Maryland parents, students, and teachers will be among the first to reap the educational benefits of enhanced digital television programming, thanks to a $10 million grant awarded to Maryland Public Television (MPT).

Using the grant money, MPT will develop educational video and online content for digital TV broadcasting, as well as professional development tools for Maryland educators.

“With the advent of digital broadcasting, technology finally enables the television set to become a self-contained, fully interactive communications device. MPT is proud to bring this promise to life for Maryland and the nation,” said Robert J. Shuman, MPT president and chief executive.

Added Shuman, “This lays the foundation for the final convergence of broadcasting and data into a single, seamless interactive medium.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s “Star Schools” program provided the grant. Founded in 1988, Star Schools funds innovative projects using technology for distance education.

What makes MPT’s ambitious plans possible is a physical feature of the digital broadcast signal enabling the transmission of several content streams simultaneously, known within the industry as “multicasting.”

Multicasting allows broadcasters to transmit not only the audio and video signals commonly associated with television, but also large streams of data. The combination of the two into a single program is known as “enhanced television.”

Using enhanced television signals, viewers can explore content addressed in the program in greater detail, providing for a more meaningful viewing experience. Data accompanying enhanced television programs is likely to include web links, bibliographies, transcripts, and detailed background material on the show’s subject.

‘Digital Schools’ initiative

While all broadcasters will transmit signals enabling multicasting by 2003, MPT’s initiative is unique in that the station is devoting a portion of its new digital spectrum to enhanced educational programming for teachers and the general public.

An entire department of creative talent is being added to MPT to develop original enhanced television programming. These new programs will incorporate lesson plans, internet tools, and guided learning activities for use in the classroom and at home, all embedded within the digital television signal.

The materials will be prepared in conjunction with teams of teachers throughout Maryland and will be distributed under the moniker “Maryland Digital Schools.”

Content will be delivered via MPT’s statewide network of digital stations located throughout Maryland and surrounding areas.

MPT’s Gail Porter Long, vice president of community learning ventures, said, “We want to target the bulk of our programming to teachers, students, and the families of students in grades K-12. However, we also want to include material appropriate for the community at large.”

According to Long, MPT’s signal extends beyond the border of Maryland, touching the District of Columbia, northern Virginia, southern Pennsylvania, and parts of eastern West Virginia.

“The advantage of our developing this content using digital television rather than some other delivery channel is that the content will be available free of charge to anyone in our viewing area with access to a digital television set—be that at home, at school, in a public library, or in some other places we haven’t yet imagined,” said Long.

But she acknowledges that digital television is not a magic bullet to solve all technology and curriculum woes.

“From a school’s perspective, it provides another set of tools. I’m very wary of saying that any one technology is an absolute answer for education,” she said. Instead, Long claims that this technology is good at addressing certain issues.

“For instance, though many schools are wired, few have multiple T1 lines. Digital TV allows us to °obroadcast’ web sites that can be cached on a school’s server, so they can later be accessed through the school’s intranet. That way, kids are only accessing things that are most germane to the particular broadcast they are using in their studies,” she explained.

Long notes that educators, not broadcasters, will decide what is useful in Maryland schools. Montgomery County, Baltimore County, and Prince George’s County Public Schools, in particular, will be important to the development of the Maryland Digital Schools project.

“All of us in education have learned that projects to improve teaching and learning cannot be developed apart from schools. We are working closely with teachers, curriculum specialists, technology specialists, and administrators,” she said.

Enhanced television

With the ability of the digital signal to accommodate large streams of data, many new learning tools will be available to students and the general public. Resources complementing and supporting the new enhanced television content will include:

Online field trips;

E Intensive, on-site training on integrating technology and project-based activities into the classroom for teachers in poorly performing schools;

New online content supporting learning at home and in school;

Creation of an enhanced television demonstration project;

Development of brief educational messages to be aired between programs on Maryland Public Television; and

Airing of a monthly segment on education and emerging technologies on Newsnight Maryland, MPT’s evening news program.

Digital broadcasting will allow three things, according to MPT.

“First, bits and bytes take up less room in the broadcast spectrum than analog sound waves. That means we can broadcast more material,” Long explained.

“Second, high-definition television (HDTV) offers crystal-clear picture and sound like you’ve only heard in a movie theater,” she said.

Finally, the ability to broadcast data will change. With enhanced television, broadcasters can embed web-like content into television programs. For example, enhanced television will allow MPT to embed a teacher’s guide into a science program, Long said.

Plans for the future

MPT currently broadcasts a digital signal only from WMPT-DT in Annapolis. The network won’t have all six of its transmitters converted to full-time digital broadcasting until 2003. Nevertheless, the pieces are in place to begin implementing the enhanced television project.

According to officials from project partner Johns Hopkins University, the grant will support the creation of a web portal with supplemental content for both parents and educators, designed to complement the digital television programming by MPT. The web portal is expected to be up and running by the start of the next school year.

As digital signals become more accessible to viewers over the next 24 to 36 months, this content will migrate to the programs themselves, where it will be embedded in the transmission.

“It is going to change TV from a sit-back, passive medium to a lean-forward, active medium. When enhanced television is fully implemented, we’ll be able to invite viewers to send inquiries to our experts and engage in chats related to our programming,” Long said.

Joining MPT in this venture are the Johns Hopkins University Center for Technology in Education and Macro International Inc., a Prince George’s County research firm that will provide a third-party evaluation of the project’s effectiveness.

Johns Hopkins University will provide training to K-12 educators on how to use enhanced television and how to anchor the broadcasts to effective instruction, according to Lynne Mainzer, program director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Technology in Education.

The actual number of teachers to receive instruction has yet to be determined, but Mainzer said workshops and training institutes will begin this year to prepare educators for the program rollout in the 2001-02 school year.

“We will use a hybrid professional development [program]. It is a combination of face-to-face and online learning. We hope the teacher training will help the expert teachers become more expert, as well as help teachers [who] may be struggling,” Mainzer said.

Other organizations sharing their expertise with MPT are Verizon Maryland Inc., Maryland Teaching and Learning with Technology Consortium, National School Boards Association, and Towson University College of Education.

Maryland Public Television is a nonprofit, state-licensed public television network serving the communities of Maryland and beyond through a variety of broadcast and non-broadcast activities. Beyond its broadcasts, MPT creates instructional videos, develops training, and builds internet sites that serve tens of thousands of students, teachers, and child-care providers annually.

Links:

Maryland Public Television
http://www.mpt.org

Johns Hopkins University Center for Technology in Education
http://cte.jhu.edu

Verizon
http://www.verizon.com

National School Boards Association
http://www.nsba.org

U.S. Department of Education’s Star Schools program
http://www.ed.gov/prog_info/StarSchools