Opinion Article 7

Television for Learning: Our Foremost Tool in the 21st Century

Ed Palmer

Depending on how one looks at the status of educational television in the world today, one sees either a glass half full or a glass half empty. Great advances have been made worldwide in forging inventive applications. Many different program genres have been used to address diverse audiences for a variety of formal and non-formal learning purposes, with scientifically measured results. The record of accomplishments is impressive, yet TV is drastically underutilized as a teaching tool in countries that have the highest prevalence of urgent and otherwise unmet education needs. The large gap that exists between the state of the art and the state of practice in the use of television for development has many causes, including a major lapse of international attention to national capacity building and application.

Among the nations that receive the greatest amounts of international assistance in health, education, child rights, ecology and the environment, many now contain 20 to 40 million or more individuals who regularly see TV. This means that in some of the most economically limited countries of the world, tens of millions of households of very meager means have invested in the purchase of a TV set which for them is immensely expensive. Although these sets are purchased mainly for entertainment, the result is to make one of the world's most powerful educational tools available on a massively wide scale to many people in the world who have limited access to education through other means. A critical mass of TV viable countries now exists for educational purposes, to justify undertaking unprecedented levels of international coordination in such areas as experience exchange, training, resource development, and national and regional capacity building.

Huge numbers of non-literate or marginally literate individuals, for whom formal education has little practical applicability, will live out their lives in print-scarce environments with few or no reading materials in their homes, but with regular access to television. TV and radio, for as far as we can see into the 21st century, will be their most important outside source of lifelong and lifewide learning. Viewed in this light, the real costs in terms of human survival, quality of life, and productivity in countries that fail to develop educational television more fully must be reckoned with as an important policy consideration.

Television during its earliest stage of growth in a given developing country is useful mainly as a means to reach and influence policy makers in urban settings. We know a great deal today about the role TV often plays in "agenda setting" -- i.e., in elevating issues in the agendas of nations, ministries, and professional groups. During its second (intermediary) phase of availability, television also begins to function according to the classical two-step model, whereby it reaches significant numbers of influential community opinion leaders, who in turn relay its educational and motivational points to large numbers of individual householders. Policy makers in countries where television reaches only a fraction of the population need to be aware that this fraction will include a disproportionately large number of community opinion leaders, who can be counted on to further disseminate the practical lessons that they see presented on TV. In the third (mature) phase, TV continues to reach policy makers and community opinion leaders and, in addition, reaches significantly large numbers of individual householders. It is during this stage that television begins to reach the "neediest of the needy" in significantly large numbers.

Model uses of TV for national development have emerged in widely separated times and places, but never has a determined human effort been made in a single locale to realize anything approaching the full scope and impact of television in its capacity to teach, illuminate, and empower. Totally absent in developing countries at the close of the 20th century are exemplars of carefully planned, comprehensive national policies geared to making the best-informed and most rational uses of television to address the highest priority education needs, based on a realistic sense of what these nations actually are going to spend.

A great deal is known -- if not widely known -- about how to use TV effectively as a disseminator of knowledge, shaper of attitudes, and motivator of recommended actions. Television also has been used in documented ways to bring about measured gains in the thinking skills of viewers in such areas as scientific and mathematical reasoning and analysis of distortions in TV news and advertising. The literature includes, still further, many articles on how to collect and make use of audience data, such as research on pilot productions, to guide improvements in the appeal and educational effectiveness of the completed programs.

"Best practices" are defined according to important criteria. Some are low-cost/high-yield. Others are ones that TV organizations are likely to perpetuate on a sustaining basis. Still others make use of popular program genres, in which education and entertainment are blended, to be able to attract large viewing-learning audiences during peak TV viewing periods.

The literature on educational uses of TV focuses, variously, on applications of particular TV program genres; research and evaluation practices; evaluation results; design of effective educational and motivational program approaches; specialized producer and researcher training; and patterns of international co-production. The Japan Prize Contest, now a decades-old tradition, serves as a screening center for identifying and honoring the best educational programs from all over the world, and as a venue for professional exchange. The NHK generously makes its library of prize-winning programs available for study at selected centers located around the world.

Program genres that have been widely used and found to work effectively for education in countries all around the world include communication campaigns based on minute-long public service announcements, somewhat longer program "fillers," soap operas (popular dramatic serials), magazine-style variety series with recurring features, hosted talk shows with live audiences and expert panels, interview shows especially when these contain interesting and informative inserts, animations, popular music specials, news and documentaries, and re-enactments in the form of docu-dramas, to mention just a few. The range of subjects is large and diverse, and includes farm shows, doctor's advice shows, shows on food preparation and preservation, shows on ecology and on international and inter-ethnic conflict resolution, specials on child development and child rearing, and shows about education and schooling, automobile and appliance repair, and do-it-yourself home and community improvements.

The following ideas for capacity building to improve educational television in developing countries were chosen more to suggest a range of ways in which capacity can be increased than necessarily in all cases to address top priorities.

Expand and improve technical facilities. Shortages of technical facilities for creating educational TV programs often result from prior failures in national planning. The best results come when planning is comprehensive and open to wide stakeholder participation, and when stakeholders and decision makers alike are well informed on how and how effectively television can be used to serve various national education needs. Helping them become so informed is a crucial early step in promoting increased investments in technical facilities.

Best practices. An especially important international capacity building activity, one that provides a foundation for other crucially important actions, is to develop an extensive data base on best practices, make it easily available, and actively promote its fullest possible use worldwide. A data base of this type, available on the internet, could show program excerpts with full motion and sound, illustrating for policy makers and educational TV practitioners alike what television has the demonstrated capacity to accomplish in education. Countries would be saved the cost of "reinventing the wheel," and could download for each genre technical information on content planning, audience research, presentational design, and evaluation.

Planning for global policy implementation. Many countries that are signatories to the various global policy initiatives (e.g., in education, health, child rights, ecology and the environment) have no systematic plan for how to use TV and radio to implement these policies. A capacity building activity is to help interested countries launch this type of planning.

Planning for increased channel capacity. When countries increase their TV channel capacity, usually with an increase in satellite-imported programs, special steps are needed to ensure that local educational programming receives adequate consideration, funding and air space.

Show doctoring. Countries that wish to improve under-performing educational TV series may be interested in show doctoring, whereby experts come in for a short time to help plan and implement sustainable improvements in such areas as content planning, use of audience research, educational strategies, and technical and artistic production values.

Grassroots community empowerment. A TV series on grassroots empowerment might feature emulatable forms of community action, which could range from funding a community irrigation system or setting up cooperatives, to improving health conditions.

Train those who invest in or manage educational TV offerings. Many in positions of educational TV funding and oversight lack related policy and technical backgrounds, and might welcome access to training and resource materials geared especially for them.

Training of TV scriptwriters and directors. Untold levels of expenditure have been made worldwide learning how to make TV for learning more engaging, interactive, persuasive, and sensitive to the needs and interests of the learner. Yet this accumulated knowledge often sits on the shelf. An effective self-teaching course for scriptwriters and directors is urgently needed.

It is no idle forecast to say that TV will be the preeminent tool in learning for development during at least the first half of the 21st century. It is happening already, but not with anything like the focus and intensity that the field deserves from the international assistance community.

Dr. Edward L. Palmer is one of the founders of the Children's Television Workshop where he was VP/Research for 19 years, and an originator of Sesame Street. He has recently been a consultant for UNICEF's TV and radio applications in the Middle East and Africa. He has also held appointments at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. He may be reached at 105 Simsbury Road, Ithaca, NY 14850, USA or by email at Edpalmer2@aol.com
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