Monday, February 18, 2013

Why we need less "educational TV" and more "TV about education"

I've been on the road a bit in the past month, and thus I have fed my insomnia with unhealthy doses of CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, CNBC, and other lesser lights of the 24/7 news cycle (not to mention more SportsCenter than a human ought to ever watch).  My conclusion?  We would be better off with less "educational TV" and more "TV about education."

Here is what I mean: You can still find educational TV all over the dial.  It remains a mainstay of PBS channels during the day; it fills up public access and channels like UEN that are owned by the state educational apparatus; and defined broadly, it is at the heart of channels that feature self-help, counseling, and religious guidance.  By and large educational TV does little to encourage active learning and lots to encourage passive absorption of whatever point-of-view the educator happens to be sharing.

On the other hand, for all their crassness, news channels mimic better modes of education.  They are filled with debates among holders of contrasting views, they provide esoteric data about the ups and downs of markets and corporations, they open viewers to economic and political issues around the globe.  In short, a viewer can find an engaging, informative, and provocative place to learn on just about any news channel.

Now this fact does not, in itself, require more TV about education.  But given the state of other media about education, which provide either shallow dips into big educational issues (see here the news coverage in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed), long research summaries (think WICHE and NERCHE)  one-sided takes on those same issues (see The Fordham Institute for an example of an organization that does an excellent job from a clear perspective) or press releases (visit any college website), we could use a bit more engagement with the assumptions of our current educational debates.

Consider debates about the cost of higher education.  Press coverage has mainly reported statements from partisans of one side or another--favorable coverage of MOOCs, say, or announcements of colleges freezing tuition. But almost never is there coverage of proponents and opponents sitting side-by-side debating their views and justifying their positions.  Who wouldn't like to see an informed journalist going after MOOC-supporters for low completion rates, for instance; or someone who knows their way around enrollment asking deeper questions about the rationale behind a tuition freeze.

Or consider all of the new strategic plans and fall-semester press releases trumpeting record enrollments. Who wouldn't like to see a college president defending the institution's new strategy in the way that corporate CEOs do on a daily basis?

This is not to say that education would improve overnight if there was more TV about education.  But it is to say that for all of their false drama, over-hype, and choreographed arguments, news channels do hold their guests to the obligation to defend themselves publicly.  Those same opportunities for public defense would serve colleges and universities just as well.