Since its inception TV has been used to educate. Indeed the first TV company in the world, the BBC, still has ‘educate’ in its mission statement. As a mass-broadcast medium with almost full penetration in the population, it has the ability to reach very large numbers of people. For many it is the most popular activity, after work and sleeping, yet few would see television as a truly educational technology and many see it as working against the education of children and adults. Sedentary, couch potato television is certainly not seen as an educational medium.
Television’s main educational genres are:
· formal course material
· children’s TV
Some of these, like formal Open University or PBS lectures for courses and adverts on public safety and health are direct. Others, such as documentaries are a bit less direct and often rely on the entertainment and production values of television for their effect. Others still, such as teledramas, children’s TV, such as Sesame Street, and drama are a lot less direct, even indirect in their intention. So TV has number of formats spread across the formal to informal spectrum.
The rather unpopular term ‘edutainment’ sums up the dilemma that television faces in education. Its primary function as a one-to-many entertainment medium can aid but just as often hinders its power as an educational medium.
TV and formal learning
The UKs Open University has had a long standing relationship with the BBC. It is not entirely clear that this has been money well spent. The early broadcasts were neither powerful ‘lectures’ nor good TV programmes. These course-based TV programmes, famous for their wooden presenters, beards and kipper ties, were commissioned from 1971 onwards, and finally canned in 2006, as newer technology was cheaper and better.
Unfortunately, the tradition has continued with the trite History of the World (backed by the OU), presented by political journalist, Andrew Marr. The current strapline is “The Open University and the BBC: bringing learning to life”. With this series it is killing it stone dead. TV proved to be a poor partner in formal learning.
A great many excellent documentaries have been made on almost every imaginable subject. History has a slew of its own channels but there seems to be a curious skew towards the history of war that betrays TVs populist appeal. Nevertheless, science is well represented as is the natural world, although again there seems to be a skew towards predators and more bizarre sides of nature. There are also dedicated arts channels.
TV’s allure, on the surface its greatest strength is actually its greatest weakness in learning. The flood of beautifully shot images and steady narration sweep the learner along but at a cost. There’s no rest for reflection, little time for critical thought and much sinks and is forgotten behind this bore wave of presentation. You are forced to go at the pace of the narrator, and before the ability to record, stop and rewind, have no chance of recapping things you may have missed. In many ways TV was like the ancient scroll that simply rolled by at a steady pace, without page or chapter breaks.
Most children’s TV attempts to be directly or indirectly educational. Sesame Street is perhaps the most famous example but there are plenty of others.
Critics point to the dangers of using TV as a babysitter, the passive viewing and impact of advertising targeted at children. A wider argument still rages over the role of TV in robbing our children of their childhood, obesity, isolation and brain development. Much of this debate has shifted to online activity by children, but the arguments are similar. The ‘goggle box’ has been blamed for encouraging sedentary activity and passive viewing in young children, as well as promoting violence.
Fictional drama, especially telenovelas in Latin America, has been used to indirectly educate viewers on topics such as literacy and family planning. Soap operas have also deliberately included social themes into the scriptwriting, in an attempt to raise awareness in the specific target audiences that watch these programmes.
This approach is parasitic in the sense of relying on sedentary soap opera watching to get to an audience entranced by television. It’s a Trojan horse approach.
The University of Industry advertised around prime TV spots to reach learners who had disengaged with education and successfully got 3.5 million learners on board. Others have used adverts to get students into their courses and universities. This is perhaps one of the more successful uses of TV in education.
Governments have also used television to get educational messages across, especially about health and road safety. Political parties have also used the medium as a platform for advertising their politicians and policies. There’s also televised political debates and current affairs programmes.
The downside is the blatant consumerism of advertising of non-nutritious food and toys, especially to young children, at inappropriate times. Again, TV is Janus-faced as it relies on this direct blanket advertising to pay for the very programmes it sees as educational.
TV formats restrictive
Most educational TV is slotted into existing TV schedules that started on the hour or half past the hour. This is why TV largely conforms to the half hour or one hour format. You have to schedule programmes at predictable times which people can remember. This is fine for long-form documentaries but, as we have seen with video on the web, most useful instructional video needs to be a lot shorter. There is no ideal length, indeed, the rule could be that it need only be as long as it needs to be, and no longer. This generally means a few minutes, rather than a full hour. Only very expensive documentaries can sustain audience attention in this long format.
Amusement is not learning
In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman warns us against mistaking the rhetoric of a broadcast medium for learning. Stripped of dialogue, the flow of film and television strips us of our ability to reflect, think, deduce and resolve issues. It stops us learning. However, his main argument is that teaching, as a form of dialogue, is being replaced by entertainment or amusement. Video is also difficult to index and search, another pedagogic drawback.
Technology has a tendency to carry over its ethos and methods into newer emerging technology. Early printing mimicked manuscripts. The typewriter locked us into the QWERTTY keyboard and so on. TV has also had a limiting effect on online learning. Too many projects, especially public funded projects, were in trawl to TV and disastrous projects, such as BBC Jam wasted tens of millions with little or no output. More worryingly, is the broadcast mentality that forces overlong video sequences and high cost production on content, with little advantage in terms of learning and retention.
TV has educated millions, largely informally, through news, documentaries and drama. It has also helped reach people through advertising to get them into education. In this sense it has been a social good and served us as best it could. However, the downside is that it has always been a one-way, overlong and inflexible broadcast medium. While still a force in informal learning, through the documentary format, its role in formal education and deep learning proved to be short-lived, as it has been shown to be inferior to online delivery.