ATSC event showcases public TV’s growing offerings in educational datacasting

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It’s been more than two years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed many public TV stations to launch datacasting services, bringing educational materials to students who were suddenly stuck at home under lockdowns. 

Those early efforts were heroic ones; South Carolina ETV, for instance, put datacasting on its airwaves in the space of just a few weeks to serve the 20% of households across the state that lacked the broadband connections students needed for distance learning.

“Their datacasting services exactly mirrored their webcast,” said Lonna Thompson, executive VP of America’s Public Television Stations, leading a Thursday panel at the NextGen Broadcast Conference in Detroit. “Students who can get broadband can go on the website, and students who can’t can continue to see educational datacasting, including teacher videos, online lesson plans [and] PBS LearningMedia material.” SCETV also hosts knowitall.org, an online library that includes more than 9,000 locally generated lesson assets. 

As the initial urgency of the pandemic has given way to longer-term planning, Thompson says APTS members are continuing to reinforce datacasting efforts, especially with the gradual move to the new ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard that promises greater data capacity and interactivity.

“With our 350 stations and our reach of nearly 97% of the population including U.S. territories, we really are perfect for a robust national datacasting service,” Thompson said. 

Fourteen APTS stations are broadcasting in ATSC 3.0, many in partnerships with commercial stations in their markets, but Thompson says several are using their own duopoly licenses to control a full channel’s worth of digital bandwidth, providing an early taste of what the 3.0 system will offer to more users as its reach expands.

In Albuquerque, New Mexico PBS used the license for secondary station KNMD to provide an ATSC 3.0 feed of programming from its main station, KNME, as well as a robust datacasting payload.

“They’re creating a datacasting library in 3.0 with school content, family-centric information, early learning, literacy, English as a second language, and adult literacy content,” she said.

Other early ATSC 3.0 adopters in the public TV universe include PBS North Carolina, which is using a 3.0 signal serving the Greenville area for a remote-learning project funded by state grants. In East Lansing, Mich., early 3.0 pioneer WKAR is now experimenting with technology allowing for a return data path that requires less bandwidth, making interactive content available to even more viewers. In Washington, D.C., Howard University’s WHUT has partnered with the National Association of Broadcasters on a media technology innovation learning lab designed to educate and train the next generation of broadcasters on the opportunities available for NextGen television.

Even in markets that have yet to launch ATSC 3.0, datacasting proponents are working on ways to make distance-learning technology more broadly accessible. 

“People don’t really care about technology. They want solutions,” said Mark O’Brien, CEO of SpectraRep, a software company that partners with pubcasters on educational and emergency management content delivery. 

“When we first offered datacasting to teachers, we said, look at this great ability for you to use this new network to reach kids that don’t have internet at home — isn’t this great?” he said. “And they said no, it’s not. We’re not interested.”

The problem, as it turned out, was that overburdened teachers saw datacasting as an additional burden to figure out instead of a solution to a problem. SpectraRep shifted gears, working with teachers’ existing learning-management systems instead of asking them to learn additional ones.

“If their kids have internet, they get it over the internet,” he said. “If they don’t, the teacher doesn’t have to do anything. It just flows through the datacasting system.” By focusing on content instead of technology, O’Brien said, teachers have begun embracing the use of datacasting instead of fighting it. 

Another solution to COVID-era connectivity problems is increased use of asynchronous technology, said Aby Alexander, president of hardware vendor Thomson Broadcast. Working with set-top box manufacturers, Thomson’s technology now allows for some non–time-critical data such as slide decks to be delivered and stored in the box before it’s needed by the user.

“With our 350 stations and our reach of nearly 97% of the population including U.S. territories, we really are perfect for a robust national datacasting service.” 

APTS Executive VP Lonna Thompson

“If it is a live environment, the video component comes in straight through the broadcast channel, and the slides are pre-data-captured in it, and the packages open up and the student can interact with it,” she said. 

On the back end, Alexander said, it’s vital to make the system as easy to use for overworked teachers and parents as well. Improvements to software and hardware are making it easier for teachers to work with their existing learning systems and have them seamlessly deliver content into datacasting systems. 

“Let the technology do its part, and then make it very simple for us,” she said. 

The conference’s home base in Detroit provided a showcase for one ambitious distance-learning project. From its start 18 months ago, Detroit Public TV president Rich Homberg said the Michigan Learning Channel now provides the nation’s first 24/7 distance-learning service. DPTV partners with six other pubcasters, including WKAR, to provide the service to the entire state of Michigan as well as South Bend, Ind. 

“The reaction has been spectacular,” Homberg said, citing research that shows 500,000 Michiganders make use of the channel every month. 

“Our goal was to establish a new approach to distance learning,” Homberg said. “It had often been positioned as dismissive of teachers, but everything starts with teachers.”

Getting that buy-in has been a long process, including winning endorsements from the state Education Department, teachers’ unions, the state associations of middle and elementary schools, and other stakeholders.

The channel’s staff includes six full-time employees handling engagement with local school districts across the state. Homberg says it’s part of a 10-year plan to make DPTV and the Michigan Learning Channel an essential partner with education. 

“We’re looking to build a relationship with the content that starts in the early grades, with math, social and emotional needs and literacy,” he said. “And now we’re walking into the superintendent’s office and saying, let’s further customize it for your district using ATSC 3.0. If we get ATSC 3.0 deployed across the state of Michigan and nationally, we’ve got a channel for you.” 

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