The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) has launched a $20 million initiative to fund multimedia projects that improve the understanding of American history and civics by middle and high school students.
According to CPB, the three-year, multi-phase effort will help fund partnerships among broadcast and content developers, the education community, the technology sector, and others to design multimedia projects that can measurably improve the teaching and learning of American history and enhance civic activity among students.
Several recent studies have discovered a disconcerting decline in student knowledge of American history and civics. One of the most oft-quoted studies, released in 2000 by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, found that while 99 percent of seniors at the top 55 U.S. colleges and universities could correctly identify the title characters of the MTV cartoon Beavis and Butthead, only 23 percent could identify James Madison, a substantial contributor to the United States constitution and the nation’s fourth president.
The CPB initiative aims to reverse that trend.
“CPB believes the time is ripe to direct some of the spectacular recent advances in new media to improve the way young people learn history and civics,” said CPB’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, Ken Ferree.
Ideally, projects chosen to receive CPB funding would create new ways to engage students in the study of American history and civics according to students’ educational needs and abilities, the organization said. Successful grantees would find various strategies to accommodate different learning styles and levels of student interest while aligning content with local and national curricular requirements.
CPB has mandated that at least one public television program be a part of all proposed projects, but proposals also must incorporate other high-tech media elements–such as the internet, cell phones, and video games.
“We’re trying to catalyze something quite new and, I think it’s fair to say, revolutionary in the way that content, broadcast, and interactivity can be joined together to teach young people,” said Jim Denton, a consultant for the CPB initiative.
Michael Pack, senior vice president for television programming at CPB, said he expects the multimedia approach to serve student learning in ways that meet the needs of individual students.
“Some students respond best to video games; some respond best to text,” said Pack. “A program like this one will give them the chance to find their own path through following many different media pathways. Clearly, traditional teaching is not reaching enough students. We hope that new technologies can help.”
Pack said successful projects will include some strong element of ongoing, formative research, and the results should be used to refine the project. Successful projects also must involve subjects of importance to students in all 50 states, he said.
CPB believes the public-private partnership element is essential. “Our grant program is focused on funding partnerships. We’re requiring that all our applicants put together partnerships and that they put together a long-term plan for continued [project] development,” Pack said.
Said Denton of the initiative: “Students are swimming in this new technology. What we would like to do is see if that technology cannot be put to use in educating young people.”
He added that the commercial incentive for technology companies to successfully create materials that can “break the code” for using digital, interactive media to measurably improve student performance should be extremely high.
“The company that improves upon this–and we think it’s possible–is going to have every school district in the country knocking down its door,” Denton said.
With that assumption in mind, the organization expects all candidates to have significant financial investments outside the CPB grant funding right from the start, with increasingly higher shares being contributed in later phases.
“We’re leveraging our commercial viability in order to attract investment from high-tech companies in particular,” said Denton.
Being chosen as a CPB grantee is expected to be highly competitive. “The bar for this is very high,” Denton said. “It’s going to take a combination of organizational and entrepreneurial skills and also a pretty high application of new technologies in order to be a successful competitor.”
Out of the proposals received by the Sept. 8 deadline for the research and development (R&D) phase, CPB estimates it will award 10 to 12 grants. The process will begin with the R&D phase, move on to prototype creation, and end with production and implementation. The three to five grantees who make it to the final production and implementation phase will come from the initial R&D group.
Though CPB has explained what a funded program must accomplish, the organization is refraining from offering a more detailed vision of what an approved project might look like.
“Within a broad arena, we’re hoping to get different results,” Pack said. “I do not want to say what I think would be good, because I do not want to limit what could happen.”
CPB has scheduled three briefings on its American History and Civics Initiative for late April and early May in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and New York. Officials said dates in Chicago and Los Angeles likely will be scheduled, too.
CPB’s History and Civics Initiative
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