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Why Can’t We Use TV to School Our Kids During the Pandemic?

TV is nearly universal, internet access is not. Let's teach kids with TV.

The issue we face, which now appears before every parent in the most strident personal, philosophical, and political tones, is do we return our children to physical classrooms in the face of a global pandemic not seen in 100 years? The answer, so far, is maybe. Some school districts are moving ahead with reopening their campuses to all students. Some are completely closed at the K through 12 levels and will rely on internet-based homeschooling, with teachers providing content on screens that not every child may have available. Other schools are attempting more of a hybrid approach, which will include some classroom time and some online time.

The teachers and their unions have strong feelings about returning to classrooms and being exposed to the coronavirus. Parents have their own concerns about their children missing out on the socialization that school provides in a face-to-face environment. Kids miss their friends. Teenagers want to enjoy flirting with or dating other teenagers, which is certainly much easier to do on campus instead of on the screen. Is any high school senior excited about the concept of a "virtual prom"?

Parents certainly have concerns about the quality of education their children receive. Even highly structured online learning modules are not completely perfect. The human interactions between teacher and student, and student and student, is essential for learning and socialization. Kids get enough screen time already. Is six hours of Zoom class time going to be that much fun after the third week?

Parents with jobs and schedules that coincide with their kids' Zoom learning days will have to juggle their childcare solutions. Can parents leave their 14-year-old at home alone all day, with the hopes that he or she can navigate meals, snacks, schoolwork, homework, and some chill time? Probably so, but certainly not for a 5-year-old student.

Teachers have voiced their concerns on social media that certain “helicopter parents“ will be hovering over their child’s shoulder during online learning sessions, to see what the teacher is teaching and how, or if, historical, political, or alternative lifestyle-oriented material is being presented to their child. Teachers feel uncomfortable with this oversight and say it diminishes their already-challenging work efforts. It doesn’t sound like much fun to be criticized by parents live on the spot online, or through an angry email to them and their principal, or over the telephone, at the end of the teaching day.

It’s common to hear journalists talk about the fact that the entire country is not completely wired and that some students have no access to the internet. Some of this has nothing to do with the cost of internet but more about its availability. In some rural locations in the US, the Internet is nonexistent, spotty, or expensive. In urban locations, the internet may be available to parents and their children, but the cost could be prohibitive for some who struggle to pay their bills. Paying for food, rent, and medicines may be necessities that eliminate the internet in some American homes. And not just the internet can be expensive—tablets, laptops, and PCs can also be beyond the means of some parents. Some school districts can give or loan these devices to their students, but not all of them can.

So how about a different alternative to online learning? Can we use one of the most common household items, found in nearly every home in the United States as a teaching tool? A recent study shows that 96% of US homes have a television. Nearly every family in America can afford at least some sort of a basic cable package or a “cut the cord” setup for available free or as low-cost programs that they can watch. Some TVs even have the modern-day equivalent of wire “rabbit ears” antennas that can tune in various network program providers, as were found on TVs back in the '60s and '70s. Parents can get these on Amazon for as little as $10. Isn’t it time that we ask the hundreds of TV networks that exist today to help create K-12 programming, lessons, tests, scoring, and feedback?

Around the planet, even kids with limited TV exposure or access will recognize shows like Dora the Explorer or certainly, the globally-famous muppet characters on Sesame Street, a show that has been doing educational content for kids via television since 1969. Can’t the hundreds of cable and satellite networks step up to create likewise programming?

What about using templates like the Khan Academy, a hugely successful online program filled with some of the brightest teaching minds on the planet? It’s certainly great on the internet as it is, but could it reach even more school kids if it was shown as a series of pre-recorded and archived television programs? Taking a class on TV could be accessed via the TV remote (which every kid already knows how to work) or via that station’s app, installed on the student’s phone, tablet, laptop, or PC if they have home internet access.

The concept of “public television,” now known as the collection of PBS stations, started in 1970. Imagine a series of public education TV stations that cover the widest range of possible curricula for K-12 students, all coming from a box that most people have at least one of in their homes already.

Dr. Steve Albrecht is a webinar trainer, HR consultant, security practitioner, and career coach.

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