July 5, 2015
The Way We Were . . . Education on the Fly
by Dave Gibson
Forty years ago, The Flying Classroom delivered educational programming to schools in the Midwest.
One of the pioneering efforts of providing distance learning via television may be traced back to the early 1960s to a truly unique and comprehensive program, which I participated in as an elementary school student. The Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction (MPATI) was a nonprofit corporation founded and headquartered at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. The Ford Foundation and Westinghouse Corporation were the major funding sources, with the goal of providing exemplary instruction to large numbers of students via broadcast television. This was almost 10 years before the establishment of the Public Broadcasting Service.
Education Takes Wing
MPATI instructional television programs were produced and recorded on videotape at several educational television facilities located in the Midwest and elsewhere. These recording sites included WCET in Cincinnati, WTTW in Chicago, and at New York University. To maximize the audience of students, the program utilized television transmission equipment that was housed in a four-engine, DC-6 aircraft. This propeller-driven DC-6 became known as The Flying Classroom, although it resembled a TV station more than a classroom. Starting in September 1961, the MPATI videotaped programs were broadcast over UHF (ultra-high frequency) channels 72 and 76 every school day during school hours. Flying in a figure-eight pattern at 23,000 feet, the MPATI plane was able to broadcast instructional television programming to schools in six Midwestern states (Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Kentucky, and Wisconsin). The 24-foot TV broadcast antenna was lowered from the belly of the plane once it reached the orbit point. During its time of operation, MPATI was the only organization in the world that utilized an aircraft on a consistent basis to broadcast television programming. Also, MPATI served the largest geographic region in the world (127,000 square miles) with one television transmitting facility.
With its 24-foot TV broadcast antenna extended, this DC-6 became The Flying Classroom.
MPATI airborne television offered several advantages to school classrooms in the Midwest, where instructional resources at the time consisted mainly of chalkboards, textbooks, filmstrips, and 16mm films. Hundreds of thousands of students could be reached simultaneously through this one television transmission facility. Master teachers, selected via a national search and evaluation process, could reach the most geographically isolated schools as well as those located in urban areas. High need, specialized courses were offered to expand the curriculum offerings of schools. Foreign languages were offered to elementary school students, and out-of-the-ordinary languages such as Russian were part of the secondary school MPATI curriculum. Advanced math and science courses were also provided as well as courses in language arts, social studies, and the arts. So MPATI was a groundbreaking effort in equalizing education via distance education technology.
MPATI was also viewed as one vehicle to bring America’s educational program up to the level of the Soviet Union’s, whose math and science curriculum was credited (by some) for the USSR’s early successes in the space race. One could make the argument that Russia’s launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 was a main force in helping America to launch the MPATI DC-6 in 1961.
MPATI had many hurdles to overcome in order to provide its instructional resources to schools. First, there were the issues related to the electronic technology of the era. Operating a television transmitter and videotape players for six hours each school day in the back of a propeller-driven DC-6 was, in itself, a major challenge. Forty years ago, videotape technology was still in its infancy and more problem prone than it is today.
The electronic equipment on the airplane was all vacuum-tube based and was subject to regular burn outs. The transmitter operated on the high end of the UHF channel band, so just finding the MPATI channels on a school’s TV set was a challenge. The televisions of that era didn’t have UHF receivers with the individual channel numbers listed. To tune in the MPATI channels, you kept turning the UHF dial until hopefully, with a little luck, a picture appeared.
The Flying Classroom was an elongated TV station with 6.5 tons of equipment.
Other problems were related to what I term the MPATI Flying Endurance Challenge. MPATI flights took place in the same figure-eight pattern over Indiana for six hours each school day. The 2,000 miles flown in just one day was the equivalent of a flight from St. Louis to Los Angeles, and this flight schedule continued every school day for eight years. Pilots became bored because they basically were flying the plane around in circles most of the day. MPATI minimized this problem by hiring part-time pilots who worked the MPATI flights on an infrequent basis. The Midwestern winter weather could also play havoc with the MPATI flight schedule. This was back in the days when aircraft were much more susceptible to being grounded due to weather conditions. MPATI solved this by having two aircraft, one of which was a back-up plane that could be used if the primary plane was put out of service by weather, mechanical, or electronic problems.
MPATI was a little bit ahead of its time and was always regarded as an educational experiment expected to mature. An airplane orbiting over Indiana at 23,000 feet was eventually replaced by educational satellites orbiting 23,000 miles above the earth. By the late 1980s, 20 years after MPATI went dark, interactive satellite-delivered distance learning had become commonplace from organizations such as the TI-IN Network, PBS, Oklahoma State University, and SERC (Satellite Educational Resources Consortium). Distance learning has now evolved into T1based interactive video networks (such as the one that connects more than 700 schools in the state of Ohio) as well as the multitude of distance learning applications now available over the Internet.
What are some of the lessons to be learned from the MPATI experience?
What a grand time we now live in! In the days of MPATI, schools had to watch the broadcasts as they occurred. There was no possibility of recording the broadcasts for later use because schools had no VCRs. You had to use the programming at the time it was broadcast by The Flying Classroom, or the teaching opportunity was lost. Also, MPATI was a one-way video delivery system with feedback available only through teacher surveys and discussion groups. Programs were created or modified on an annual basis based on the feedback received.
MPATI's DC-6 was the Satellite of the Sixties.
From a 21st-Century perspective, it is easy to be critical of the MPATI program. For instance, interactivity between individual students and the MPATI instructor was almost non-existent, programs could not be time-shifted, and individual course content may not have matched up well with the local school curriculum. Viewed in its own time frame, however, it is clear that MPATI overcame tremendous obstacles to deliver high-quality instructional materials to thousands of school classrooms. It made maximum use of the airborne television technology that was available at the time, and it provided an opportunity for thousands of school children to be educationally challenged in ways that were not available through any other source.
MPATI proved that distance learning via television was viable and could be quite effective if a number of elements came together. The role of the classroom teacher in properly integrating the MPATI broadcasts and print material into classroom activities was regarded as being as important as the television programs themselves. MPATI sponsored professional development workshops to orient participating teachers to this new way of teaching. These sessions and related activities were coordinated throughout the Midwest in conjunction with 20 designated resource institutions, including Miami University (Ohio), Indiana University, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Michigan.
The Way We Are
Forty years later, those dedicated educators in distance learning classrooms remain the true heroes. For the past three years, the Southwestern Ohio Instructional Technology Association (SOITA) has been working closely with the schools of our region to acquaint them with the instructional resources now available through Ohio SchoolNet’s interactive-video distance learning system. Our area schools now have the capability of videoconferencing school-to-school or connecting with world-renowned resource institutions such as the Cincinnati Zoo or the Cleveland Museum of Art. The teachers, principals, tech coordinators, and superintendents who have provided the leadership to coordinate this program into their school curriculum are the key reasons for its success.
The Flying Classroom's airborne teachers delivered its curriculum.
So, just as it was 40 years ago, several of the key elements necessary for a successful distance learning program remain the same: a usable and affordable technology, high quality instructional materials and resources, and dedicated people, both in and out of the classroom. Persons who have important instructional needs will continue to transcend the barriers of distance, endure the limitations of technology, and enjoy its benefits, as they get what they want. Thankfully, the newer technologies now provide tremendous opportunities for the distant learner to participate individually, from almost unlimited locations, on their own time schedule.
Yes, we should be appreciative of the grand time we live in. Gone forever are those hot days in crowded classrooms when kids like me strained to see a 23-inch black-and-white TV set at 1 p.m. sharp. But if you are ever in eastern Indiana, near the small village of Montpelier, roll down your car window and listen very carefullyyou might just hear the drone of that four-engine DC-6 as it flies in lazy eights, four miles up.
SOITA regards MPATI as its parent organization. Three former MPATI officials were members of the original SOITA Board of Trustees that created SOITA in 1968. Visit SOITA’s 40th Anniversary Web salute to MPATI, including a tour of The Flying Classroom, at www.soita.esu.k12.oh.us/MPATI/mpati.html.
Photos courtesy of MPATI.