Television for a change (revolution in a box)

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public domain image of the Braun HF television from 1958 comes courtesy of Oliver Kurmis via Wikimedia CommonsA quick check of the user logs for the World Bank's EduTech blog shows that postings on the use of mobile phones in education consistently draw the most readers.  While highlighting the new and innovative appears to grab the attention of visitors, there is no denying the impact that 'old' technologies like radio and television continue to have on education around the world.  In an optimistic cover story in the most recent edition of Foreign Policy magazine, my World Bank colleague Charles Kenny makes the case in Revolution in a Box that, despite the recent hype around new Web 2.0 tools (like Twitter or Facebook), it is not the computer, but the TV that "can still save the world". 

The power of television to bring about societal change (for better and for worse) -- and provide new educational opportunities -- is of course nothing new to readers of this blog (nor indeed to most people on this planet).  It is still relatively new, however, to millions of people in developing countries, especially in rural areas, and the effects are no less profound than they were for other people in other places in other times. Noting the explosion of viewership that is still occurring ("150 million-plus households will be tuned in by 2013"), Charles writes that

"It's not earnest educational programming that's reshaping the world on all those TV sets. The programs that so many dismiss as junk [...] are being eagerly consumed by poor people everywhere who are just now getting access to television for the first time. That's a powerful force for spreading glitz and drama -- but also social change."

While this topic has been the subject of scholary attention for nearly a half-century -- Wilbur Schramm's Mass Media and National Development, published by UNESCO in 1964, is a touchstone for many in this area -- the fact that this phenomenon is not new makes it no less powerful. 

Charles continues:

"TV is its own kind of education -- and rather than clash with schooling, as years of parental nagging would suggest, it can even enhance it. U.S. kids with access to a TV signal in the 1950s, for instance -- think toddlers watching quality educational programming like I Love Lucy -- tended to have higher test scores in 1964, according to research by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro of the University of Chicago. Today, more than 700,000 secondary-school students in remote Mexican villages watch the Telesecundaria program of televised classes. Although students enter the program with below-average test scores in mathematics and language, by graduation they have caught up in math and halved the language-score deficit."

As we approach the fortieth anniversary of the first appearance of Sesame Street (a birthday receiving wide exposure on the web with the modification of the logo on the Google home page),  it is perhaps worth noting that 'earnest educational programming' is still influential in many places (even if it is often drowned out by programming aimed at school-age children -- an important distinction).  Serious attention to the role and place of ICTs in educational development starts for many people with the birth of Sesame Street, a television program that from the beginning sought to identify specific learning outcomes for children that could be measured."G" is for growing: thirty years of research on children and Sesame Street, quotes Sesame Street co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney as saying that "Without research, there would be no Sesame Street". 

The birth and early output of the Children's Television Workshop is just one marker of the recognition of the potential power of television as an educational tool.  China and India have nearly four decades of experience in using broadcast television to provide distance learning opportunities to large numbers of their citizens.  Perhaps the most engaging account of the use of educational television in a developing country (and one whose lessons still resonate today) is Wilbur Schramm's Bold Experiment: The Story of Educational Television in American Samoa, which details how the hope and promise of this educational innovation sometimes clashed with the messiness of implementation on-the-ground in the Pacific in the 1960s.  (One hopes that we'll see a similar sort of document emerging from the OLPC experience!)

One issue that Kenny does not address in his article is the trend of television viewing transitioning from a largely communal to an increasingly personal experience.  Indeed, just as tens of millions of families are purchasing their first TV, so too are tens of millions of individuals now starting to view broadcast video (for lack of a better term) on personal mobile devices.  Viewing television on your mobile phone, a phenomenon that began at scale in South Korea in 2005, is starting to be possible in many developing countries as well (like India).  This is not only happening on phones, of course (the video podcasts available through Apple's iTunes U are just one notable example of opportunities for mobile learning via video on another sort of handheld device ).  Re-conceptualizing educational television as a personal, and not communal, experience may challenge some of the fundamental tenets we have about the utility and delivery of video to meet learning objectives.  Where this will lead, no one knows (although work by folks like Jan Chipchase and his colleagues at Nokia will no doubt be instructive here), but the optimistic note struck by Kenny's article can be tempered by remembering the optimism of Thomas Edison back in 1922, when he said that

"I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.”

Promises of revolutions in a box have been with us for awhile, and the results of such revolutions are decidedly mixed.  There is no denying, however, that ICTs remain powerful tools for education and change, and discussions of their potential use and utility will only grow more animated and integral to the work of educational policymakers around the world.


Please note: Public domain image of the Braun HF television from 1958 used at the top of this blog entry comes courtesy of Oliver Kurmis via Wikimedia Commons.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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