Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tribute to a Mentor: In Honor of Marlowe Froke

I thought of Marlowe Froke the other day, when I bought the latest Tony Bennett “Duets” CD.  A few months before he died, Marlowe and I had lunch together, and I gave him the first “Duets” CD.  He had told me earlier how much he liked Bennett and not newer music.  I thought this would be a neat way for him to bridge the generation gap.

            I first met Marlowe when he was 41 and General Manager of WPSX-TV, the public television station at Penn State University.  It was 1968, and I was a 20-year-old undergraduate student lucky to have gotten a part-time job as a Production Assistant in the TV studio.   A year and a half later, in spring 1970, I became a full-time staff member, first in production and, later in programming and public information.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but over the 19 years that I worked in public broadcasting, Marlowe would become the only person who I could rightly say was a mentor to me.

            WPSX had been on the air only three years when I first signed on as a part-time camera operator.  There was a palpable sense of family among the staff, who were all young and excited about being in at the beginning of an exciting new, creative venture.    We knew we were innovating and, within the university, operating a bit on the radical edge.  It was a great time to be starting out.

            In those days, “public” television was “educational” television.  Throughout his career, Marlowe emphasized the educational nature of our work.  In our programming logs, general audience programs were “general education” (series like Pennsylvania Magazine and Second Chair, for which I produced interviews with visiting authors like Jorge Amado and Anthony Burgess).  We produced programs for the K-12 classroom on science (example: Science for the Seventies, which in the 1980s became ISEE: Investigative Science for Elementary Education), art, and current affairs (What’s in the News, which eventually went national), working under the guidance of top Penn State education faculty.  And, led initially by Executive Producer Lou Florimonte and later by Diana Dean and George Thurman,  we produced adult education programs like Parenting, Food$en$e, and a series of interdisciplinary courses on Science, Technology, and Society with titles like The Behavioral Revolution and The Finite Earth.   At the other end of the educational spectrum, we produced how-to shows on everything from wood carving to playing bluegrass music.  A Public Affairs unit, led by the late P.J. O’Connell, documented the institutions of small town Pennsylvania life—“The Spirit” of Punxsutawney (about a small town newspaper) and documentaries on life in a hospital, a volunteer fire department, and a local smelting company, as examples.  James DeVinney headed a unit that produced programs on the arts, often featuring Penn State music groups—the Thalia Trio and the Alard String Quartet.  And, of course, there were daily informational programs like Farm, Home, and Garden from the Cooperative Extension Service and The State of the Weather/The Shape of the World from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

            All of this was in the spirit of using technology to extend access to education.  That was Marlowe’s personal vision, and it became, during his tenure, the hallmark of WPSX-TV, which declared on its station ID’s that it operated as a “continuing education and public service.”  In fact, one of Marlowe’s first accomplishments in 1965 was to create a consortium of school districts in our 29-county service area and to dedicate the daytime schedule to programs broadcast for use in school classrooms.

            Marlowe had been a journalism professor.  When I moved into the Public Information position at WPSX-TV, one of my jobs was to write three press releases per week promoting new programs.  I had been an English major and knew how to write, but I didn’t know how to write press releases.  For the first few weeks, Marlowe would send every press release back with detailed edits.  Eventually, I learned how to write and how to embody his idea that even a press release was an attempt to create a more educated viewer.

            Over time, my role at WPSX-TV evolved from simply public information to what we called “Viewer Services.”  The unit covered several different ways in which we could engage viewers in broadcasts, from creating informed viewers (from press releases to feature stories in our program guide to sending Penn State faculty members out to libraries to talk about the context of programs (for instance, sending a historian out to talk about “I, Claudius” on Masterpiece Theatre) to organizing viewers groups in communities to discuss programs to formal credit and noncredit courses.   During this time,  I was able to participate in two of Marlowe’s experiments in using technology to extend access to education.   One, in the late 1970s, was to help create Pennarama, a statewide educational cable TV channel, one of the first networked cable channels.   Around that same time, he affiliated WPSX with the Appalachian Educational Satellite Program, which used an experimental ATS-6 communications satellite to deliver teacher education and nursing education programs to schools and hospitals in the Appalachian Region.  Using technology to extend access to education.

            In 1981, WPSX-TV and the on-campus media service unit—the University Division of Instructional Services—were merged under Marlowe’s leadership into a group called Media and Learning Resources.  I became Director of Instructional Media in this new unit, responsible for developing instructional video materials for both on-campus and external delivery.  Now, my main job was to use technology to extend access to education across multiple delivery formats:  broadcast, cable, satellite, and new technologies like videodisc.  Marlowe’s vision had become my career.   Together, we got involved in several national and international initiatives, including the National University Teleconference Network, the International University Consortium for Telecommunications in Teaching (IUC), and Glenn Jones’ Mind Extension University.  Just as it had been in the 1960s, it was wonderful to be actively involved in the distance education innovations of the 1980s.  Suddenly, without really planning on it, I had become a distance education leader in this new environment, thanks to Marlowe’s mentorship and his vision:  using technology to increase access to education.

            I left Penn State in 1987.  Marlowe had passed me over for one of the few promotions that I thought I would be able to get at Penn State: Station Manager.  Later, he told me that the decision had been one of his hardest and that he felt I could make a better contribution in the instructional area.  Turns out he was right.  I moved to Maryland and became Executive Director of the IUC and Associate Vice President for Program Development at the University of Maryland University College.  

            Seven years later, Marlowe called me.  Penn State had decided to hire an Assistant Vice President for Distance Education, and he encouraged me to apply.  He also worked with his new Vice President to arrange for us to meet at a conference.   Marlowe retired before I was hired and returned to Penn State.  His vision, which he honored for four decades at Penn State, had prepared the way for the World Campus, the university’s online campus.  Using technology to extend access to education.   

            Many of today’s leaders in online learning do not have a long history of using other technologies before the Internet.  The field has been informed by a lot of new thinking, as a result.  Some of us, though, have been through the other changes and understand that, one of these days, a new technology will come along that will revolutionize distance education, just as television and cable and satellite and the Internet did.   Marlowe’s message for this new generation might well be:  Don’t identify yourself with a particular technology itself, but with how you use whatever technology is available to extend education for those who otherwise would not have access. 

            Thanks, again, Marlowe.

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