The Changing Classroom Role of Instructional Television

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Since its creation more than 50 years ago, instructional television (ITV) has been viewed by some as a means of increasing the quality of teaching by replacing the traditional classroom teacher. Today, the teacher remains very much at the heart of the modern education system. This article discusses the evolution of instructional television and how modern technology is bringing about a refinement of ITV's role, which is not to supplant the teacher but, rather, to enhance the learning experience that the teacher provides.

After many years of experimentation, instructional television came of age in January 1961 when a converted DC-6 airplane beamed programs to half a million students in 10,000 classes across six states in the mid-western United States. Organized by MPATI (Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction), this medium was heralded by some as a way to replace the classroom teacher, at least in specific areas of study (Skolnik & Smith, 1993).

Over the succeeding decades, an informal national distribution system for classroom television developed, involving public broadcasting stations, school-based cable systems, educational media centers, and hundreds of thousands of teachers. This network includes nearly 190 licensed PBS stations as well as cable and network TV stations. Most ITV programming airs in the middle of the night, sometimes featuring a whole series at a time. As a result, hundreds of millions of students have had access to instructional television materials.

The rapid advance of educational technology, the growth of the Internet, and the impending arrival of digital video transmission have all created new channels for ITV delivery. While there is no doubt that instructional video resources will continue to be used to enrich teaching, the route that these resources follow to reach students may change dramatically.

ITV Categories

Over the years several forms of ITV have developed, each of which has been helpful in its own right. Before discussing the most recent developments, it will be worthwhile to review each of the broad categories of ITV.

Distance Learning

This school of ITV is a direct descendant of the MAPI project. [Is this a reference to MPATI (Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction) mentioned in paragraph 2? If not, please provide the words that the acronym MAPI represents.] Essentially, a teacher is imported via video or TV in real time to a distant class to conduct "live" instruction. Apart from ensuring student attendance and discussing content afterwards, the local classroom teachers are largely uninvolved in the educational process. Recent developments such as videoconferencing, email, and chat-room messaging technologies have introduced two-way response, improving the level of interaction between teacher and student. As a result, some successful applications of distance learning have evolved for remote locations, specialist training, and commercial settings. In the classroom, though, this form of ITV has limited application. No matter how engaging the content, such programs routinely fail to hold the interest of the class as a whole (Skolnik & Smith, 1993). Thus, most schools use distance learning in moderation, choosing to limit its use to unique events or highly specific subject areas.

Classroom Utilization of Broadcast Programming

The second form of ITV takes existing programs and brings them into the classroom for teaching purposes. Ken Burns' "Civil War" and the Nova series are examples of programs produced originally for home consumption that have been successfully applied in the classroom. This kind of programming began to appear during the eighties due to the proliferation of the VCR. Teachers could exercise some control by choosing when to view programs, which programs to watch, or even what segments to showcase. Though this advance increased the usefulness of ITV, existing programming did not always translate well to an educational setting.

Like distance learning, this mode of ITV often fails to hold classroom attention for long periods of time. Further, if teachers decide to utilize smaller portions of video series, they face the challenge of finding the appropriate segment amongst hours of content. Consequently, this ITV category has also been of limited value in education.

Programming Designed Specifically for the Classroom Setting

Since the advent of the VCR, more and more programs have been produced specifically for a classroom audience. Whereas earlier examples of distance learning attempted to provide a video version of a traditional classroom lesson, this newer type of material usually has the goal of supplementing the learning experience. In addition, programs created specifically for classroom use can focus on specific curriculum objectives.

One of the initial drawbacks of classroom specific programming was a fixation on shows of 30 to 60 minutes in duration, mimicking the format of consumer television. This mold was finally broken by groundbreaking series such as "Freestyle," which sought to expand career awareness, and "Futures with Jaime Escalante," which featured the master calculus teacher [from California? Please identify Mr. Escalante further than you have here, for those who may not be familiar with his story.] and targeting students in grades seven through twelve. As a result of extensive pre-production research, the 24-part "Futures" series was comprised of 15-minute episodes. This shorter format enabled teachers to use "Futures" to attract student interest at the beginning of a lesson period, while still allowing time to cover a curriculum topic during a class session.

Filmed and edited to broadcast standards, "Futures" initiated a redefinition of the pace and visual style of ITV programming. It rapidly became the most widely utilized instructional programming ever distributed by PBS. According to a study by Research Communications Ltd. (1992), students who watched "Futures" had a much more positive attitude toward learning mathematics than those who did not view the program. It is this move toward shorter, more tailored programming that has made it possible to define more closely the true role of video in the classroom.

The Role of Classroom Video

TV is an excellent medium for illustrating applications, describing context, and generating interest. Since it is not a truly interactive medium, though, it cannot be used to pinpoint what a student fails to understand, nor can it remedy such misunderstandings. This is a situation in which the classroom teacher has proven to be irreplaceable (Skolnik & Smith, 1993).

An especially effective use of video is engaging student interest by providing an introduction to a concept that is subsequently covered in greater detail during class. After such an introduction, which generally lasts five to fifteen minutes, the teacher has enough time remaining to teach the class and to work with students individually to ensure that they comprehend the lesson.

A study of classroom use of another popular classroom program (Research Communications Ltd., 1997) [If 1997 is the correct date, then this would be a separate report from the 1992 report by Research Communications, Ltd. cited earlier in the article. If it is a different report, it needs to have a separate reference in the reference list.] found that, when combined with classroom activities, TV could both alter entrenched attitudes towards math and improve student performance. The research focused on the Peabody Award-winning series "The Eddie Files," which is produced for elementary students. Each episode stresses a topic from the elementary curriculum such as fractions, estimation, or statistics. In pre-test interviews, 90% of the students interviewed found math "boring." After viewing several episodes over a two-month period and completing lessons from the series' teacher guide, 75% of those students stated that math was not boring.

The number of students who wanted to follow a career that used math increased by 14% [in the second poll. [This later poll also found that] students were better able to define concepts covered in the episodes, more likely to give correct answers to content-related questions, and better able to list applications of the curriculum topics which had been addressed.

A study conducted by Chen and Hodder (1997), focusing primarily on career education programming, helped underscore the elements of effective classroom television. The authors examined a ten-year track of formative and summative research conducted by the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education (FASE), which created "Futures" and "The Eddie Files," as well as other highly-regarded ITV programs (FASE, 1997). They concluded that shorter programming possessed higher value and created a greater impact and that video proved most useful when used to support, rather than replace, the teacher.

Supplementary Materials

Out of the video boom of the eighties came another important ITV development—the production of teachers' guides and other printed materials to supplement programming. Some producers have found that well-produced guidebooks can increase video implementation by a factor of five to ten. [Do you mean that the guidebooks have increased the number of teachers who implement video? Please clarify.] These guides, however, presented problems such as outdated or lost content.

The arrival of the Internet promised to alleviate some of these concerns. The Web provided publishers with a convenient repository for updated guidebooks. Teachers could visit these sites, select the necessary support materials, and use them to supplement the ITV experience. However, while 99% of teachers report that they have ready access to the Internet or computers, only 39% say they actually use these tools frequently to create instructional materials (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000).

Having an Internet connection, then, is not enough. As many teachers discover when they go online to seek assistance with lesson plans, the user is typically bombarded by thousands of "hits" on any given subject. Clearly, a way must be found to make the wealth of data more accessible to teachers so that it becomes easier to use.

The Internet and ITV

Whatever current practices may be, there is no doubt that teachers' use of the Internet to find and create lesson materials will increase dramatically in the future. It is through this medium, the Internet, that video offers its greatest promise yet for educators.

In an effort to capitalize on the excitement that the use of video can create, while conserving classroom minutes, many teachers are in the habit of showing two- or three-minute segments from longer programs. Responding to this practice, and the demand for teachers to address specific national standards and state guidelines, ITV is creating a new two to four-minute "micro-documentary" format.

Shorter clips can heighten video's usefulness by precisely underscoring a curriculum point. However, no foolproof formula exists for bridging the gulf between what producers could possibly shoot and what any individual teacher might need on a given day. As a result, the most workable [practicable?] solution is to make a wide range of materials available in an easily navigable catalog that allows individual teachers to choose what they need.

One organization that is working to provide teachers with accessible online micro-content is The Futures Channel ( Recognizing that a vast archive would be necessary to meet the needs of teachers, the Channel began by acquiring exclusive rights to more than 1,000 hours of award-winning footage shot by FASE Productions. This base is being expanded through partnership agreements with Adventure Pictures (for environmental and geographic sciences), the Mount Wilson Institute, and other companies and institutes.

Working from this raw material, The Futures Channel has already produced several hundred short clips that highlight real-world applications of educational concepts. These clips form the core of a database that allows teachers to quickly search for resources—video, lesson resources, and  activities for students—that will help them effectively present specific concepts in math, science, technology, and the arts.

The largest strain on the availability of downloadable video content, however, is bandwidth—the amount of data that can be transmitted over a given communication channel in a given unit of time. In the 1998-99 school year, 90.4 percent of schools had Internet access in at least one location in their building, and 63 percent of public schools reported that all of their classrooms possessed Internet access (Software and Information Industry Association, 2000). Most schools, though, do not have broadband access. The limitations imposed by modem-type connections mean that large audio and video files are difficult to download. Apart from the time involved, quality suffers badly.

Within a few years, however, broadband access will become nearly universal. According to a Cahners In-Stat Group study (1999), 45 million homes will be using broadband by 2002. Within three to six years, most schools will have Internet connections that permit online downloading of video content. In the interim, alternative methods of distribution will have to be employed. Teachers can view clips online in a low bandwidth format such as RealPlayer that works adequately on a 56k modem, decide what they want, and either upload the material via CD ROM or access it over a school or district network. Soon, though, most will be able to access higher quality clips in Quicktime and other video formats and download desired material rapidly.

The Near Future

In the near future, then, teachers will have access to vast libraries of educational video and support materials. These will be indexed in such a way that the teacher can rapidly discover relevant clips, view excerpts, and find links to related lesson activities. In addition, this material will be catalogued according to grade level, subject, and the various local, state, and national standards that exist. It will also come in short clips that teachers can use to engage the attention of the class or to provide a visually appealing example of a principle.

After all these years, instructional television is finally finding its true classroom niche. While teachers will continue to play the most pivotal role in the educational process, ITV will play a supporting role, catching the interest of the student body, focusing their attention on a specific subject, and placing emphasis on key points. In view of this fact, the further evolution of ITV must be guided by the necessity to harness new resources in the manner that best assists classroom teachers in the performance of their duties.


[Please arrange the references in alphabetical order by either the first author's last name or the first word of an institutional or corporate title. Also, please place the April 2000 report by the Software and Information Industry Association before the August 2000 report by the SIIA.] 

Cahners In-Stat Group (1999, December). Cable Modem Market: Moving to the masses. [Add available pub. information.]

Chen, M., and Hodder, L. (1997). A research overview of FASE Productions’ TV series on Science, Mathematics, & Technology Education. PUBLISHED WHERE AND WHEN? [You need to add the publication information here.]

Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education research report (1997). Classroom Television: A useful resource for Mathematics and Science Education, Evaluation of The Eddie Files. [There may be a word missing here between "Education" and "Evaluation," or the comma may need to be a colon, as the title doesn't make sense as it currently reads. Please verify the title.] [Add available publication information (i.e., place of publication and publisher) if available.]  

National Center for Education Statistics (2000, April). Teacher use of computers and the Internet in public schools. [Please add available publication information.]

Research Communications Ltd. (1992). The impact of the FUTURES series on junior high students. Dedham, MA.  

Skolnik, R., & Smith, C. (1993, February) Educational Technology: Redefining the American Classroom. Network News and Views, 12 (3), [pp-pp?]

Software and Information Industry Association. (2000, April) Education Market Report: K-12. [Please add available publication information.]

[I can find no direct citations in the article for any of the 3 references below. Are there missing citations within the article? If not, these three references should be deleted from the list.]

Software and Information Industry Association. (2000, August) 2000 Report on the Effectiveness of Technology in Schools. [Add available pub. information.]

Swedlow, T., American Film Institute-Intel Enhanced Television Project [Is this the publisher, or are you saying that Swedlow and the Institute (or the Project) are co-authors? If the Institute is the publisher, then its information should be moved after the title of the publication.] (1999, July) Enhanced Television: A historical and critical perspective. [Add available pub. information.]

Robb, D. (2000, August) Educational TV’s Enhanced Future. Technos Magazine, 9 (3)[pp-pp?]  

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