scientist at the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, has written what many call the definitive work on the subject, entitled, ``Electronic Learning: From Audiotape to Videodisc.'' Although he concludes that ``audio, video and electronic text and graphics are as much a part of daily life as direct experience was a century ago,'' he sees a host of reasons why television will continue to remain a supplemental, rather than primary source of classroom education: lack of national direction; costs that still keep most technology out of the poorer, inner-city districts that need it most; lack of dependable equipment that can be shared; public perceptions that, if TV usage goes beyond a couple hours per week, teachers are using the device as baby sitters and are not doing their jobs.
``I think respondents on TV questionnaires tend to overestimate the amount they actually use TV,'' Dr. Johnston says. ``And the federal money out there only hits certain, major pockets. Television will remain, for the most part, a little used, supplemental medium for a long time to come.''
But most observers agree there has been a dramatic surge in the past five years, as measured by the amount of telecourse material subscribed to, borrowed, or purchased, and the number of ``real time'' distance learning courses offered and in use. Statistics on VCR usage gathered by Quality Education Data in Denver, show that 99 percent of school districts nationwide were using video last year, more than double the 40 percent number for 1982-3.
``It would happen faster if education administration weren't such a notoriously slow animal,'' says Joan Lakebrink, professor of education at DePaul University in Chicago. The key to further acceptance is how television's many incarnations are incorporated into classrooms teaching.
``These all can be a powerful tool to learning,'' she says, echoing the opinion of many educators. ``Unless teachers use them as a substitute to teaching or an excuse not to do their own teaching.''