Why Hasn’t Educational Television Stepped Up to the Plate?

A failure of imagination.

March 30, 2020

Those of a certain age likely remember the public service announcements for Conelrad, the emergency broadcast system. In the event of a national emergency, we were told, Conelrad would provide essential information.

Then, on Sept. 11, 2001, a national emergency occurred. But Conelrad remained silent.

Today, this country has a nearly universal way to provide education when schools are closed: public television. But like Conelrad, public television has failed to step up at the very moment it is most needed.

Many of us are old enough to remember that public television was originally conceived not as a provider of British dramas or James Taylor concerts, but as a purveyor of education. Long before there were MOOCs, publicly owned television stations saw themselves as educational institutions. And they were not alone.

Perhaps you remember Sunrise Semester -- for-credit college courses offered from WCBS television and NYU from 1957 to 1982. Two courses were broadcast a week at 6:30 a.m. Each presentation was 30 minutes long, and the technology was primitive but familiar: a lecturer, a chalkboard and a projector.

For $75 (later raised to $250), NYU and high school students received credit for taking a course.

Given that roughly 20 percent of K-12 students and their families lack broadband access or a computer, wouldn’t educational television make sense during the disruption?

Why isn’t this happening?

Is it because educational television now seems like an archaic technology, supplanted by far superior modes of instruction?

Or is it because public television has shifted its mission -- and now uses its programming: think Downton Abbey -- in a constant effort to cultivate donations?

Not to be overly cynical, but public television has become yet another source of escapist entertainment even as it touts its role as promoter and provider of cultural enrichment.

To paraphrase the old ad for the United Negro College Fund, a semester is a terrible thing to waste, and our society should be doing everything we can to help K-12 students continue to learn during the current crisis. This will not only help students, but their parents as well, who are doing their best to homeschool their children.

During teachers’ strikes years ago, some of us learned practical skills while schools were closed, like how to type on typewriter. Shouldn’t we turn social distancing to our advantage by offering enrichment and educational opportunities not just to students but to everyone?

Wouldn’t it make sense to offer televised courses in high-demand areas, like Spanish, spreadsheets and databases, and more?

Let’s not let a semester go to waste.

Steven Mintz is senior adviser to the president of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.

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