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The Long Journey, Dialogue, Experiment and Partnership

Before most Americans had even heard of Harry Truman, when FDR was in his third term as President and Thomas E. Dewey was the Governor of the State, New York first turned its attention to the potential of using television for educational purposes. A 1956 report of the New York State Temporary Study Committee on Educational Television reported:

As early as 1941, CBS undertook a TV arts series in collaboration with The Metropolitan Museum of Art for their New York station WCBW. In 1945, CBS officials met with members of the New York City Board of Education educational radio station, WNYE, to explore possibilities of a "tele-education series" similar to CBS's radio "School of the Air."

As early as 1952, the Board of Regents developed a plan for ETV to include ten UHF channels.  Engineering studies were begun for eight of these channels and the FCC ordered construction permits for seven stations. In 1953, the Education Department put forward legislation seeking $10 million to implement the plan. The legislation passed both houses of the legislature but Governor Dewey did not sign it. Instead, he appointed a commission to study the need for educational television and the development of a statewide educational television system. That original concept was shelved when Governor Dewey's commission reported that "commercial stations could provide sufficient program time for educational needs."

However, the Regents believed that the use of mass communications technologies was too important an issue to either abandon or to leave solely to the commercial sector. The board, therefore, requested the Commissioner of Education to establish a process by which local communities could establish groups interested in using the power of the ever more popular television medium to benefit education. The process the Education Department settled on was one which had long served the Department in dealing with schools, colleges and universities, and cultural institutions such as museums and libraries. It was determined that the granting of absolute charters would be the means by which education-minded citizen groups across the State would be incorporated to carry out their visions of enriching the instructional, educational, cultural and informational lives of their fellow citizens. The first charter was granted in June of 1953 to the Mohawk-Hudson Educational Television Council serving the Capital district. As each region's local council matured programmatically and economically, their provisional charter of incorporation was made absolute and one of the FCC construction permits was turned over to the council so that it could proceed to develop its own community-licensed educational television station. Over the next 25 years nine such councils were established by the Board of Regents using all seven original FCC construction permits and adding two additional stations in Watertown and Plattsburgh to serve the North country.

The first financial State aid to educational television appeared in 1956.  In the early days, aid took the form of establishing closed-circuit television facilities in several public school districts in the Southern Tier and at two State colleges of education, Albany and Brockport.

Early experiments involved the use of commercial air, for example, WPIX in New York City and WRGB and WTEN in Albany. Experiments proceeded at Syracuse University and at New York University. As chartered educational television councils matured and brought their stations on the air, the experimentation to bring instructional programming to schools and adult education to community citizens continued to expand. All this experimentation and growth proceeded in an exemplary cooperative arrangement involving the State Education Department, the State University of New York and educational institutions and commercial broadcasters throughout the State.

In the sixties, educational television stations helped to finance their instructional television services by charging local school districts a fee, which usually amounted to $1 per pupil per year. This was supplemented by contracts with the Education Department to produce instructional series in a broad range of curriculum areas. These arrangements enabled the Education Department to establish the first substantial video library in the country and at the same time help stations underwrite their indirect and general and administrative expenses.

One readily perceives a continuing evolution of the partnership between the Education Department, the State University and the field. During the sixties the Education Department did an enormous amount of work with local school districts involved in its Aid to Schools project. This enabled more than a thousand schools across the State to be equipped to use the programming being provided by local educational television councils. The State University, meanwhile, had moved forward to put in place an interconnect system which established a statewide network of educational television stations.

The sixties also saw the arrival of the Public Television Facilities Program established by the federal government to help stations establish state - of - the - art broadcast facilities to serve their publics. By the late sixties, New York State was spending more than $6 million through the Education Department and SUNY to support and advance the use of educational television.

It is very instructive to note that as early as 1962 commissioner of Education James E. Allen stated in a report:

To meet our needs and achieve our goals and objectives in education, in the light of current problems and trends, will require all the ingenuity, imagination and determination we can muster in the use of our resources, human and material. We do not have the personnel, money or time to rely on the methods and practices of the past. We need to explore and use widely all of the technologies, techniques, and procedures available for doing the job better, and at the lowest possible cost.

Words to live by!

By the mid 1970's the use of instructional television had become quite common in the public and non-public schools across New York State. Significant investments were made to install Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS) in both public and non-public school systems.  ITFS enabled the simultaneous delivery of up to four programs to schools throughout the district or region served. More and more schools were taking programming from educational television stations and the advent of the VCR made it possible to record programs for time shift use.

Like today, education dollars were in short supply. Allegations flew that certain school districts were "pirating" the off-air instructional television signals broadcast by the educational television councils without paying the regionally established per-pupil fees. In an effort to resolve the pirating issue and to stabilize funding for the ETV councils, the legislature passed, in 1978 a bill which would provide operational and capital aid to public television stations based on a combination of flat grants and incentive awards. The legislation obviated the pirating issue by establishing a steady flow of revenue to the stations to be used specifically for instructional services. The legislation required that stations use a minimum of 20% of their State operational grants to provide instructional services to schools. The 1978 legislation also provided mission clarification along with the structural and financial underpinning which allowed the New York Stations to grow in their ability to serve their communities, to strengthen their instructional services and develop into a true Statewide educational television network. This legislation, as it has been amended and updated over the past 16 years, remains the bulwark of public telecommunications services in New York State.

As early as 1970 the Education Department began to train several of its educational television specialists in a brand new area of learning technology -- computer-assisted and computer-managed instruction. Working with companies like Control Data, the Education Department began to raise its vision of technology beyond television to more interactive means. During the next 25 years the Education Department and the schools and post-secondary institutions have fought their way to find suitable computer applications for school management and instruction. Recent years have seen a quickening convergence of television and computer technologies, of analog and digital information.

The educational television councils of the 50's, 60's and early 70's evolved into the public broadcasting councils of the 80's and 90's. They are now involved in a broad array of contemporary communications and instructional technologies. They work with Learning Link, computerized networking for teachers and students. They are involved in satellite technology in order to achieve distance education both for staff development and classroom instruction. Some stations are deeply involved in research and development of interactive video, developing CD-ROM software through repurposing of tens of millions of dollars worth of video production investment. Those councils established by the Board of Regents decades ago are no longer involved merely with "pictures through the air." They are rather community technology learning places and centers. They are the teleplexes which serve major regions around the State. They work, through community outreach, with daycare centers, prisons and teacher centers as well as with BOCES, school districts and community schools. These councils are in the early stages of working with video compression technology which will dramatically multiply their capacity to deliver software. Moreover, because they are evolving from an analog enterprise into a digital information enterprise, the nature of the information they will be capable of delivering becomes daily broader and more flexible.

The gains made over the past 50 years have been hard fought and the progress chart shows numerous bumps and temporary setbacks. Teillard de Chardin, the great philosopher/paleontologist, once wrote that, "Anyone who thinks that the great rolling river of evolution has stopped just because it is 1938, suffers from intellectual myopia." Analogously, anyone who thinks that the great rolling river of improved learning and education through the use of technology has peaked just because it's 1995 suffers from intellectual myopia. The evolution will continue; progress will be made; and gains will remain hard fought. But gains there will be.

The ETV councils which evolved into the public broadcasting councils dealing with a broader array of technology than is possible solely through television and video, will undoubtedly continue to evolve to meet the needs of future decades. That evolution will undoubtedly involve elements of financing, organization, content and technology. What can remain constant is the progressive and strong partnership which has undergirded the progress of the past half century, namely, the trust and working relationship among the State Education Department, the State University, and the public television stations, schools, colleges and universities which represent "the field."

William J. Halligan, Director
Office of Educational Television and Public Broadcasting
New York State Education Department
February, 1995