Tuesday, July 15, 2008

PBS Impresses Me

IMG_0244.JPGI had a fascinating couple of days at PBS at the end of last week.

Kim Smith, who's the new Education vice-president for PBS, has asked me to do some consulting for them as part of their launching a new teacher network: PBS Teachers Connect. PBS Teachers Connect is "an online community of teachers exchanging ideas, resources and instructional strategies on the integration of digital media and technology," and I'd gotten to know Kim from their consideration of Ning as the platform for this new program. As it turned out, PBS was going to need some customization and integration that Ning couldn't provide--but they still wanted me to provide some help from my experiences with community-building in a social networking environment for education (Classroom 2.0). And part of that help was an invitation to their annual PBS Teacher Advisory Group (TAG) meeting in Washington, DC.

I left the experience very impressed with the people who work at PBS, their sincere desire to help educators, and the quality of the brainstorming that took place. In fact, if the education organization at PBS can bring to their new online teacher community the same level of engaged dialog that was present over the two days in our physical meeting, I believe they will continue to make a real difference to educators and education.

Early in day one Rob Lippincott, PBS's Senior Vice President for Education, quoted from the "Remarks of President Lyndon B. Johnson Upon Signing the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967," which I quote below. Wow. It's not hard to see in these words the noble desire by the PBS education leadership team right now:

I believe the time has come to stake another claim in the name of all the people, stake a claim based upon the combined resources of communications. I believe the time has come to enlist the computer and the satellite, as well as television and radio, and to enlist them in the cause of education.

If we are up to the obligations of the next century and if we are to be proud of the next century as we are of the past two centuries, we have got to quit talking so much about what has happened in the past two centuries and start talking about what is going to happen in the next century beginning in 1976.

So I think we must consider new ways to build a great network for knowledge--not just a broadcast system, but one that employs every means of sending and storing information that the individual can use.

Think of the lives that this would change:--the student in a small college could tap the resources of a great university.

Was that ever prescient?!

Some additional highlights and notes from the meeting:
  • Rob, Kim, Jenny--are you blogging? Your voices are needed... :)
  • John Boland, the Chief Content Officer at PBS, said that for the last six weeks the PBS site has had more visitors than any other network website. That really surprised me, especially because of the streaming content some of the other networks are offering, which I would assume really drives traffic to them. I'd be very interested in understanding why this is happening.
  • Rob Lippincott spoke early on in one of the few "formal" presentations. Here are some notes from that talk:
    • 73 million people a week "visit" PBS in some way.
    • 204,000 came to PBS Teachers last month (http://www.pbs.org/teachers/). They are happy with the growth, but feel it could be more.
    • PBS TeacherLine (http://www.pbs.org/teacherline/)--they also very happy with this program. 10,000/year teachers complete a course.
    • Satisfaction with use of video in classroom is stubbornly low--and teachers generally don't assign or recommend outside viewing.
    • PBS makes great television, but he feels they need to also make the right kind of video resources. If they can find out from educators how they using it, they can rethink how they produce it.
    • The ultimate goal is actually improving student achievement or engagement. How do they bring the power and value of media to bring engagement and achievement? What kind of content to teachers really want?
  • It was pretty clear early on that there is an inherent tension in the PBS desire to create Web resources for educators--a tension that they recognize, and to their great credit, are trying to figure out. On the one side, PBS produces highest-quality video media, and they want to make that available to educators. But on the other side, the "Collaborative Web" or "Web 2.0" thrives through user creation and participation, however, which is not always highest-quality and is often not fully in the control of the platform provider. (I keep coming back to the story in Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody about how the pro-anorexia girls on the teen-girls' website ultimately ended up closing down the site.) How does a trusted brand like PBS keep that trust through high quality, but still take advantage of the engagement enabled by participation? Luckily for me (by design?), during the two days I was seated at the table with Jenny Bradbury, the Content Manager for PK-12 Education, who really "groks" this dilemma. From my perspective, PBS's trusted brand gives them the opportunity to move slowly (slowly by "Internet Time") and carefully, knowing that they have a commitment to finding ways to push the boundaries where possible. In the Internet Culture we're also learning, I think, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater--while I do look at slashdot for news, I usually have a more profound learning experience when reading a story from the Wall Street Journal. There is a real role for trusted content, and it is different than user-generated content.
  • Speaking of time, Rob Lippincott made reference in a comment to what I consider to be the second inherent tension/dilemma expressed in the meeting: that of feeling that PBS may already be a little late to the Web 2.0 party, but not wanting to rush so that they do things right. For me, there is another option to both the content and time dilemmas, which is for PBS just to provide the quality content, and by creating some open access to that content, allowing others to build the collaborative or participative structures that promote more interaction without compromising PBS. I think that the ability to embed PBS-branded content would allow for discussion and participation to take place in many more creative venues than PBS is in a position to actually explore, without ever eroding their quality or trust. As the founder of several Ning networks that would benefit from educators being able to showcase PBS content within the context of professional development discussions, I see great opportunities; I imagine PBS sees a mess of complex licensing issues for any existing content. :( I'm intrigued with the ability that Diigo has, though, to build community discussions around content without requiring that it be transferred in any way. I wonder if there is something there?
  • Kim Smith laid out some goals for PBS in education and specifically with PBS Teachers Connect. They are looking toward having 200,000 online teacher-members. Interestingly enough, this seems to highlight a third tension that was evident in the juxtaposition of Kim mentioning this goal, and then me talking about the relative loss of community feeling now that Classroom 2.0 is over 9,000 members. While "groups" within a social network can help this, ultimately size might be another argument for PBS to provide the content and let others organize around it in existing or new networks.
  • I was given a chance early on in the meeting to describe Classroom 2.0, to talk about what factors seem to have helped that particular niche network to gain such traction. I think the growth of Classroom 2.0 may, to some degree, reflect my own "inclusive" nature, and sincere desires to help beginners feel comfortable coming into the Web 2.0 world. I talked about how one of my first jobs out of college was being a tour manager for Stanford's Alumni Association, and how four years of managing travel groups did leave me with some defined beliefs in how to help a group function well. I'm intrigued to see that these lessons often seem to carry over into the virtual world. I think one of the biggest lessons from those physical groups was the importance of treating each individual with respect, and consistently working to create and environment of positive interactions. I also remember how profoundly important it was for the tour leader to have a balanced sense of the overall mission/experience, and to put small setbacks or events into a larger perspective. I not only "managed expectations" before experiences, I also often needed to provide context for evaluating what was taking place. I'm going to have to think some more about this, because even in just writing these thoughts down now I can see some more connections that will have to wait for a future post!
  • I also talked about the managing of problematic individual members in a community, and there definitely is a need for balance between treating individuals with respect and respecting the group as a whole. Clearly, in an open public environment, it is important that a social network manager quickly cut off members who are destructive to the group as a whole. That's easy on an education network when somebody comes on trying to sell something commercial and unrelated, but what about when it's a teacher whose personal style grates on others? Or it's a former teacher who now works for a commercial company, and where the line between contribution and salesmanship get blurry? That's fuzzy enough for Classroom 2.0 that I imagine it being even harder for PBS.
  • We also talked, albeit briefly, about the "live" events we've been holding with Classroom 2.0. These events are intended to really help at a grass-roots level, where teachers can come together and provide professional development to each other around Web 2.0. PBS has 355 stations around the country, and there are many great programs already being pursued locally by those stations to help educators. Some kind of PBS Teacher Academy makes a lot of sense, and could be done both locally and nationally.
  • As the tools of the Web become more integrated into PBS's own management programs, I can see a wonderful synergy continuing to grow between these local stations in their educational (and other) offerings. I was so excited by the idea that I wanted to go sit in a corner somewhere and just create a Ning network for this purpose! Hire me to do this, I told Jenny!
  • One constituency was noticeably absent from many of the discussions: students. It wasn't until we were in a brainstorming session about what local stations could do to promote the PBS educational Web resources that started to hear ideas about involving students (for example, having local stations do training on media production and licensing). I didn't think of this at the time, but a PBS for Students program (academy?) would make a ton of sense in this area, as well as maybe helping to address the current gap PBS feels in their programming and services for the middle to high-school audience. They have young viewers and old viewers, but not those in-between.
  • The idea of a PBS bus that would travel the country came up several times--sometimes jokingly, sometimes seriously. I have to say, it really stuck with me. Especially since it would be a way to tie the local stations to offering some kind of training or publicity associated with the arrival of the bus in an area, and could potentially tie in with the local ed tech conferences found in most states.
  • Jenny Bradbury and also had a great discussion around how you recognize or reward high participation in a social networking or collaborative content site. I definitely find myself leaning toward *not* rewarding, as I feel the participation and peer recognition are what really drive contribution--and that formal recognition can change that dynamic in a "punished by rewards" way.
All in all, two of the most interesting days I've spent in a long while. Kudos to PBS, the education team, and the educators who came and contributed to the advisory group meeting.

["P-head" pipe-cleaner creation by Sara Reibman--wow! Photos of "P-head" and the group courtesy of Amos, an intern at PBS. Thanks, Sara and Amos!]


  1. Anonymous1:25 AM

    You're right. I've met with the PBS folks and they are good people who really understand what teachers need in order to be successful.

    As for doing a PBS Teachers Connect Tour, I think that's a great idea. I had the opportunity last summer to lead Yahoo! Teachers workshops around the country. The teachers were so excited and so appreciative that we made the effort to come to their neck of the woods to provide professional development training.

    Often professional development programs only focus on teachers on the coasts--NY, SFO and LA. karon and I made the conscious decision to go to areas that aren't usually the recipients of these type of trainings.

    These types of national teacher outreach initiatives are a really great opportunity to meet some truly amazing educators and provide them with new skills and resources to take back into the classroom.

  2. Steve, I've reviewed many, many online PBS resources for the Open History Project. One thing for certain, they were early in the game, and they committed some vast resources to it.

    On the other hand, I'm not sure that we got their (our) money's worth for students. Don't get me wrong! By far, PBS had some of the highest quality online content available. Yet let me summarize the comments I've posted often:
    1) Where's the audio?! Even a few beeps would help make content more compelling for learners. PBS' earliest interactive--Not For Ourselves Alone--had all the audio (and little interactivity). Since then, almost no sound!
    2) Where's the interactivity? Again, PBS has produced some of the most innovative and engaging navigational mechanisms we've seen. Interactive learning, however, should be much more than that! And by interactive, I don't mean all chat and messaging. I mean software that asks you to make choices and rewards you or no depending on whether your mastering content. Kids love video games! BBC recognized this; PBS rarely did.
    3) Where's the Levels? In any decent game, you master a level at a time. On PBS sites, you often plunge right from the introductory page to PhD discussions. My eyes glaze over; why wouldn't students?

    Kind of a hurried post here, at the library, but I wanted to offer the resources and examples at OpenHistoryProject.org and tellingthestory.org.


  3. Anonymous5:48 PM

    In response to Ed's comment, I wanted to say that we at PBS are always pleased to receive feedback about how we can design resources that better fit the needs of today's educators. We recently launched PBS Teachers Connect -- www.pbsteachers.org/connect -- in order to open a dialogue with teachers and find out how you're using our stuff and what you do and don't like. I will certainly pass your comments along to our stations and producers in the hope that they will be able to incorporate more audio and true interactivity into future resources.

  4. Anonymous2:16 PM

    Hi Steve,

    I was fortunate enough to be one of the teachers on the Advisory Board for two years and I agree wholeheartedly: the level of discussions and commitment to remaining relevant in a quickly changing landscape very much impressed me. I have always had a place in my heart for PBS due to my own early learning memories, but my experiences in working with them as an adult has made me even more of a fan of their work and dedication to teachers. Thanks for a great post!

  5. The Library of Congress has much the same kind of positive, respected brand recognition as PBS. They, too, are working hard to find ways to incorporate Web 2.0 concepts into their online presence. One of their 2008 projects has been to partner with Flickr to put the Library's most popular photographs online and to build more knowledge about the individual photographs based on feedback and comments. You can read about the project on the Library of Congress blog written by Matt Raymond: http://www.loc.gov/blog. Do a search on "flickr" to find some of his posts on the topic.


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