An Unexpected Tool for Remote-Learning During Coronavirus: Public TV Stations

By David Rauf — April 06, 2020 8 min read
Cara Santa Maria, a national television personality who tackles science issues, delivers a short introduction before an episode of the science show Nova for a PBS remote learning program.
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Amid the flurry of new technologies used by K-12 schools to fire up remote learning in recent weeks, a piece of seemingly antiquated technology is playing a key role: the television.

School districts are getting help from an old school tech solution—television stations—that includes a cross-country public broadcast initiative to deliver remote e-learning activities while the unprecedented wave of school shutdowns affecting more than 55 million students continues.

On Monday, public television stations in New Jersey and the Washington D.C., metro region started featuring the at-home learning program, which is now set to air in all 50 states. In other cases, school districts are producing new original educational programming on their own local cable stations.

The effort amounts to a low-cost alternative and readily accessible solution for districts that have been forced to develop and implement long-term online lesson plans on the spot, while facing a shortage of available devices and WiFi accessibility for many students.

In a world of high-tech gadgets, a seemingly never-ending array of apps and online curriculum tools developed by ed-tech vendors, television can fill a void created by the digital divide for families lacking access to more advanced solutions used for online learning.

With just about every public access station in the country participating in some way, the program is already having a profound impact for low-income families, said Amy Shaw, president and chief executive of Nine Network of Public Media, St. Louis, Missouri.

“Right now, we are the largest classroom in the St. Louis area. You could argue PBS is currently the largest classroom in the country at the moment,” said Shaw. “That’s a very powerful idea—that we’re not just a nice thing to have. We’re essential and relevant to the learning outcomes of children across this country at this time of crisis.”

PBS Stations Alter Lineups

PBS stations have altered their lineups in collaboration with local school leaders, identifying archived materials that meet educational standards and adapting shows for specific curriculum needs.

The PBS Kids series “Peg + Cat” serves up math lessons for elementary school kids, episodes of “Nova” reinforce science for grades 5-8, and Ken Burn’s “The Civil War” is a teaching resource for high schoolers studying history. Some local PBS affiliates record their own short intros and prompts that are answered after the shows to reinforce learning goals.

For those families with online access, local PBS affiliates have also adapted websites to provide games, activities, videos, and supplemental reading and learning materials specific to the shows and lesson plans or to the broader coronavirus situation.

The idea of delivering an at-home learning experience on public television in response to the coronavirus closures first took root in California, just one week before officials shut down schools in mid-March, as the state turned into a hotspot for the virus.

That’s when Andrew Russell, president and chief executive of PBS SoCal and KCET, said he received a phone call from the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The 700,000-student school system is the second-largest in the country, and about one of every four students lacks internet access at home.

At the meeting, Russell said the request was clear: that PBS put something together to help support a huge logistical effort to deliver distance learning during likely mass closures. Within hours, curriculum specialists from PBS and LAUSD were in brainstorming sessions, matching PBS content with lesson plans. A final strategy was hatched days later.

“By the end of that week we had developed a broadcast schedule and curriculum,” Russell said. “A collection of stations in other parts of the country thought it was an intriguing idea, but school closures were not yet imminent for them. We were just a few days ahead of the rest of the country.”

‘Blessed by Educators’

The effort expanded quickly, with details emerging about PBS at-home learning programs in seven states initially. By last week, the initiative had spread to public television stations in all 50 states, according to America’s Public Television Stations, a trade group representing public broadcasters. The group said in a statement that public broadcasters “are helping millions of students continue their education during the national emergency.”

Aside from educational materials, the stations are providing resources in other ways. In California, Russell said about 15,000 teachers have signed up for a training program provided by PBS. And in Detroit, public broadcasters are using some segments between programming for parent-focused messaging about coping during these difficult times and providing tips for ways to interact with children during the crisis.

Rich Homberg, president and CEO of Detroit Public Television, said his organization sees its role as not only providing learning resources but as “being a calming force, too.” To that extent, Detroit’s PBS affiliate ramped up and reinvented a newsletter it was producing.

Six times a week around 5 p.m., a newsletter with games, recipes, a preview of the next day’s programming schedule and general guidance for parents goes out via email, on the station’s website and through a text messaging system, said Homberg.

Recently, the newsletter has been re-adapted to play off the coronavirus crisis and expanded its frequency and the age and grade ranges. The idea, Homberg said, has caught on with other PBS stations around the country that have started to use the format.

“We’re hosting noon conference calls with educators daily, and a big part of those discussions are, ‘what are parents thinking,’” he said. “Everything we do has to be blessed by educators. At the same time, we’re good at creating media. They’re the ground troops. and we’re an air force looking to coordinate with them.”

‘A Lot of Back And Forth’

When the at-home learning initiative launched in New Jersey on Monday, students in grades 3-6, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., had their online classes taught by a state teacher of the year award recipient. The New Jersey Department of Education said it would be one of several on-air classes taught by different teachers from the state as part of an instructional program called “NJTV Learning Live.”

It marks a progression, of sorts, in how the public television stations and school districts are providing online learning resources. Most are relying solely on archived PBS material, while a handful are creating their own on-air lessons to complement archived shows.

Discussions about how to do something with teachers providing specialized instruction on-air are currently taking place in Michigan, said Georgeann Herbert, senior vice president of Strategy at Detroit Public Television. “There’s a lot of back and forth about it right now.”

Russell, the president and CEO of PBS SoCal and KCET, said stations across the country are exploring how to build on the current at-home learning platform put in place for the coronavirus school closures. He said he’s heard stories of stations bringing teachers into studios to record online classes and “experimenting on what would make the home learning experience more effective.”

Leveraging Local Cable TV Stations

At the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, a district of almost 188,000 students, officials are leveraging three cable stations they already operate to supplement distance learning strategy.

Amy Hunter, the K-12 Mathematics Coordinator for the district, said a team of more than 30 educators are currently recording and producing math lessons in their homes that will air on the cable stations for elementary students.

When word spread of the impending virus outbreak, Hunter said teachers scrambled to record online courses in the production studio for the cable stations. They recorded some, but the district closed schools days later, and trekking to the studio soon became impractical. So the district bought lapel microphones from Amazon for a group of teachers for at-home recording sessions.

Teams of educators are working together remotely to write scripts and produce visuals. As a result, Hunter said, teachers are “stepping way out of their comfort zones” to be creative not just with the production values—but coming up with original content in a new format.

“They’re not necessarily as comfortable being in front of a camera,” Hunter said, noting that some teachers have had to escape to coat closets late at night to find quiet sanctuaries to shoot lesson plans or record voiceovers for videos. “We’re not as polished as Sesame Street. But we’re trying to get more savvy and include live action. In this situation, we have to provide as many avenues as possible for students to engage.”

Not ‘Replacing Curriculum’

While the at-home learning programs delivered on television are helping to fill a gap during the current situation, they generally work best as a supplement to teacher-assigned activities and other curriculum developed by school officials, educators say.

Russell, the public broadcast executive in California, said PBS at-home learning materials provide prompts and suggested learning exercises, along with a variety of other digital resources. But, he said, “it’s still quite different from the kind of distance learning that’s going to happen with traditional online instruction.”

“The big change is students are now at home without teachers there,” he said. “So we’re trying to support that learning at home.”

Herbert, the senior vice president of strategy at Detroit Public Television, said the goal of the program is simple: to keep kids engaged in learning.

“We’re not making any claim about replacing curriculum,” she said, “or replacing a classroom.”


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