Public media stations are expanding and refining content that they rolled out in the spring in partnership with educators after schools migrated online, focusing more on developing rich digital resources, increasing support for parents and beefing up instruction in math and other subjects.
When schools closed due to COVID-19 and abruptly shifted to remote learning, public media stations quickly partnered with school districts on delivering content, especially to students lacking internet access. After taking the summer to determine what worked best, stations are planning changes in partnership with educators that they feel will expand and deepen the content.
“It’s almost like a phase two of the work, in line more with where schools are at this point in time going into the fall,” said Robin Mencher, executive director of education at KQED in San Francisco. “We have had some time to reflect, to listen and to refine so that we can be right there, hand in hand with our education partners and our families.”
With a majority of school districts announcing plans to continue remote learning in some capacity at least partway into the fall, Mencher said she believes stations like hers can extend their roles as trusted sources of educational content for teachers, students and families.
“This is the place for public media to shine,” she said.
Efforts this fall will continue to draw on programming provided by national outlets. PBS’ fall at-home learning offerings will be “more fully packaged,” according to Sara Schapiro, VP for education. “We have identified episodes to feature each week that align to age bands and link to themed learning objectives through a variety of resources on PBS Kids for Parents and PBS LearningMedia,” Schapiro said in an email.
The network is also partnering with WGBH to support distance learning on World Channel, which is operated by the Boston station. An At-Home Learning Service from noon to 5 p.m. Eastern time on weekdays will offer programs on science, language arts and social studies aimed at students in grades 6–12. The programs will be tied to curriculum and related PBS LearningMedia resources. Digital resources will be provided as well through PBS LearningMedia and PBS Kids.
Schapiro said most stations are offering some sort of at-home learning support for their communities this fall, evolving their offerings to help meet educational needs.
“It’s this evolution of services and anticipated need for flexible offerings throughout the coming year that has driven our approach to providing multiplatform learning resources for these new school routines,” she said. “We believe this approach will allow each station to continue to be adaptive and flexible in the face of a continually evolving situation.”
On a national level, metrics demonstrate success in engaging viewers. According to PBS, PBS LearningMedia had over 4.2 million users during the month of April, with roughly 250,000 student users.
KQED, PBS SoCal and KCET partnered with the Los Angeles Unified School District in the spring to offer educational resources that could be accessed both digitally as well as through PBS broadcasts. The partnership became a model that was adopted at least in part by over 100 stations in 30 states, said Jamie Annunzio Myers, COO at PBS SoCal and KCET.
Myers said other stations appreciated that PBS SoCal and KQED made the at-home learning initiative a model for other partnerships between public media organizations and school districts. “They were grateful that there was something to get them started,” she said. “What’s awesome about public media is we have a model you can take and make work for your local community.”
During the spring and summer, an average of over 200,000 daily viewers (140,000 homes) in the Los Angeles region tuned in daily to the redesigned daytime broadcast schedules on PBS SoCal, KLCS and KCET, while PBS SoCal and KCET have seen over 300,000 pageviews for its online At-Home Learning content.
KQED’s channel dedicated to educational programming, KQED Plus, saw a 50% increase in viewers from the start of the program change through August, according to the station.
Usage was at record levels for PBS LearningMedia in California, with a 79% increase in users in March compared to March 2019, a 99% increase in overall traffic and a 246% increase in use, measured by pageviews, according to KQED.
KQED and PBS SoCal are rolling out a similar broadcast lineup as in the spring with PBS Kids and World Channel offerings. KQED also plans to accelerate the use of a Youth Media Challenge that began a couple of months before schools shut down to engage students with issues around the upcoming election. The challenge allows middle- and high- school students to focus on issues that matter to them by writing and publishing online commentaries on election-related issues.
Any school can sign on to run a Youth Media Challenge, allowing it to be launched anywhere, said KQED’s Mencher. It’s “the perfect model for really thoughtful teaching and learning that can happen in a distance-learning environment,” she said, adding that it can work well in classrooms should students return to school.
New focus on supporting parents
PBS SoCal will also emphasize providing resources to parents, ensuring that parents and caregivers feel comfortable supporting students. The station is creating digital resources for families and hosting virtual parent-training academies on how to work with children online and use media as well as technology to help them learn.
But this type of resource-intensive initiative takes creativity to carry out. Staffers at PBS SoCal who were previously working on in-person trainings and engagement events that could no longer take place have been refocusing on the educational initiative, Myers said.
Producers are working to fill gaps, including by providing more math instruction. “What solidified via COVID is that math is going to be an area of challenge in terms of getting students to grade level and beyond,” Myers said. “That deep dive for parents is extending and growing,” she added. PBS SoCal is leading an upcoming initiative to get local families engaged around the subject.
“We know in a distance-learning environment, families have expressed a need for additional support,” said Alison Yoshimoto Towery, chief academic officer of the Los Angeles Unified School District. “… So it’s a great opportunity for the PBS community to support our families and make those connections.”
Towery said she is also hoping to partner with LAUSD’s many community partners to develop more original content, such as inviting actors and athletes to participate in online story times.
Virginia’s WHRO is planning to further its effort to put teachers behind the camera to record lessons. It led the way with its VA TV classroom, broadcasting lessons recorded by teachers in their homes.
The VA TV classroom had 44,000 pageviews and 5,600 livestreams from April through mid-June, according to WHRO CEO Bert Schmidt. From Sept. 14 through the end of October, the classroom will broadcast lessons from 32 teachers, 16 for kindergarten through third grade and 16 for grades four through seven. As in the spring, the lessons will also air on Richmond-based VPM, Blue Ridge PBS in Roanoke and WETA in Washington, D.C.
The station received $200,000 in funding from the Virginia Department of Education through the federal coronavirus relief bill to cover the cost of teachers. Schmidt has been able to deploy staff who are unable to shoot TV shows for production services. “It’s three hours a day of production work, a lot for any station to crank out,” he said. Without further funding to pay teachers, he said, he won’t be able to provide teacher recordings past October.
Public media stations “provided an incredible service to Virginia students, especially those in rural areas without access to the internet,” said Michael Bolling, assistant superintendent for learning and innovation at the Virginia Department of Education.
With the broadcast files available to Virginia’s local school divisions for their own channels, their educational value is widespread, Bolling said. He said he hopes additional federal funding can be secured so teacher lessons can continue beyond October.
South Carolina ETV has begun working with its state’s Department of Education to record teachers’ lessons for career and technical education and visual and performing arts, said Stephanie Frazier, SCETV VP of education. Teachers began recording in a studio this summer. In addition, SCETV bought camera technology for teachers to record their lessons and is coordinating its distribution with the state Department of Education, she said.
Feedback was positive about the at-home learning initiative in the spring, Frazier said. PBS LearningMedia saw more than 26,000 users from South Carolina from March to June.
SCETV is exploring the possibility of a channel dedicated specifically to instruction instead of adapting its broadcast schedule. It’s also embarking on datacasting to provide more interactive learning to students living in the roughly 200,000 households in the state that lack internet access. That would allow instructional content to be sent through broadcast signals to devices like tablets and computers that could replicate an internet-based educational experience.
Adapting schedules based on lessons learned
Kentucky’s KET had been running a 10-hour weekday broadcast schedule modeled on the California partnership but won’t devote as much time in its schedule to these programs in the fall, said Tonya Crum, senior director of education.
“We didn’t see huge usage of these programs by teachers” in their instruction, she said.
However, there was a fivefold increase in views of PBS LearningMedia content among Kentuckians from February to May. As a result, KET will focus on ensuring that teachers know how to easily and seamlessly incorporate content from PBS LearningMedia and PBS Kids into lesson plans.
In the spring, the seven member stations that make up Pennsylvania PBS each had learning-at-home blocks but different schedules. They launched a website together to share content but lacked a unified message, said Kate Domico, executive director of Pennsylvania PBS.
The stations are now partnering with each other and the state’s school districts. On Sept. 7, Pennsylvania PBS will launch a coordinated 20-hour block of “Learning at Home” programming each week. Every weekday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., teachers and families will find the same programming on every PBS station in the state, dedicated to educating students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
“Collaborating and pooling resources will be a win for students and a win for public media across the state,” Domico said in an email. “It allows for individual Pennsylvania stations to pursue local initiatives while addressing the needs of learners across the state.” With the support of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, each station is working with more school districts than in the spring, she added.
Arkansas PBS featured eight educators providing instruction in the spring through Arkansas AMI, a content partnership with the state Department of Education. “We feel the teacher segments were a big part of the success” and helped address the emotional loss that students experienced once schools closed, said Courtney Pledger, Arkansas PBS CEO. Her station is working to feature local teachers on PBS Kids broadcasts “for that human connection,” she said.
Until the end of the school year, Arkansas AMI provided five hours a day of content five days a week for eight weeks. It aired simultaneously on numerous platforms, including broadcast, and attracted significant traffic, including 1.6 million pageviews on myarkansaspbs.org from March 30 to May 22.
The rollout was intended to avert learning loss and keep students engaged, Pledger said, and was more of an “emergency response.” “It wasn’t necessarily designed to move students forward” in curriculum terms, she said.
With Arkansas schools opening Monday, Arkansas PBS isn’t planning to reinstate the spring broadcast. The station is in discussions with the state’s Department of Education about creating an innovative, longer-term curriculum-based plan with digital solutions for grades pre-K through 8.
“If we can fund it and do that as more of a long-term solution, we will,” she said.
The station is working to expand its coverage to the 24% of the state’s residents, many in rural areas, who were unable to access Arkansas AMI over the air. After that, “we’ll be ready to serve Arkansas students better, whatever may come in education,” Pledger said.
WGBH in Boston created a digital distance-learning schedule, broadcasting programs on its World Channel for students in grades 6–12 that it plans to continue into the fall, said Seeta Pai, WGBH’s executive director of education. The At-Home Learning Block on World Channel reached 1.6 million viewers from March 26 and July 31, including 200,000 children and teens.
“That was enough for us to feel like we can continue it,” she said, adding that the station can now focus on highlighting the materials that are best used in a remote setting.
Though WGBH raised some funds for its educational effort, “it has taxed us without question,” Pai said. “Everybody is working long hours.” The work is not sustainable in the long term, she said. Pai hopes the positive response to educational services will make public media’s educational relevance more visible and translate into broader financial support.
The Massachusetts Department of Education approached WGBH about adding math content presented by Louisiana Public Media, which is producing videos. The goal is to try to provide PBS LearningMedia resources to support and supplement the videos since the resource is being heavily used, Pai said.
Some public media stations are providing professional development for teachers. WGBH is hosting educator peer exchanges, allowing teachers to talk to each other and learn from each other on distance learning. SCETV’s Frazier said 3,000 educators participated in 40 professional development sessions from late March to June. An Aug. 5 session attracted 500 educators; the sessions will continue into the fall three days a week.
Towery of the Los Angeles Unified School District said she believes that the time invested in improving the educational programming based on feedback received since the spring will be well worth it in the long run. “At the end of the day, even when we go back to brick-and-mortar classrooms, we’ll be really prepared if we integrate media technology in ways that engage students and make learning come alive,” she said.