The Huge Void in Quality Multiple Media Programs for Upper Grade Levels

Frank B. WithrowBy Frank B. Withrow

[Note: Dr. Withrow was the Director of Educational Programs for the NASA Classroom of the Future from 1996 to 1998. He served in the U.S. Department of Education from 1966 to 1992 as the Senior Learning Technologist. In the USDE, he was the program manager for the development of Sesame Street and also supported some work on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Click here for a brief bio. -Editor]

From the late 1960s until the Reagan Administration, the U.S. Department of Education invested $150 million in children’s television series. Half of this investment was for general television, such as Sesame Street, and half for ESSA television. ESSA TV was devoted to emphasizing Hispanic, Afro-American Asian American, Franco American and Indian American heritages. These efforts funded fifty-four series from Sesame Street to The Voyages of the Mimi. They were not limited to PBS carriage but most were aired on PBS. No commercials were possible when they were broadcast. Sesame Street has become a worldwide early childhood success and is coproduced in many countries and in many languages.

Frank and his wife, the late Margaret Schram Withrow

There was a concerted campaign against ESSA TV by talk radio hosts claiming that Social Security was in danger because of these minority-based programs. Sixty Minutes ran a segment on “Hollywood on the Potomac,” which featured World War II training films but was used to kill USDE television programs. Since most of the productions were multi-year contracts rather than grants, we were able to finish the work that had been started, but Congress at the urging of the Reagan Administration killed the programs. The third season of The Voyage of the Mimi, which was to be a trip down the Mississippi, was canceled, but we were allowed to finish the second season.

Star School legislation and eventually Ready To Learn legislation was passed that has enabled USDE to fund new technology programs. In the 1980s The Voyages of the Mimi was the first blended series that included coordinated computer software with the television show as well as print materials. Sesame Street had multiple products, but the Mimi had coordinated elements.

The Ready to Learn package of programs is excellent. Many of the language programs such as “Word World” are based upon the National Reading report issued by Reed Lyon of NIH. “Word World” with its morphing of words into objects follow some of the experimental work done by the Children’s Television Workshop. In addition, work funded by Captioned Films for the Deaf with Charles Csuri of Ohio State University and the late Margaret Schram Withrow of Gallaudet University experimented with morphing of text into objects. Csuri and Withrow developed 3D computer graphics that morphed into action to teach deaf children language. For example, in the sentence “The butterfly is flying around the flower,” when the words are read they change into action. When the action stops, the words change from the present progressive to the past tense.

The Jim Henson’s Inc programs Sid the Science Kid and Dinosaur Train are excellent beginning science programs. PEEP, funded by the informal education program at NSF, is a simple beginning animation series again directed at young children and science. The Electric Company is the only program that partially meets the needs of middle school children today.

There is a huge void in the upper elementary, middle and high school grades of high quality multiple media programs. The new legislation, Ready to Learn, was not as open ended as the previous legislation. There were no specific groups other than young children targeted in the new legislation. My opinion is that the first phase of television production was broader in scope and funded a wider range of programs than Ready to Learn. For example we funded The World of Work, two hour long specials describing the emerging needs of the new digital work force and how to prepare for it.

Ready to Learn has done an excellent job of programming for children ages 2 to 8, however there is a wasteland beyond age eight. There are few if any programs available for upper elementary school, middle school, and high school learners. To some extent, Star Schools has filled this gap.

Better programming in mathematics is needed. A simple program of how mathematics formulas came into being would benefit students everywhere. The history, for example, of how PI was derived or how certain mathematics theories came about would also enhance the education system. Streaming videos can become a student’s constant tutor on mobile units when needed.

New legislative authority is needed to allow the government to broaden the uses of technology in our schools to include all grade levels and all content. What if we had a series on the writing of the U.S. Constitution where teams of students could use the framers of the constitution to reenact the writing process? What if a team of learners could call upon actors playing the founders and recreate the debates leading to the creation of the constitution? Would not such a teaching aide make the history lesson come alive?

Ready to Learn has merged into a multiple media coordinated program that could be much more if it were expanded. In the past we dreamed of libraries of materials that would be accessible to all learners. Technology today allows us to create such libraries that could be at our fingertips with social technology. If Netflix can make thousands of movies available for entertainment, then an education-based Learnerflix could make an almost unlimited amount of tutoring available to learners of all ages. Such a carefully designed education program can be a powerful education agent in this time of curtailment of school resources.

The printing press and inexpensive textbooks gave rise to our current school system. Social media, mobile devices and streaming video will give rise to the new generation of learner-centric schools.

American children deserve the best we can produce of interactive learning resources.

“I look to the future because that’s where I’m going to spend the rest of my life.” – George Burns

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