Pennsylvania reportedly has become the first state to invest in the transition to digital television (DTV), a technology that could dramatically enrich the video resources available in the nation’s schools.

The Pennsylvania legislature has issued a $3 million grant to two of its public television stations, WITF-TV in Harrisburg and WHYY-TV in Philadelphia, to help introduce digital TV (DTV) programming to the state’s residents. John Bailey, director of educational technology for the state’s Department of Education, said the grant will have a huge impact on educational programs for the state’s schools.

“We’re moving from an era in which we watch TV to one where we can actually use it as an interactive learning tool,” Bailey said. “The implications for education are enormous.”

Pennsylvania is the first state to put forth public money to help its public TV stations convert to digital broadcasts, Bailey said.

Currently, viewers receive a television picture based on an analog broadcast system. Digital television captures images and sound using the same digital code found in computers. The conversion to digital allows for compression of data, which opens up bandwidth to create “parallel” channels within a single main channel.

Using these parallel channels together can create higher quality sound and video, called “high-definition” TV (HDTV). But splitting the broadcast into separate channels–called “multicasting”–lets a station broadcast more than one program at a time on a single digital channel.

“Probably the most exciting thing about this–and the application that will transform education the most–is that you can also broadcast data over any of these parallel channels,” Bailey said. So while students are watching a digital broadcast of a documentary on TV, for example, the teacher could be receiving supplementary information, or maybe a pop quiz, on a computer.

WITF-TV earlier this fall activated Pennsylvania’s first digital signal. The station is one of only seven public television stations in the country to carry a digital signal so far, according to Ann Meyers, a spokeswoman for the station. “It just enhances and extends the learning opportunity,” Meyers said.

Falling over Fallingwater

On Nov. 10 and 11, WITF broadcast a PBS special about Frank Lloyd Wright directed by Ken Burns. Made possible through a partnership between PBS and Intel Corp., the broadcast allowed viewers to download the equivalent of a full digital video disc (DVD) of supplementary material via computer at the same time they were watching the TV show.

The digital data received via computer included a virtual tour of Fallingwater, Wright’s most famous construction. Using their computer’s keyboard, viewers could control the camera angle as they “walked” through each room. Clicking on a feature of the room revealed further information about it, delivered in the actual voice of Wright’s grandson.

“When you think of all the research that someone like Ken Burns has done, and think of everything that ends up on the cutting room floor–with this technology, we have the ability to deliver information well beyond the allotted time slot for each show,” said Kathy Silks, vice president of communications for WITF-TV.

The station also invited educators to view a demonstration of the broadcast. “It knocked their socks off,” Silks said. “They were just amazed.”

Silks said the station is looking forward to delivering the technology to schools. Through PBS’ partnership with Intel, she said, the station received a DTV-enabled computer which it plans to bring to local school districts to demonstrate the technology.

Questions about standards

To experience the benefits of digital TV yourself, you’ll need to buy a DTV-ready television (for a few thousand dollars) or invest in a set-top box (for a couple hundred).

The technology is still emerging, and there are many competing standards, of which Intel’s Intercast is just one. “Right now, you’re seeing only the ‘early adopters’ buying this,” Bailey said. “Most people are still holding off.”

Despite the competing standards, Bailey is excited about the possibilities that DTV brings to the classroom.

“The FCC has ordered all broadcasters to adopt the technology by 2006, and public stations must convert by 2003,” he said. “Our investment is an effort to jump-start the process.”

Pennsylvania Department of Education

http://www.cas.psu.edu/PDE.HTML

WITF-TV

http://www.witf.org

Corporation for Public Broadcasting

http://www.cpb.org

Intel Corp.

http://www.intel.com