Public Media, Public Education, and the Public Good: An Interview with Heather Chaplin (Part Two)

Editor's note: This is my last post of 2009. See you in the new year. I am going to take some time off with my family.
Much of your discussion centers around the impact of public media on public education. How would you describe the ideal learning environment for the 21st century and what blocks us from achieving that ideal?

One could write a book on that topic! Well, one of the intriguing things about creating a more intimate relationship between public media and public education is that public media is in possession of a national treasure of historical materials. Part of NPL would be assisting public media in digitizing that material and retooling it for teachers to use while teaching.

So imagine a science class where the teacher can pull out a segment from Nova on the spot to illustrate the answer to a particular question asked by a student. Or using a bit of an interview from a Jim Leher interview to make a political point. The examples could go on for ever. And, unlike the archives of corporate-owned media, these arches belong to the American public. We paid for them and we should take advantage of them.

There are also real opportunities for public media to be involved teaching kids media skills. Imagine a local PBS station also being a hub where kids could take classes on video editing, or putting together sound pieces, or making videogames. Part of public media 2.0 calls for local stations to take a greater role in serving their local communities directly.

In terms of the classroom of the future in general, I see digital media as a huge opportunity. I don't believe, however, that digital media tools replace things like smaller teacher-to-student ratios. And I do worry, on some level, about having so much of our lives mediated by machines. I see these digital media tools being used when appropriate to enhance the teaching experience and not as a replacement for teacher to student contact. For example, the idea of using 3-D models of molecules to teach science: that's probably just a better and more effective way of teaching what a molecule is than giving a lecture on one. Therefore, since it's something we can do, we should. On the other hand, discussing a great novel is probably best done by teacher-student discussion. That should go away. It's a matter of understanding the technology now at our disposal and making good choices of when to use it.

What blocks us from achieving these goals? A lot of things. The public school system in this country is messed up almost beyond belief and on every level. Bush's push towards more standardization certainly didn't help - it meant teachers teaching kids to pass certain standardized tests, and not teaching them to be critical thinkers, to be genuinely literate in the sense of being able to create meaning. Our schools are wildly underfunded, and even when money is available, the resistance to change is staggering. I asked one former state school superintendent what she'd do to fix the public education system in this country and she - a mild-looking women in a tweed suit - said she'd blow the whole thing up and start from scratch.

What's so scary is how high the stakes are. Democracy requires an educated citizenry. Without that, you regress to mob rule. Part of being free is knowing how to use your mind.

You are calling for improvements in the broadband infrastructure to bring richer media content into schools but schools are also seeking to police the flow of content into the classroom, blocking off access to social networking and media sharing sites, for example. How might we resolve this tension between the desire to broaden and to regulate access to information in the 21st century classroom?

Another excellent question and I wish I had the answer. It is true that schools and teachers fear the Internet desperately. In part, I think people fear the lack of control the vastness of the Internet implies, I think they fear the new, and I think on some level they simply fear and distrust new technology. People tend to think the things they didn't grow up with are somehow bad.

To me, however, it's like we've built a high-way system, said hey! our whole world is now going to be based on this new highway system - but we're not going to teach anyone to drive. It's sheer lunacy.

I think schools need to learn to teach kids how to use the Internet, not hide them from it. The reasons for this are too numerous - and too well elucidated by you, Henry!, to even go into right here. As to some sort of solution, I can't help but think the answer is working with teachers and parents.

We need to educate people as to what 21st century literacy will require - because being literate in the 21st century is going to be very different from being literate in the 20th century. You simply will not be literate in the future if you don't know how to handle the Internet in a meaningful way. I teach journalism, and I do several classes where everybody brings in their lap top and we do experiments on Internet research, for example. But then that's at the college level and I have freedom over what I get to teach. Again, I can't say enough how high I think the stakes are.

Think of the kid growing up in a small rural town that doesn't even have Internet access. How is that kid going to manage as an adult competing against kids who've been using the Internet since they were toddlers? If the schools don't take this on, children in rural and poor areas will suffer the most and will be left behind even more than they already are.

You argue that concerns about "station by-pass" have sometimes placed public television at war with the new digital tools and participatory culture. Explain. How might we resolve this conflict?

Local public media stations are afraid for their existence. If everything is digital and handled via the Internet, and broadcast becomes a thing of the past, the question does arise of why they even exist. What is their purpose?

The answer to this lies in re-envisioning the role of the local station in its community. A lot of the public media community is starting to image the local station as a community hub, doing serious local journalism, creating forums and town-hall-style meetings, and providing resources for solving local problems. Also, as I mentioned above, taking a greater role in teaching youth to be media literate. The network of local stations is an infrastructure aimed at serving the public good already in place; we shouldn't waste it. But we do need to re-imagine it.

A decade ago, the push to respond to the digital divide led to the wiring of classrooms often without adequate pedagogical goals or professional development. We wired the classroom-now what? How do we avoid the replication of this same problem where the expansion of technical infrastructure outstrips the educational vision needed to use these tools towards meaningful pedagogy?

This is another great question and I feel woefully unqualified to answer it. It's so easy to say what ought to happen, and another thing entirely to actually make something happen.

I think you put your finger on it before when you asked about teachers' wanting to keep the Internet, social networking, etc. out of the classroom. Or Jim Gee talks very eloquently about classrooms very methodically making kids leave everything they're interested in at the door, thus essentially ensuring the kids will be uninterested in the classroom, and, most obviously, failing to take advantage of a kid's natural interests to facilitate learning. Or I love the example I've heard you give of your Moby-Dick project getting stymied because the word "dick" had been blocked by school administrators from Internet searches.

I totally agree with you that having fancy technology is of no use whatsoever if there's no vision of how to use it.

Part of what NPL advocates is also providing content for teachers to use in the classroom and a major push for teacher training when it comes to digital tools. But I know that's kind of a cop-out answer, because how do you actually implement these things? How do you inspire vast change in a system notoriously mired in bureaucracy and seriously allergic to change? This is one of those questions of the ages.

It's probably worth remembering that we are in a period of transition. In another ten years or so, the people signing on to become teachers will have grown up with digital technology and may feel more comfortable using it. In the meantime, I think an assault from all sides is necessary - pressing the Obama administration, which seems pretty savvy and progressive regarding digital technology, to get involved; working with parents to understand what's at stake in terms of their kids' education; educating teachers, etc


Educational games figure prominently in this report. This is not surprising given your previous work on games. Why might games be a particularly rich test case for the kind of expanded public media system you are describing?

Yes, I am very passionate about using games to teach and foster civic engagement. One example: right now simulations exist at all levels of the government for all kinds of things, from weather predictions, to budget issues, to military scenarios. Simulations can be incredibly powerful tools for learning how things work - why not take these simulations, which already exist and which we, as tax payers, financed, and turn them into games made available to the public to play with?

It would be cheap, could reach vast amounts of people quicly and easily, and could educate people about important things like how tax cuts or break will effect the economy, what the potential outcomes of military decisions might be, etc. In other words these could be powerful tools for fostering transparancy, which is key to a real democracy. We now have more data than we know what to do with.

Making games so that people can play with the data is one way to help people make sense of everything that is out there. Government data should be available to the public so that we can make informed decisions about what our government ought to be doing. Taking something that already exists- government-created simulations - and making them available as games to people seems a really obvious way to foster democracy.

I also think public media needs to begin funding games in the same way it funds educational television. The inspiration for the act of Congress that funded the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and created PBS and NPR in the first place was this idea that here was this new media - TV - and that we ought to be using it for more than just entertainment purposes. Well, that was 1967. It's more than 30 years later and there's a new new media on the block and that's the videogame. Why leave such a powerful tool in the hands of corporate entertainment companies? As a society we want it in our arsenal of tools to educate the next generation of Americans to be active and engaged participants in our democracy.

Heather Chaplin is a professor of journalism at The New School and author of the book, Smartbomb: The Quest for Art Entertainment and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution. She recently participated in a Ford Foundation grant looking at issues of the public interest in the next generation of the Internet. She also works with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting on issues of digital literacy and journalism. She has been interviewed for and cited in publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Businessweek, and The Believer and has appeared on shows such as Talk of the Nation, and CBS Sunday Morning. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, Details, and Salon. She is a regular contributor on game culture for All Things Considered.