Thursday, June 19, 2014

Education Technology: What To Do With TV?

Television is an embarrassment for education technologists. Whenever they proclaim that Internet will change education forever, breaking the entrenched institutional structures, most people around the table will say, "oh yes! we saw that with TV". Television was supposed to change education, and supposedly it did not. All one recalls of television in education is somewhat boring lectures at wee hours in the morning which no one watched: And, indeed, as far as the institutional structures are concerned, television did not disrupt anything.

Usually, this leads to a discussion about socio-economic factors, the broader perspective of the rise of a new middle class, the transformation of work, all the reasons why the putative revolution by television never happened in learning. These are mostly valid reasons, but perhaps unnecessarily defensive: Television did change education and identifying these changes and drawing lessons from them are perhaps the best thing to do for today's education disruptors.

The whole discussion about television failing to change education is centered around the educational content of television - the lectures at wee hours - and based on a fixed view of education. The claim overlooks the whole phenomenon of people watching documentaries, the fabulous programmes on Discovery, National Geographic or History channel, for example, the careers of great TV educators such as Richard Attenborough, Brian Cox and others (including my favourites, Peter and Dan Snow), and the effect it had on public consciousness and public education. I recall this surprising argument made by Felipe Fernández-Armesto in Times Higher Education a couple of years ago connecting the decline of public education events with the expansion of compulsory education (See here); one could argue though that what really replaced the local culture clubs is Television and not compulsory schooling, though we can continue debating the merits of a TV education.

So, in the conversation about Television in Education, there is no cause for red faces among educators for change: How we educate ourselves has changed with television. Indeed, the reason we think, and claim, that TV hasn't delivered, is because our notions of education remained unchanged, and we refused to give credit to the middle aged man who would rather watch 'The Coast' or 'The Forzen Planet' to learn about geography rather than playing Poker. We are essentially fighting the same demons as people discount the MOOCs as a learning enabler. This is, increasingly as it appears, a problem for education, rather than being a problem for the medium involved.

Apart from being less apologetic, what should the TV executives take from this discussion about television in education? I would think the best thing they can do is to embrace this broader view of education and recognise that the availability of a new medium may change not just the way people learn but also what it means to educate oneself. The key to success for all media owners - owners of classrooms, TV channels and online platforms - remain the same: To recognise that the medium is not the whole message. So, the mindset that 'we are TV and we educate using TV' should be replaced by 'we educate and we use TV as a medium'. And, then, wonderful possibilities emerge.

I recall in this context a wonderful presentation made by Rajay Naik, the Director of External Relations at The Open University, in a conference that we organised on Indian Education. Rajay's point was that OU does so well because it accepts its role as an educator first and foremost and then employ appropriate medium to carry their message. He showed us great examples drawn from 'The Frozen Planet' and how OU created a multi-channel strategy around its brilliant TV programme to create one of Britain's most successful public education offering. I would believe changing the paradigm and embracing all mediums, the centerpiece of which may remain TV for an Television company, are key to a successful education strategy. The point is to educate, not to increase the Target Rating Points, just as it is not about 'bums on seats' or 'hits'.


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