Friday, September 26, 2014

Public Media in a Multi-Platform Environment

The October 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine includes an article by Eugenia Williamson, “PBS Self-Destructs” that, for those of us who have a history with public broadcasting and value its role, is troublesome.   
            The article focuses largely on how public television funds major programs, how the sources of funding have changed over the years, and the challenges that producers and the system itself face as funding has migrated from direct federal support to foundations and private donors to corporations.  Williamson argues that funding sources have always been a cause for tension and, in some cases, compromise in production and scheduling decisions.  She notes that “For one brief, shining moment—which occurred before its actual creation—PBS was an uncompromised thing.  It began as a Great Society initiative under the Johnson Administration and, like other public works programs of the era, was conceived as a way to level the effects of poverty and close the education gap.”  (p. 47).  However, over the years, PBS and, by extension, the producers who create programs for national distribution over the system, have had to seek other sources of funds.  Williamson notes,  “ . . . the present state of PBS was almost an inevitability, the result of structural deficiencies and ideological conflicts built in from the very start” (ibid).
            Clearly, the issue of who funds national public television productions and what impact the funding has on editorial decisions (both the short-term editorial impact on an individual project and the long-term impact on strategic thinking and program decisions), is an ongoing concern.  In fact, it has been an ongoing concern for decades.  However, it is critically important that we not take a narrow view of public broadcasting.  PBS is not like commercial networks.  The pressures on funding documentaries that Williamson describes is one part of the public media environment in the United States, but not the total story by any means.
            At this point, I should note that I have a long history in this arena.  I worked for a public television station for almost two decades and, in subsequent positions, worked closely with individual stations and with the PBS Adult Learning Service for another seven years.  I have a perspective that colors how I see issues.
            Williamson notes that the media age of the PBS prime time audience is sixty-two.   That may be true—and certainly, the fund-raising programs targeted at that audience do tend to reinforce the idea.  However, this kind of generalization is a gross misunderstanding of the system’s purpose and structure. While the PBS primetime audience is bigger than many national commercial channels, PBS doesn’t go after a single audience (as commercial stations target the prime “consumer” market segment—people aged 18-35).  Instead, they target programs to a wide spectrum of specialized audiences to meet the needs of specific groups of citizens.  Here, from the PBSwebsite  are some examples:
  • Over the course of a year, nearly 90% of all U.S. television households - and 217 million people - watch PBS. The demographic breakdown of PBS' full-day audience reflects the overall U.S. population with respect to race/ethnicity, education and income. (Nielsen NPower, 9/24/2012-9/22/2013)
  • In a typical month, 104 million people watch their local PBS stations. (Nielsen NPower, 9/30/2013-10/27/2013)
  • 80% of all kids age two to eight watched PBS during the 2012-'13 season. (Nielsen NPower, 9/24/2012-9/22/2013)
  • PBS had seven of the top 10 programs among mothers of young children in July 2014. (Nielsen NPower, 7/2014)

Local Stations: The Heart of Public Broadcasting
            Another way that public broadcasting differs from commercial broadcasting is that its strength lies greatly in the local station and the connections between individual stations and the communities that they serve.   The nation’s 161 public broadcasting licensees (who together operate 351 local stations) fall into three major categories: 84 are community organizations, 52 are colleges/universities, 20 are state authorities and five are local educational or municipal authorities.   These stations are the true heart of public broadcasting. 
            Originally, many of them were founded in order to extend educational and cultural resources into their communities.  Until the 1990s, many stations devoted their daytime schedules to instructional television programs targeted to the K-12 curriculum.  Every year, station personnel would meet with local school representatives to preview new programs and identify those that met local educational needs.  The station would then acquire broadcast rights and schedule those programs for broadcast during the academic year.  When PBS moved to satellite distribution in the late 1970s, they added an Adult Learning Service and distributed college-level courses that local colleges and universities could license and offer for credit around local broadcasts.
            Today, PBS maintains PBS, a free online collection of educational video modules in science, math, social sciences and English language arts that teachers may download and use in the classroom.  The collection is complemented by PBS Teacherline which provides access to related teacher professional development opportunities.
            This is one example of how public broadcasting’s strategies for serving the community have changed over the years as technologies and needs have changed.  When I first started in public broadcasting at Penn State in the 1960s, we had one channel that served 29 central Pennsylvania counties.  Today, WPSU delivers programs over three channels (one broadcast, two cable).  In addition, it offers three public radio channels with a mix of classical music, news and discussion, and jazz.  And, our community also has access to a cable-based children’s channel—Sprout—from the Children’s Television Workshop, which developed Sesame Street and other children’s programs that are identified with public broadcasting and that includes many of the same children’s programs broadcast on the main public TV channel.  And, even more, there is a PBS application for iPAD that allows viewers to watch full episodes of many nationally delivered programs. 
            Time, changing technology and changing need, as our communities adapt to a new economic and social context, have created both new challenges and new opportunities for how we use media to inform, educate, and enlighten citizens of the communities served by this unique system.  Public broadcasting is better described today as public media, because it uses multiple media delivery systems—continues to be an important way to bring high-quality information and artistic expression to communities and individual citizens. 
            Ultimately, the key to success lies in the links between local communities and their local station, between that station and the national PBS service.  For instance, local stations could work with their local school districts to encourage the use of PBS Learning Media services, testing them against local teacher needs, identifying unmet needs, and encouraging sharing of ideas across school boundaries. 
            Increasingly, there is also a need to create links among stations that have similar missions to collaborate in the development and use of programs).   One example is University Place, a partnership among three university-licensed Public Television stations at Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin, and Penn State University to develop content in collaboration with stations' affiliated universities, and delivery of content to teachers and other audiences via the web, podcast, video-on-demand, and television broadcast. University Place was funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  The project included development of a University Place Content Sharing Portal—a web-based service designed to help stations share, search and retrieve each others' programs.
            In today’s multi-platform environment, public media organizations can be, more than ever, agencies that make the match between community need and media resources, whether for instruction, community development, or cultural expression.  Innovations like University Place and PBS LearningMedia suggest some starting points for the next generation of public broadcasting.  

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Online Learning and The Pressure On College Recruiters

Scott Jaschik reported in the September 18, 2014, issue of Inside Higher Education that higher education admissions directors are having a tough time meeting their recruiting targets.  Is online learning—now entering its third decade as a force for change in higher education—part of the solution?  Some thoughts:
            The 2014 survey reported in Inside Higher Education noted that admissions directors are focusing on finding more full-time undergraduates (81% of publics and 84% of privates) and minority students (733% or publics, 63% of privates), after which the publics and privates begin to diverge in their goals.   Interestingly, neither public nor privates seem to be particularly interested in attracting part-time undergraduates (40% of publics, 15% of privates), although they are interested in attracting veterans and military personnel (70% and 42%) and first-generation students (71% and 50%).  They are also interested in international students  (53% and 63%) and out-of-state students (60% and 64%), but apparently only if they are full-time.  In short, college admissions officers seem to want to attract the same kinds of students who came to higher education over the past generation and whose full-time presence on campus helped to pay for the dorms, classroom buildings, the grounds, the sports teams, etc.  The question is:  Is this population growing at a rate that will continue to keep the dorms, classrooms, etc., full?
            Meanwhile, online learning has been attracting to our institutions an increasingly large number of students who, for various reasons, cannot drop everything to attend college full-time.  In Grade Change, their 2013 survey of Chief Academic Officers, I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman reported that 7.1 million college students have taken at least one online course.  This is an increase of 411,000 over the 2012 findings.  Note that this figure includes all students—full-time, part-time, on-campus, off-campus.  Clearly, online learning continues to have an impact.  Online learning should be part of the strategy in attracting new students in several of the categories that admissions officers identified as being strategic:
            Full-Time Undergraduates   The U.S. Department of Education has noted that most high school graduates who are prepared to go on to college already do so.  Thus, if we want to increase the number of full-time undergraduate students, we need to increase the number of high school students who graduate ready to enter college. Online developmental courses—high school courses offered by higher education institutions—can help high schools ensure that their students develop the skills they need to enter college.  Colleges and universities can also use online courses as dual enrollment courses that give high school students an early opportunity to earn college credit as they earn high school graduation credit.
            Veterans and Military Personnel  Online learning is one of the few ways that service members can maintain progress toward their educational goals as they move from assignment to assignment. Penn State World Campus is one of many online providers who have been recognized as military-friendly institutions.
            First Generation Students  In today’s economy, many first-generation students will come to a decision about higher education once they are already in the workforce.  Moreover, they often lack family support and personal examples that make it easy for them to make the decision to leave home and move to a university campus.  Online learning allows these students to remain at home and to work and be part of their local community while they develop the confidence they need to become successful as full-time students.  A first year of online courses also greatly reduces the total cost of a degree for most students, helping to minimize dropouts due to cost.
            International Students  Online learning is a global phenomenon.  Higher education institutions increasingly are developing partnerships with peer institutions in other countries to offer joint degrees, especially at the graduate level.  U.S. institutions wishing to attract undergraduate international students to their campuses might consider collaborative programs that mix on-line courses with residencies at both institutions or some other mix of experiences to attract international students and to give their own students an international experience.             
            As we enter the third decade of online learning innovation, one thing seems to be clear:  the next generation of innovations should be focused on fully mainstreaming online learning, integrating it into institution-wide strategies to attract and hold students and an institution-wide vision for how the institution can best serve its communities. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Tribute to Penn State Shenango Campus

This fall, the Penn State Shenango Campus  is enrolling its 49th class of first-year students.  That means that 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of the campus. 
            The campus opened in 1965, and I started there in the fall of 1966.  During my freshman year, there was no physical campus.  Instead, classes were held at Kennedy Christian High School, which itself was fairly new and had some space to spare.  The nuns were very generous to us college kids, not complaining (at least not to us) when we played cards in the cafeteria, which we used as a kind of student lounge.
            The next year we moved to a campus of our very own in downtown Sharon—an old high school building that dated to the early 1900s.  Like many older buildings in the Shenango Valley, it was built of yellow brick and sat near the riverside.  It was old and a bit creaky, but it was home and gave us big old classrooms with high ceilings and the message that learning was taken seriously here.  It was a great learning environment.  Because the campus was a smallish community, classes were fairly small, and the students got to know the faculty very well. 
            One of the great things about Shenango in those days was the curriculum itself.  We had, in addition to the usual introductory courses, the opportunity to take interdisciplinary general education courses in the humanities, behavioral and social sciences, and physical sciences.  There were two interdisciplinary courses in the humanities series, which explored how the major ideas of Western Civilization evolved, from Lucretius’ The Nature of Things to more modern times.  Given our small classes, there was a lot of discussion, which made the courses great fun.   When I transferred to University Park—where many of the survey courses were taught in lecture halls of 300 or more students with virtually no interaction between students and faculty—I realized just how powerful the Shenango Campus experience had been.
            That second year, I served as editor of the campus newspaper—The Lions Line—and also covered several campus basketball games for our local paper, The Sharon Herald.  I thrived in this environment of smaller classes embedded in a community where I was already at home and where I studied with some old friends from high school along with new classmates, some of whom became lifelong friends. 
            Penn State Shenango was a godsend.  Had it not opened in my junior year of high school, I probably would not have gone to college.  We had no money, and no real expectation that I could afford college.  But I took the SATs anyway, mostly on a dare from my best friend, and when I got high scores some of my high school faculty contacted my mother and explained how I could go to Penn State but live at home and how I could get state scholarships to support the tuition.  I was able to be a full-time student while living at home and working almost full-time at Arby’s, where I was a shift manager.   In those days, Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses offered only the first two years of the baccalaureate degree.  After two years you either transferred to another nearby college or to Penn State’s University Park Campus.  The result was that I got a great education and made friends who transferred to the main campus when I did, so I didn’t have to make that huge transition—living away from home for the first time—entirely by myself. 
            In May 2005, as the campus celebrated its fortieth anniversary, I was invited to give the spring commencement speech at Shenango.  I mentioned the incredible changes that the Information Revolution has wrought in our daily lives, and the fact that the changes will continue, noting:
            For me, at my age, all this is an adventure.  For you, well, it may be pretty normal.  But this idea that technology is changing how you will define your community in the years ahead is well worth thinking about.  All of you have the ability now to carry your communities with you wherever your life’s work will take you.  For some of you—and I hope this is true of a good many—it will allow you to stay right here in Western Pennsylvania and still be citizens of a rich community of colleagues and friends far from here.  Pennsylvania is facing a powerful challenge.  Many of our communities—and the Shenango Valley is a wonderful example—were shaped by the needs of the Industrial Revolution.  The challenge—and it is an immediate challenge for all of us—is to re-envision our communities for this new economy.  We’ll need your leadership here at home or wherever your careers take you, to make that happen.
            Tonight, you have received your degrees from Penn State.  But I think it is important to note that you did “receive” your education. It hasn’t been handed down to you.  Instead, you MADE your education.  You had lots of help from faculty members and other students, but it is YOURS.  In the process, you’ve created a new capacity within yourself to face the changes ahead.  One thing we DO know about the world that the information revolution has created is that, for us—because the world continues to change rapidly—education doesn’t end tonight.  It is a lifelong process.  I wound up getting two more degrees from Penn State as an adult learner.  I hope that, as you move forward you will continue to turn to Penn State for renewal and to help you to reach new goals as you move ahead in your life.

           Over the years, Penn State’s system of Commonwealth Campuses has strengthened the local economies of communities in this most small-town of states, giving us leaders.  As it approaches its 50th anniversary, it is fun to look back, but even better to look ahead to how Penn State Shenango can realize its potential for a new generation. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Lesson from Ralph Waldo Emerson

August 31 marked the anniversary of Emerson’s “The American Scholar” speech, in which he laid out the ideals of transcendentalism.  Here is what The Writer’s Almanac had to say about the speech:
It was on this day in 1837 that Ralph Waldo Emerson (books by this author) delivered a speech titled "The American Scholar" to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard University.
The speech was the first time he explained his transcendentalist philosophy in front of a large public audience. He said that scholars had become too obsessed with ideas of the past, that they were bookworms rather than thinkers. He told the audience to break from the past, to pay attention to the present, and to create their own new, unique ideas.
He said: "Life is our dictionary ... This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it ... Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds."
The speech was published that same year. It made Emerson famous, and it brought the ideas of transcendentalism to young men like Henry David Thoreau. Oliver Wendell Holmes later praised Emerson's "The American Scholar" as the "intellectual Declaration of Independence."

Emerson gave this speech as America was still discovering itself, only two generations after the Revolution and in the first generation of the Industrial Revolution.  At the same time, the first American scholars were returning from Europe, after earning their doctorates at the new research universities in Germany.  They became academic leaders here at home and, in the process, helped to invent the American college and university as we know it today—as a community dedicated to the threefold mission of research, teaching and service.  It was a time for looking forward and, as Emerson argued, a time for scholars to be actively engaged in the world.  The true scholar,” he said, “grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power. “
            Emerson’s challenge is especially important to today’s generation of scholars and higher education administrators—and public policy makers whose decisions will affect the future of higher education for the coming generations.   This issue was the focus of a previous post on this blog, Building the Future of Public Higher Education.  Here are some additional thoughts inspired by Emerson’s speech:
            First, a reminder that, in the 177 years since Emerson’s speech, the world has changed.   The Industrial Revolution is over; we are living through an Information Revolution that is raising issues that are new to society.  Some are the residue of the industrial period.  Other are unintended consequences of how we have conducted society since the new era began in the 1950s.  Many of these issues are global in nature.  Some examples:  reduced grain production in the face of increased need for food, international disease outbreaks, a globally dispersed business supply chain, the growing likelihood of environmental disaster, the rise of social media and virtual communities.
            As mentioned in the previous posting, these challenges affect all three of the core missions of higher education: research, teaching, and engagement.  The earlier posting suggested some responses.  Here is an additional thought on the research role stimulated by Emerson’s speech:
            The ideal of academic freedom, inherent in Emerson’s philosophy, has been with us for a long time now.  Today, that ideal is being challenged by the increasing power of corporations in our public life, along with the decreasing state government investment in public education.  Many of the issues that we are facing as a society are unforeseen consequences of innovation in the corporate sector or have the potential to undermine corporate investments, which suggests that corporations will be unlikely to fund research in these arenas.  How we maintain (or, perhaps, recover) independence of academic research in this environment is a critical strategy question. 
            One strategy is for educators to band together to create a community that can raise money from new sources.  This can happen at the discipline level—creating interdisciplinary communities that combine academic expertise and attract new funding—or at the institutional level.  With that in mind, a strategy might be for a family of institutions, perhaps through their national association, to identify critical societal issues for which interdisciplinary research is needed and then to hold a series of national/international conferences on that issue in order to create new research ideas and, ultimately, to attract foundations to the new research agenda.
            Given the importance of globalization in today’s environment, another strategy would be to create international venues that bring faculty together to share ideas and develop synergies.  The Worldwide University Network  is a good example of this and how it can stimulate new teaching as well as new research.
            It is critical that public colleges and universities actively seek out ways to ensure that faculty have the academic freedom needed to tackle the issues facing our society and to turn their research into new teaching and new service to society.