Buried by the interest in web-based projects, classroom use of instructional television (ITV) programs is often a forgotten resource. Yet, ITV programming has been greatly improved in the past 10 years, and with the availability of videotaped programs, it easily can be used to spur classroom discussions or provide extra focus on important topics.

There are three types of ITV programming, and each has its place in an educator’s arsenal: programs developed with an educational focus, adaptation of commercial or public programs for in-class viewing, and educational courses for distance learning. In each area, the internet offers the potential to greatly improve the experience.

Here’s how each type of program can be used:

  1. Programs developed for education. Teachers tend to use these programs to complement lectures or provide greater depth for a particular topic. Programming is getting better and better, especially as developers have learned how to craft programs that appeal to students–for example, by producing shorter, better targeted segments. “Freestyle,” “Futures with Jaime Escalante,” and “The Eddie Files” are among the best education programs around today. One crucial element to these superior programs is that they are short enough (approximately 15 minutes) that teachers can involve their class in discussion immediately after a programming segment. Most are available on videotape.
  2. Commercial or public programming. Some programs developed for commercial audiences or by PBS are valuable in the classroom. Again, videotapes make it convenient to show these in school, once permission is obtained. The Nova science series on PBS is a prime example. The challenge of these shows is building a discussion around a program, because the shows often are an hour long. Teachers may need to show only excerpts.
  3. Distance learning programs. This was the original model for ITV, and it was touted as a way to replace teachers for certain subjects, or at least bring those subjects to students who could not get them in any other way. Distance learning in this format is based on “live” instruction, shown on television to students in other locations. It never worked as well as hoped, largely because discussions were difficult to facilitate. The internet offers the potential to overcome this weakness by supplementing live lectures with eMail and teleconferencing.

Not only has the internet opened the possibility of delivering ITV programs more conveniently, it also may solve another problem that has bedeviled ITV: lost lesson plans. In the past, supplementary teachers’ guides for ITV-based lessons were printed on paper, and they often would become lost or outdated. Online delivery of these guides can solve the problem.

ITV programmers also are experimenting with new program formats designed especially for web delivery. For example, some producers are writing very short segments (two or three minutes) that teachers can use to stimulate discussion in class on current events. By segmenting these “micro-documentaries” by subject and age group, they can help teachers pick the programs with the most interest and value.

The key limitation for web delivery of ITV programs is the bandwidth of the computer network a teacher is using.