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Big Bird Becomes a Capitalist, Part Two

PBS change agents charge into the digital era with their business plans blazing and their revenue models smoking.

Rod Bates hopes that education, government, and the private sector will share a common vision and venture in the National Center for Information Technology in Education (NCITE) — a string of national laboratories like Los Alamos and the Fermi National Accelerator built not to develop new defense applications or test the bounds of science, but to explore new opportunities for education through technology. In the early planning stages now, this lab project would develop cutting-edge curricula based on new media, would award fellowships to educators with revolutionary ideas, would conduct beta tests with schoolchildren, and would train teachers to utilize technology in the classroom.

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Bates says it would also work with major consumer and technology companies that are looking to enter the education business. Companies could test new educational products at NCITE, which would, in turn, endorse the tools and the toys that meet its high scholastic standards.

“Nebraska Educational Telecommunications (NET) has built up a lot of trust among local educators because we’ve concentrated on and excelled at educational programming since 1954,” Bates says. “We can put our Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on a product that Disney tests in our laboratory and that passes our standards. Disney gets the trust it needs to break into the market, and the lab benefits from corporate involvement.”

Currently, Senator Bob Kerry of Nebraska is championing NCITE in Congress; he hopes to attract $3 – $4 million in federal funding to seed the idea. Meanwhile, the University of Nebraska has stepped forward to participate in the national laboratory. Recently, the dean of the teachers college, James O’Hanlon, signed a memorandum of understanding, stating that the university will develop a master’s program for teachers interested in developing lesson plans around new technologies. The university also plans to house the first NCITE site on its Lincoln, Nebraska campus.

Digital Archives Center

PBS stations across the country own reams and reels of educational content dating back more than 50 years and ranging from episodes of 3-2-1 Contact to specials on Native American artwork and Egyptian tombs. Currently, those archives are disconnected and disorganized. They reside on video tape and old film reels in various locations, and they are not readily available to consumers and educators.

Bates believes this chaos represents a bountiful business opportunity for PBS. He plans to transfer all of NET’s archives to a digital format, and then catalog that programming within a Web-based database that will allow teachers to access PBS shows anywhere, anytime.

“Say you are a teacher in small-town Nebraska, and tomorrow you want to teach your students about the science of volcanoes,” Bates says. “You could simply access this PBS database online, type in a keyword, pull down the archived program you want, and stream the video right to your classroom desktop.”

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This system cannot function until bandwidth expands inside schools, but right now Bates is more concerned with funding than he is with technology.

Bates says he hopes to offer the service to educators for free, but he insists that PBS can generate revenue by forging partnerships with for-profit partners. He says those partners — companies like Amazon.com and Time Warner — will sell related products and services on top of the free educational content. PBS will collect a percentage of the profits generated by those sales. PBS will also likely charge a subscription fee to users outside the education system.

“This is just another way that PBS can partner with the private sector in a way that will help subsidize our educational mission,” Bates says. “It’s good for everyone.”

Virtual Classrooms

Imagine a high school with 15,000 students from 50 states and 135 countries. That is the target audience Bates hopes to serve next. And he just might do it.

In 1929, the University of Nebraska founded Independence Study High School, which offered correspondence courses to atypical students — actors, Olympic athletes, soldiers, and other young people who could not attend typical high-school classes. Today, Independence Study has become class.com, a fully accredited online institution that offers more than 50 high-school courses on the Web. Class.com has been working with the U.S. Department of Education to design these accredited classes, which may significantly reduce the cost of a public education in America, Bates says.

“The kids are ready, but the content is not,” Bates says. “We’re installing T-1 lines and investing in computer hardware, but politicians haven’t thought a lot about the content that will be delivered through this new technology. We have.”

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Bates has hired 40 full-time and 40 part-time software engineers and graphic designers to work on these entrepreneurial ventures. The University of Nebraska has hired Bates’s team at NET to design multimedia courses based on PBS content. The subcontracted NET team is working to help the university make approximately 1,000 courses available online at class.com.

“My group survives or dies on its own merit,” Bates says. “If we don’t have a contract, we don’t have money to pay the team. This venture is run very much like a private business. And it’s working.”

The class.com contract represents a new direction for NET, which is beginning to develop media differently than it has in the past. “Rather than thinking of a project as a radio or television production, we’re concentrating on creating quality content — regardless of the media,” Bates says. “We are tearing apart an old mass-production model to lower costs and strengthen learning. We are not only redesigning PBS; we are redesigning the American education system.”

Contact Rod Bates via email (rbates1@unl.edu).

Introduction

Part One:
Cautious to a Fault
The FCC Impetus
Enter JuniorNet

Federal Labs for Education

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