The Russianist on TV: The History of Instructional Television and the Future of Online Education

Szabolcs László

“I am beginning to feel at home in this new medium and to believe that there really is an audience out there listening and watching. It is somewhat strange to lecture to a class which is not there.”

This might sound like a confession about online education, yet it was written in 1959 by Indiana University history professor Robert F. Byrnes about his 30-part televised lecture series, “Russian Revolutions and the Soviet Regime.” Throughout the Spring semester of that year, his courses were broadcast live to five colleges in Indiana, bringing Russian and Soviet studies to students and high school teachers who otherwise would not have had access to these courses. Much like lecturers facing the technical and pedagogical challenges of Zoom today, Byrnes had learned that “teaching over television is by no means the same as teaching in class.”

Due to the ongoing pandemic, online instruction has attained a new prominence at all educational levels. UNICEF estimates that more than 1.5 billion children and young people have been affected by school closures in spring 2020, forcing many of their educators to move classes online, if that was a possibility. It is likely that almost every student at American colleges this fall will be enrolled in some form of online instruction, whereas only one third of students had been before the pandemic when approximately 46% of faculty members taught an online course. This new branch of education is a rapidly-growing global business: the market of online program management providers (OPMs) is projected to surpass $8 billion annual revenue in the next few years, while the EdTech corporate sector is expected to reach $341 billion.

Such developments seem to indicate that schools and universities could well find themselves at the threshold of a learning revolution—a potential cultural shift that draws both optimistic and pessimistic views. Although the newfound popularity of and sudden necessity for online education might feel unprecedented, a look back at the history of a similarly new technology—instructional television that was started in the 1930s and was adopted widely in the 1950s—can be revealing, while also highlighting key differences.

Professor Byrnes’ (1917–1997) pioneering course from 1959 is a characteristic example of this historic form of remote education, promising and popular in its day, and undoubtedly marginal now. Trained as a Russianist at Columbia University in the late 1940s and having worked as a consultant for the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency for a number of years, he started an active academic and administrative career in 1956 at the history department of Indiana University. In addition to founding and directing the university’s Russian and East European Institute (recently named after him) and artfully managing scholarly exchanges with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as a representative of the Inter-University Committee on Travel Grants (predecessor of IREX), Byrnes saw televised instruction as a valuable means of bringing the emerging field of Russian studies to wider audiences in the U.S.

Created by IU’s Radio and Television Department with a budget of $3,700 (around $32,000 today) received from the Ford Foundation, the televised lectures were broadcast twice a week in the evening hours by WTTV, Indianapolis. Intended to “interest a college student and at the same time to inform the ordinary citizen,” the 30-minute courses guided viewers through the changes and continuities in the history of Imperial Russia and the Soviet period up to 1959. According to the estimate of the TV station, the live broadcasts had around 18,000 consistent viewers across the state.

Formally, besides Byrnes’ own students at IU, 75 undergrads from the five participating Indiana colleges (Concordia, Grace, Huntington, Manchester, and Marian) and eighteen high school teachers took his TV class for credit in the first year. For them, televised lectures were complemented by weekly discussion meetings and conventional requirements like book reports, papers, and a final examination. Since the broadcasts were scheduled rather late in the evening, students usually viewed them during regular school hours as kinescope recordings (a now-forgotten, yet remarkable technology for preserving live transmissions). Such recordings of the course were used later on at IU’s summer schools and were picked up by other local TV stations in subsequent academic years.

A kinescope at the Canada Museum of Science & Technology in Ottawa.

Although there is no archival trace of Byrnes repeating the TV course, he described getting positive feedback from both students and his colleagues. He reported to Cleon O. Swayzee, a representative of the Ford Foundation, about receiving “quite a steady and pleasant flow of correspondence, which always provides a very pleasant feeling of satisfaction.” Yet the absolute sign of success for Byrnes was winning the attention of President of Indiana University, Herman B. Wells, who voiced several times the “immense satisfaction he has had from the lectures which he and Mrs. Wells have watched.”

As he mentions in his final report, Byrnes designed his lecture series after observing a more extensive and well-known project for instructional television: TV College, created and run by WTTW station and Chicago City College. Begun in 1956, it offered tuition free enrollment to residents of Chicago and a great variety of college level courses, ranging from mathematics through accounting to biology and the Russian language. By 1969, the televised educational program boasted of 115,000 individual enrollments, of approximately 10,000 daily viewers, and of 225 TV College degrees issued. Quite ambitiously, the program promised to bring quality education into the homes of Chicagoans, emphasizing that two-thirds of its credit students were women and many of them middle-aged mothers preparing to (re-)enter employment.

A computer programming class with Hyman Speck, part of TV College and broadcast by WTTW Chicago.

During the 1960s, Chicago’s TV College was only one of the more than hundred instructional TV stations that popped up in the U.S. after the FCC reserved 242 channels for educational purposes in 1952. Early on, the Ford Foundation took a keen interest in supporting experimental programs in TV education and collaborated closely with universities and school districts to create the basic formats that were then widely adopted. By 1961, the foundation distributed over $20 million to various schools and colleges across the country, its support reaching $100 million by 1966.

Such exemplary private sponsoring and the competitive prism of the Cold War inaugurated a short period of increased federal funding for instructional TV. Government support started with the 1958 National Defense Education Act and was topped by the Higher Education Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. According to some estimates, the various sections of these acts provided more than $400 million for educational television projects. By 1970, when the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) was launched, fifty-nine universities owned TV stations and produced their own instructional programing, cultivating an audience of around 15 to 20 million Americans. Some of them got their access to TV courses, like those of professor Byrnes, through rather peculiar technological solutions, like the Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction (MPATI), whereby two DC6 airplanes flew 23,000 feet over Indiana broadcasting to six surrounding states.

Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction (MPATI) airplane in flight, 1962-68. Purdue University Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries.
Drawing of how the Stratovision airplane works. Purdue University Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries.

According to vocal enthusiasts, like Charles Siepmann of New York University, television was an “indispensable tool that could and must be used to extricate the country from its educational troubles,” defined by contemporaries as a crises of quantity and quality in schools and universities. During the 1950s, as the combined impact of the GI Bill and the Baby Boom was making its mark, the immediate and practical function of educational TV—much like that of online instruction during the current pandemic—was to provide a cost-efficient answer to a national crisis: the growing number of students and the shortage of trained teachers or lecturers.

After the launch of Sputnik, televised instruction was used to assist fields—like area studies, especially language teaching—that were identified as crucial for the country’s national security and its aspiration of global dominance. For Byrnes in 1959, it was primarily the lack of experts on Russian and Soviet history in the Midwest that motivated him to get in front of the cameras and firmly establish IU on the map of area studies in the US. The university followed his example by applying for and receiving a $24,700 grant from the Ford Foundation for a televised language instruction program that aimed to reach regional colleges and high schools.

Moreover, besides being presented as an instrument for wide access and increased efficiency, television was hailed to bring qualitative change to education as well. Byrnes himself was “convinced of the immense possibilities which this kind of venture offers.” Rooted in the growing cultural importance of TV in the U.S. and around the world, the new medium was conceptualized as bringing education more in tune with the present and making it more prepared for the future. Unsurprisingly, these hopes closely resemble those that have framed online education in the past decade.

Visionaries of the TV age like Marshall McLuhan, who saw the medium as a paradigmatically new way of communicating, proposed that students could learn the same content better through televised lectures than through print. Optimists wanted to combine the insights of technical personnel and psychologists of learning to make educational TV a “learning tool in itself, an inciter of the act of discovery” rather than a means of distributing simulated classroom performances.

However, the subsequent history of televised education did not seem to confirm such transformative visions. While it proved useful in alleviating a host of practical problems in the educational system, as one study showed, instructional TV remained a “conservative innovation” because it represented no major modification in the learning environment and had minimal influence on the students’ motivation. Twelve separate studies between 1957 and 1985 have consistently demonstrated that the effectiveness of televised college courses was “virtually equivalent” to that of classroom instruction.

Although a neutral outcome in itself, for those invested literally and metaphorically in the future of this new mode of teaching the national scene was “generally disheartening,” as a 1966 assessment commissioned by the Ford Foundation stated. According to the report’s conclusion, in the decade and half of instructional TV’s operation, it made no worthwhile contribution to American education “whether measured by the quality of the product or by the advancement of learning,” being still “far from fulfilling its obvious promise.” Many of the experimental projects—like the airborne broadcasts in the Midwest—were discontinued in the 1970s as private and federal funding dried up, while others—like the celebrated program in Hagerstown, Maryland—stagnated as they struggled with securing financial support.

Reflecting on the trajectory of instructional TV today, the very consistency of its general effectiveness observed in comparison to classroom teaching could be seen as encouraging for our present engagement with online education. Especially since current surveys about online learning reveal a similar equivalency in academic outcomes.  Although a pedagogical revolution did not occur through the TV, these studies indicate that the introduction of a new technology did not impede or damage the level of education either.

Instead, the use and reception of educational TV showed that a new medium for teaching can assist with concrete issues facing universities and schools and can be successful where it meets clear needs. TV College was uniquely successful in Chicago because it answered to local demand and was freely available (granted, for those owning or having access to a TV set). Ultimately, however, the assessments suggest that good education has every chance of staying good education regardless of the medium—and that no technology can make bad pedagogy into good.

“Television provides every isolated classroom with a living text-book.” Short film about TV education in American Samoa, 1967.

Furthermore, if academic results for the two modes of instruction were virtually the same for decades, perhaps it is time to rethink some of the premises of college education. One of the central complaints that were brought against televised education by professors and students alike was about the lack of in-person live interaction, deemed essential for pedagogy. While teaching and learning were seen as personal acts, the impersonal TV or computer screen could not recreate the same effect. As one student grumbled in a 1963 survey, “My parents didn’t send me here to see a bunch of canned lectures.” Indeed, relying exclusively on televised instruction could become burdensome and counterproductive, as the experience of schools in American Samoa between 1964 and 1970 showed.

Yet, historically, almost all colleges and schools used TV education as only one component of their overall pedagogical package. The complexity of televised courses is nicely illustrated by Byrnes’ project in which recorded lectures were accompanied by group discussions guided by him or local instructors, and students received feedback on their papers like in conventional classes. It could easily be the case that the role of attending in-person lectures in auditoriums and the supposedly engaging “charisma” of lecturers in the academic environment are overemphasized. As one sociologist mused, perhaps lecturing before a large group of students is “more important for the instructor himself in terms of his image of the student-leader relationship than it is to the student concerned with acquiring information.” Conceiving of college courses as composite operating units that mix online and offline elements would, in fact, align with the historical experience of blended learning through educational TV.

There is, of course, a dark side to the adoption of a new technology. If the practical issue that a given university wants to fix boils down to cutting costs and reducing the number of its employees, then surveys confirming equivalent academic results can be easily weaponized. However, this would be a cynical misreading of the history and practice of instructional TV in the U.S. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, with the American educational system expanding and private and federal funds readily available, televised education was used to enrich institutions of learning and not to “streamline” or “restructure” them in neoliberal fashion. Today, the commercialization of higher education threatens the public function of universities, with digital learning being one way through which they could be transformed into providers servicing specific markets.

In the face of the eventual digitalization of college education, many instructors fear de-professionalization, diminishing agency in curriculum development, and future obsolescence, especially when competing with for-profit EdTech companies. Perhaps a ray of hope can be gleaned from the thought that, if the widespread introduction of instructional TV could not make human teachers and professors redundant in the past seven decades, perhaps online instruction will not be able to either. Moreover, a far-reaching and determined embrace of blended education could actually secure the currently precarious positions of academic workers.

Ultimately, however, reflection on the phenomenon of instructional TV leaves us with open questions. Will the story of online education resemble that of instructional television? If so, then are the essential questions regarding the quality and effectiveness of education basically unrelated to the medium of communication? Or, conversely, should the hopes of those like McLuhan about the transformative potential of TV be transferred to the future of online education? In other words, will the digital medium develop into a “learning tool in itself, an inciter of the act of discovery”? In the short term, it will most likely rescue education in the time of pandemic, yet will it bring a worthwhile contribution in the long term?

Szabolcs László is a PhD candidate of history at Indiana University, Bloomington. He specializes on the history of Eastern Europe in the twentieth century and is currently working on a dissertation that explores cultural and scholarly exchanges between Hungary and the U.S. during the period 1960-1989.

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