May/June 2001 // Commentary
Instructional Television's Changing Role in the Classroom
by Dave Hendry
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Dave Hendry "Instructional Television's Changing Role in the Classroom" The Technology Source, May/June 2001. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

At the time of its creation more than 50 years ago, instructional television (ITV) was regarded as a means of increasing the quality of teaching by replacing the traditional classroom teacher. This vision has turned out to be a false one; today, teachers remain at the heart of the educational system. But ITV still has a role in modern education. Internet technology is bringing about a refinement of ITV's role not to supplant the teacher, but to enhance the learning the teacher provides.

The Evolution of ITV

After years of experimentation, instructional television came of age in January 1961, when a converted DC-6 airplane beamed programs to half a million students in 10,000 classrooms across six U.S. states. Organized by the Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction (MPATI), this medium was heralded as a way to replace the classroom teacher, at least in certain areas of study (Skolnik & Smith, 1993).

Over the following decades, an informal national distribution system for classroom television developed, involving public broadcasting stations, school-based cable systems, educational media centers, and teachers. Today, this network includes 190 licensed PBS stations as well as cable and network stations. Most ITV programming airs on such stations in the middle of the night, sometimes featuring a whole series at once. The programs are recorded to videotape by media specialists and librarians in the school districts served, and then made available throughout the school year to teachers. In this way, hundreds of millions of students have had access to ITV programming.

The rapid advance of educational technology, the growth of the Internet, and the impending arrival of digital video transmission have all created new channels for ITV delivery. While there is no doubt that instructional video resources will continue to be used to enrich teaching, the route that these resources follow to reach students may change dramatically.

ITV Categories

Over the years, several types of ITV have developed, each of which has been helpful. Before discussing the most recent developments, it is worthwhile to review the broad categories of ITV.

Distance Learning. This school of ITV is a direct descendant of the MPATI project. Video or real-time TV is used to conduct "live" instruction. Local classroom teachers are largely uninvolved in teaching, apart from ensuring student attendance and discussing content afterwards. Recent developments such as videoconferencing, e-mail, and chat-room messaging have introduced two-way response, improving the level of interaction between the long distance teacher and the student. As a result, some successful applications of distance learning have evolved for specialist training, commercial settings, and students in remote locations. In the classroom, though, this form of ITV has limited application. No matter how engaging the content, such programs routinely fail to hold students' interest (Skolnik & Smith, 1993). Most schools use distance learning in moderation, limiting its use to unique events or highly specific subject areas.

Classroom Use of Broadcast Programming. The second form of ITV uses existing television programs in classroom instruction. The Nova series and Ken Burns's Civil War series are examples of programs produced originally for home viewing that have been successfully used in the classroom. This kind of programming began to appear during the 1980s due to the proliferation of the VCR, which let teachers choose when to watch programs, which programs to watch, and which segments to showcase. Though this increased the usefulness of ITV, existing programming did not always translate well for an educational setting because this mode of ITV often failed to hold classroom attention for long periods of time. What's more, if teachers decide to show small portions of a series, they must find the appropriate segment among hours of tape.

Programming Designed for the Classroom. Since the advent of the VCR, more and more programs have been produced specifically for the classroom. Whereas earlier examples of distance learning attempted to provide a video version of a traditional-style lesson, this newer type usually supplements classroom teaching. In addition, programs created specifically for classroom use can focus on specific curriculum topics.

One of the initial drawbacks of classroom-specific programming was a fixation on shows of 30 to 60 minutes in length, mimicking the format of consumer television. This mold was finally broken in the early 1990s by groundbreaking series such as "Freestyle," which sought to expand career awareness, and "Futures with Jaime Escalante," which targeted students in grades seven through twelve. (Jaime Escalante's success in teaching advanced math to inner-city students was portrayed in the Academy Award-nominated film Stand and Deliver. He has won many local and national teaching awards and was the host of "Futures with Jaime Escalante," the most popular instructional program in the history of PBS.) As a result of extensive pre-production research, the 24-part "Futures" series was composed of 15-minute episodes. This shorter format enabled teachers to use "Futures" to establish a context for instruction and motivate student interest at the beginning of a lesson period while still allowing time to cover a curriculum topic.

Filmed and edited to broadcast standards, "Futures" sparked a re-definition of the pace and visual style of ITV programming. It rapidly became the most widely used instructional programming distributed by PBS. According to a study by Research Communications Ltd. (1992), students who watched "Futures" had a much more positive attitude toward learning math than those who did not see the program. It is this move toward shorter, more tailored programming that has made it possible to define more closely the true role of video in the classroom.

The Role of Classroom Video

TV is an excellent medium for illustrating applications, describing context, and generating interest. Since it is not a truly interactive medium, though, it can neither be used to pinpoint what a student fails to understand nor remedy such misunderstandings. Here, the classroom teacher has proven to be irreplaceable (Skolnik & Smith, 1993).

An especially effective use of video is to engage student interest by introducing a concept that is then covered in detail during class. After the video introduction, which generally lasts from 5 to 15 minutes, the teacher has enough time to discuss the topic introduced and work with students individually to ensure comprehension.

A study of classroom use of another popular program (Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, 1997) found that television, when combined with other activities, could both alter entrenched attitudes towards math and improve student performance. The research focused on the Peabody Award-winning series The Eddie Files, which is produced for elementary-school students. Each episode focuses on a topic from the elementary curriculum such as fractions, estimation, or statistics. In pre-test interviews, 90% of the students interviewed found math "boring." After watching episodes over a two-month period and completing lessons from the series' teacher guide, 75% of those students no longer found math boring. The number of students who wanted a career that required math increased by 14% in the second poll. This later poll also found that students were better able to define concepts covered in the TV series, more likely to give correct answers to questions, and better able to list applications of the curriculum topics that had been addressed.

A study conducted by Chen and Hodder (1997), focusing primarily on career education programming, helped underscore the elements of effective classroom television. The authors examined a ten-year track of formative and summative research conducted by the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education (FASE), which created Futures and The Eddie Files, as well as other highly-regarded ITV programs (FASE, 1997). They concluded that shorter programming was of higher value and greater impact and that video proved most useful when used to support, rather than replace, the teacher.

Supplementary Materials

Out of the video boom of the 1980s came another important ITV development: the production of teachers' guides and other materials to supplement programming. Some producers have found that well-produced guidebooks can increase classroom use of video by a factor of five to ten. However, these guides tend to get separated from the videos, and of course their content is static and can quickly become outdated.

The arrival of the Internet promised to alleviate some of these concerns. The Web provided publishers with a convenient repository for updated guidebooks. Yet while 99% of teachers report that they have ready access to the Internet or computers, only 39% say that they actually use such technology frequently to create instructional materials (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000).

Having an Internet connection, then, is not enough. As many teachers find when they look online for help with lesson plans, the user is typically bombarded by thousands of hits on any given subject. The wealth of data must be made more focused and easier to use.

The Internet and ITV

Whatever current practices may be, there is no doubt that teachers' use of the Internet to find and create lesson materials will increase dramatically in the future. It is through the Internet that video offers its greatest promise for educators.

In an effort to capitalize on the advantages of video while conserving classroom time, many teachers show two or three minute segments from longer programs. Responding to this practice and to the demand for teachers to address specific national and state guidelines, ITV is creating a new "micro-documentary" format. Shorter clips can heighten video's usefulness by precisely underscoring a curriculum point. However, no formula exists for reconciling what producers could shoot and what teachers might need on a given day. The most feasible solution is to make a wide range of materials available in an easily navigable catalogue that allows individual teachers to choose what they need.

One organization that is working to provide teachers with accessible online micro-content is The Futures Channel. Recognizing that a vast archive would be necessary to meet the needs of teachers, the channel began by acquiring exclusive rights to more than 1,000 hours of award-winning footage shot by FASE productions. This base is being expanded through partnership agreements with Adventure Pictures (for environmental and geographic sciences), the Mount Wilson Institute, and other companies and institutes. The Futures Channel has already produced several hundred short clips that highlight real-world applications of educational concepts. These clips form the core of a database that allows teachers to search quickly for resources—videos, lesson materials, and student activities—on specific concepts in math, science, technology, and the arts.

The largest strain on the availability of downloadable video content, however, is bandwidth—the amount of data that can be transmitted in a given amount of time. In the 1998-99 school year, 90.4% of schools had Internet access in at least one location in their building, and 63% of public schools reported that all of their classrooms had Internet access (Software and Information Industry Association, 2000). Most schools, though, do not have broadband access. Modem connections mean that large audio and video files download slowly and are of poor quality.

Within a few years, however, broadband access will become nearly universal. According to a Cahners In-stat Group study (1999), 45 million homes will be using broadband by 2002. Within three to six years, most schools will have Internet connections that permit video downloading. In the interim, alternative methods of distribution will have to be used. One possibility is for teachers to view clips in a low bandwidth format (such as RealPlayer) that works adequately on a 56k modem, decide what they want, and either upload the material via CD-ROM or access it over a school or district network.

The Near Future

In the near future, then, teachers will have access to support materials and vast libraries of educational video content, from seconds to hours in length. These will be indexed in such a way that the teacher can rapidly find relevant clips, view excerpts, and find links to related lesson activities. This material will be catalogued according to grade level, subject, and various local, state, and national standards.

Instructional television is finally finding its niche. While teachers will continue to play the pivotal role in education, ITV will play a supporting role, catching student interest, focusing attention on specific subjects, and emphasizing key points. The further evolution of ITV must be guided by the necessity to harness new resources in the manner that best helps classroom teachers.


Cahners In-stat Group (1999, December). Cable modem market: Moving to the masses. Boston: Author.

Chen, M., & Hodder, L. (1997). A research overview of FASE productions' TV series on science, mathematics, and technology education. Unpublished manuscript.

Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education (1997). Classroom television: A useful resource for mathematics and science education. Evaluation of The Eddie Files. Los Angeles: FASE.

National Center for Education Statistics (2000, April). Teacher use of computers and the internet in public schools. Washington, DC: Author.

Research Communications Ltd. (1992). The impact of the FUTURES series on junior high students. Dedham, MA: Author.

Skolnik, R., & Smith, C. (1993, February). Educational technology: Redefining the American classroom. Network News and Views, 12 (3), 79-83.

Software and Information Industry Association. (2000, April). Education market report: K-12. Washington, DC: Author.

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