Quarterly for Education and Technology: Educational Television’s Enhanced Future

Educational Television’s Enhanced Future

Drew Robb

A BOLD NEW TELEVISION EXPERIMENT THAT MELDS BROADCAST, COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY, AND EDUCATION BRINGS TOGETHER TOP PRODUCERS, LOCAL TV STATIONS, AND A KID NAMED EDDIE.

Imagine yourself watching an episode of a popular medical drama. A soccer player is rushed into the emergency room with a broken fibula. You’re not quite sure what bone that is, so you click an icon on the screen and quickly scan a 3D rendering of a skeleton to find it. Later in the show, as a delicate heart operation is performed, you click another spot on the screen and browse through a collection of cross-sectional photographs of a human heart. You click on various portions of the organ to find out more about their function. You realize you’re not quite sure what “triage” means, so you look the word up on screen. Wondering about a second career, you review the requirements for certification as a nurse. Meanwhile, you are still keeping up with the story. It just so happens you are learning at the same time.

While the medium is still in its infancy, the possibilities for Enhanced Television (ETV) are endless, particularly for educational applications.

ETV DEVELOPS

The term “Enhanced TV” was coined a few years ago to describe the infusion of traditional linear television with interactive digital elements. ETV uses certain Internet technologies to deliver graphical and informational elements on the same screen as a video program. These additional components can be viewed via TV set-top boxes or computers.

ETV enhancements are essentially Web pages, usually superimposed over or around the television picture to permit access to additional text, sound, video, or graphics. The technology is already being used–for news coverage over WISC-TV in Wisconsin, by the Judge Judy program, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and Web TV services, among others.

As is the case with the Internet, the development and deployment of ETV is largely driven by commercial interests. The opportunities to reinforce brands and sell products are significant. But whatever the driving force might be, this technology offers rich educational possibilities.

In recent years, bodies such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the American Film Institute (AFI), and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences have become heavily involved in the Enhanced TV field, sponsoring events, workshops, and programming in order to integrate TV and the Web.

“What is beautiful about this convergence is that barriers between audiences and creators are disappearing,” said Meryll Marshall, CEO of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. “This is the most exciting development of our time.”

In an attempt to develop and formalize ETV technology, AFI has been conducting a series of ETV workshops sponsored by Intel. A handful of traditional TV programs were recently selected from dozens of applicants to participate in a media workshop aimed at defining the next generation of television. They included Entertainment Television’s Talk Soup and Solutions Media’s enhancement of the 1999 Academy Awards. One of the few children’s educational programs to be chosen was the public television series The Eddie Files.

EDDIE ON ETV

The Eddie Files is produced by Los Angeles-based FASE Productions (FASE: Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education). The Peabody Award-winning series connects classroom studies to the challenges and excitement of the real world. It is told from the point of view of Eddie, a fictional 11-year-old student. His teacher is the real Kay Toliver of New York City’s East Harlem Tech/P.S. 72, winner of Disney and Presidential teaching awards. Ms. Toliver’s classroom lessons ignite Eddie’s imagination, inspiring him to find out more about life outside the classroom, as well as many career paths available. Eddie meets, and photographs, professionals–architects to drummers, inventors to bug farmers–and keeps files about jobs he might like to have someday.

Though The Eddie Files was created for classroom use, in the fall of 1998, public television stations began airing it during family viewing hours. “This is something new in public broadcasting,” said Gayle Loeber, director of programming for the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA), which provides programming to the nation’s 376 public TV stations. “You hear a lot about repackaging broadcast programming for classroom use, but this is the first time I know of that a series has gone from the classroom to the home audience.”

The show’s broad appeal made it a strong candidate for the AFI Enhanced Television workshop. AFI paired up producers and industry mentors with the express purpose of creating new ETV prototypes. FASE Productions spent six months developing Web-based elements in collaboration with Internet innovator Razorfish and interactive media developer Steeplechase.

“This project has one foot in the present and one foot in the future,” said Anna Made Piersimoni, director of the AFI-Intel workshop. “While The Eddie Files is truly educational, it is also very fun to watch. The enhancements that have been developed are just as playful as the show itself, and at the same time, they deepen the educational experience.”

WHAT’S DIFFERENT?

The original Eddie series received excellent reviews, and, more important, had a dramatic effect on students. One nationwide survey, conducted by Research Communications in 20 fourth- to sixth-grade classrooms, recorded significant improvements in students’ understanding of and ability to apply key mathematics concepts. The percentage of students correctly finding the mode of a set of numbers, for instance, rose from 7 to 38 percent after watching one episode. Similarly, while only 5 percent knew what a variable was before one show, the number jumped to 52 percent afterward. These are impressive results that ETV may help to boost further.

“In a linear show, you sometimes lose the attention of the kids when you reach the educational part, no matter how entertaining you make the video,” said Rob Mikuriya, executive producer of The Eddie Files New Media Project. One of the original creators of the series, Mikuriya is overseeing the transition from video to interactive ETV.

A number of ETV prototypes have resembled Web sites. Video content occupies a central portion of the screen, often surrounded by menus offering links to related information. Mikuriya and his partners took a different approach, and designed enhancements that have their own narrative flow. The idea was to provide a parallel story line that brought added dimension, and educational value, to The Eddie Files.

The first episode to be enhanced was “Hot Dog Heaven.” In this program, Eddie faces a disaster when babysitting Hector, his Aunt Rosa’s dog. Hector escapes, and Eddie must search the streets and subways of New York City to find him. He’s joined on the search by his friends Johnny, a bike messenger, and Gus, a hot dog vendor. Ultimately, it is his understanding of the formula for distance, time, and speed that enables him to find Hector.

As the characters in “Hot Dog Heaven” appear on screen, so do icons related to their portion of the story. A click on an icon leads to further information–for instance, about points of interest in New York City, the N.Y.C. subway system, the city’s taxis, and more. Maps keep viewers oriented as Eddie moves from Central Park to Madison Square Garden to Staten Island. If an unusual word is used in the episode, an on-screen glossary appears, providing a definition. Viewers can either suspend the video temporarily or view the data while the show continues. As the story progresses, and the icon is no longer relevant, it disappears.

“From a creative standpoint, it’s amazing what you can do with Enhanced TV,” said Mikuriya. “Kids want to learn–if you succeed in engaging their interest. By using these new media tools, children can be drawn into learning more about a subject that they’re interested in.”

NATIONAL/LOCAL PBS COLLABORATION

Steve Heard, co-creator and executive producer of The Eddie Files, conceived of an innovative way to expanded the scope of the Eddie Files ETV project. He decided to recruit local PBS stations to create localized broadcast segments and Internet content that could be integrated into a national broadcast of the programs. With the help of a CPB grant, FASE Productions is working closely with four local PBS broadcasters to add localized enhancements to the prototype episode, “Hot Dog Heaven.” The participants in this national/local experiment are Iowa Public Broadcasting; KLVX in Las Vegas; KLRU-TV in Austin, Texas; and Louisiana’s WLAE. Although each localized segment of The Eddie Files bears a distinctive regional stamp, they all reflect the overall themes and educational message of “Hot Dog Heaven.”

“While local television has always been important to us, we haven’t been able to pay it the attention it deserves, as we are only able to fund national programming,” said Louis Barbash, CPB’s project development officer. “This Enhanced TV project offers us the perfect opportunity to assist local stations in creating original TV. When kids see their own regional transportation systems and careers highlighted, it brings the programs that much closer to the viewers.”

CPB also sees Enhanced TV as an ideal medium to tailor education to viewer preferences. “When you look at things from the viewer’s perspective, you realize that everyone learns differently,” said Barbash. “ETV gives you the opportunity to customize the material to the way you prefer to learn it.”

One of the four broadcasters participating in the Eddie Files ETV experiment is Iowa Public Television (IPTV). A pioneer in educational programming, IPTV jumped at the opportunity to become involved. “This will be one of the first in-depth partnerships forged between Iowa Public Television and a nationally recognized producer, working together to produce educational content for teachers,” said Jeanie Campbell, assistant director for education at Iowa Public Broadcasting. “This prototype could demonstrate real opportunities for national-local partnerships in the future.”

IPTV has developed an interactive segment for “Hot Dog Heaven” that features localized examples and applications of the speed formula. This material highlights the careers of a Mississippi River barge captain and a Coast Guard inspector. In an entertaining and informative fashion, it demonstrates how both utilize the relationship between speed, distance, and time in their day-to-day activities.

Campbell sees the collaboration as a way to boost the impact as well as the ratings for local educational television. “The national popularity of The Eddie Files allows us instant recognition,” she said. “To have local stations contribute content to enhance the series clearly demonstrates what the digital world has to offer, but also speaks to the strengths of local production. Even though Eddie is based in Harlem, far from the fields of Iowa, there is a universal feel to the production.”

MAGIC MEETS ETV

For its localized segment, Las Vegas station KLVX has drafted master magician Lance Burton to demonstrate the math concepts featured in The Eddie Files. “We have long admired the FASE methodology of incorporating multiple subject areas, such as math and career education, and providing them in an informative and entertaining way,” said Lee Solonche, director of distance learning at the station. “The educational and production excellence of The Eddie Files makes it a wonderful vehicle for the exploration of the potential of digital media in a national/ local context.”

KLVX is working with Burton, his stage manager Alan Bracken, and the entire production crew to help kids learn how math and magic are closely related. The Nevada PBS station is the first TV crew to be allowed backstage at Burton’s Monte Carlo Hotel show. The producers will highlight Bracken’s behind-the-scenes utilization of precision timing and mathematical principles that make possible the creation of breathtaking illusions, such as Burton’s signature flying white Corvette.

“This series uses humor, recognizable celebrities, a dynamic instructor, and career profiles and weaves them together in a way that both children and adults can relate to,” said Solonche. “We believe that synergies of this type will continue to develop as a result of innovative educational media projects such as this.”

STREETCARS AND PARAMEDICS

Other regions have developed equally inventive ways to correlate the speed formula with career choices in their areas. The local segment produced by KLRU focuses on paramedics in Austin who use everything from ambulances and helicopters to bicycles to reach injury victims as quickly as possible. Whether treating a biking injury, rescuing a flood victim, or delivering a baby, these professionals must solve problems involving factors such as wind speed, traffic patterns, and terrain to provide effective care.

“The opportunity to collaborate with FASE and several other PBS station teams to develop an ETV prototype has proven to be a real learning opportunity for us,” said Linda Schmid, senior vice president for educational services at Austin’s KLRU.

Similarly, Louisana’s WLAE showcases the New Orleans streetcar system that has been in continuous operation since 1835, running longer than any other system in the world. As well as providing plenty of local color, the segment reveals some of the unexpected math that a streetcar driver uses constantly. For example, the cars have no speedometer. So in order to stop when and where they intend to stop, drivers must learn to judge not only the speed of the car but also the changes in the mass of the car as varying numbers of passengers enter and exit.

“The educational component of The Eddie Files is very strong,” said Ron Yager, who produced the WLAE segment. “We’re excited about the technology aspects, the interaction between Web content and television. I think kids, teachers, and parents alike will grab onto the project and embrace it.”

Further ETV projects are planned. FASE Productions is seeking funding to convert another 15 existing Eddie episodes to the new media format, as well as to produce a series of 34 new episodes. The producers hope to work closely with dozens of PBS stations around the country to create local installments for each show.

TAKING ETV BEYOND TV

The possibilities for distributing ETV content go beyond broadcast. Once an ETV prototype is complete, it can also be delivered via the Internet. In less than two years, 45 million consumers will be able to access ETV on their computers through broadband outlets. As public television stations exploit the potential of broadband, the Internet will become a new outlet for their programming.

Do viewers really want ETV versions of their favorite entertainment programs? This question is still being debated and explored. However, it is clear that the education public is intensely interested in what broadband can bring to the classroom (see “ETV and the Internet,” on page 16).

“There has always been a tendency to separate education and entertainment, but I believe that one cannot exist without the other,” said Mikuriya. “Truly effective education is always entertaining, and truly great entertainment is also educational. ETV offers the opportunity to maximize the power of both.”

ETV AND THE INTERNET: THE FUTURES CHANNEL

According to a new report from the National Center for Educational Statistics, 99 percent of full-time public school teachers have access to the Internet, and 66 percent are already using the Internet for instruction during class time.

High-speed Internet access is becoming more and more prevalent. Video delivery via the Web is now commonplace, with full-screen video within sight for many users. Classrooms are gearing up for educational ETV programs, but who will supply the content?

Last year, Steve Heard, executive producer and co-creator of The Eddie Files, took on a new role: founder and CEO of The Futures Channel (www.thefutureschannel.com), an Internet-based digital content service for educators. This professional resource offers award-winning video, lesson plans, and classroom activities, all correlated to curriculum topics and state and national education standards.

The Channel has exclusive rights to the FASE Productions library, rich content that teachers have relied on for the last decade. This includes award-winning series such as Futures with Jaime Escalante, The Eddie Files, and Interactions: Real Math–Real Careers. But these represent only a fraction of the resources that The Futures Channel is offering to teachers.

To bring reality to lessons in environmental and geographical sciences, the Channel established a content-and-production partnership with San Francisco-based Adventure Pictures, which owns an extensive catalogue of natural history, adventure, and location footage. Earlier this year, the Channel entered into an agreement that enabled it to go behind the scenes at the Mount Wilson Observatory in Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains to produce multimedia educational materials for classrooms.

In April 2000, The Futures Channel unveiled a prototype at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in Chicago. More than 20,000 attendees had the opportunity to “test drive” this new educational resource. Seated at workstations, teachers logged on to the Channel and searched its database of video clips and classroom activities to create a customized lesson plan.

“We are losing the days where the teacher can devote 30 minutes of time in the classroom to a video,” said NASA education director, Dr. Marchelle Canright. “These two- or three-minute micro-documentaries are just what they need.”

“The Futures Channel video material does a fantastic job of getting kids excited about education,” said Ron Hooser, an eighth-grade algebra teacher from Green Bay, Wisconsin. “It motivates them to learn by relating current lessons to careers and real-world activities.”

“It’s the wave of the Internet and education,” middle school math teacher Paul Smith said of The Futures Channel. “It’s giving us access to the video media that correlates and connects with mathematics education in a real-world sense. It’s real time, real world at your fingertips, real quick, real easy. That’s what’s great about it.”

During the three days of the conference, nearly a thousand math teachers and teacher trainers signed up for Channel memberships. “I think it’s great,” said Bob Dumke of the Center for Teaching and Learning. “There is a tremendous need to show students the practical applications of why they need to learn things. If you can accomplish that beforehand, they’ll learn more quickly, and they’ll retain things better, because they know the context that they can use it in.”

“We can talk on and on about technology, but the real measure is whether it helps teachers achieve better results,” said Heard. “The response from teachers at the conference confirmed that we are on the right track.

— Drew Robb

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based writer specializing in education and technology. In 1978, he graduated from Strathclyde University in Scotland, majoring in geography. Prior to becoming a full-time freelance writer, he served for nearly 20 years in staff training, management, and public relations positions in Scotland, England, and the United States. He writes regularly for such magazines as Government Technology, Information Week, Software Strategies and Western Energy. He can be contacted at drewrobb@mediaone.net.

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