Education Over the Air: Still Free After 50 Years

As a result of the quarantine, Maryland Public Television has returned to daytime programming not too different from programs they broadcast 50 years ago. When MPT was being organized in 1969, the Maryland State Department of Education was also developing a Division of Instructional Television (ITV) that would produce programs for use in public and private schools. This was cutting-edge at the time; classroom television would help relieve the teacher shortage, enrich the curriculum, and engage students in new and creative ways. 

MPT is broadcasting an At-Home Learning program schedule from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Find connected digital resources and hands-on activities in support of educators, students, and families to provide continuity of learning.

This decades-old approach to education has taken on new relevance during the pandemic, and MPT has returned to a daytime schedule of educational programming specifically for at-home students from preschool to high school. This “At-Home Learning” initiative – a collaboration with WETA and WHUT (Howard University Television) in Washington – is available weekdays to viewers free over the air, through cable and satellite providers and, in the case of MPT, on a live stream

Of these sources, perhaps the most valuable, is “free over the air.” Consider a home where there’s only one computer in the house and parents need it to work from home. Consider a home with limited broadband where too many devices can’t be online at the same time, Or, consider the home where there’s no internet access at all. Here’s where plain, old-fashioned broadcasting is still useful. With slickly-produced PBS programs geared towards specific age groups, MPT can provide in-home instruction that eases the burden of home-schooling on both parents and children.

Adding to the timeliness of “At-Home Learning” is SCUA’s recent digitization of 400 MPT productions from the program archive, and there are now 734 total videos available in Digital Collections. Many of these illustrate the long history of classroom instruction via television in Maryland and still make interesting viewing today. 

There’s a social studies series with the ambiguous name, “Maryland…,” for example. The host is seen driving a 1972 Plymouth Satellite station wagon through the state, stopping to visit distinctly different regions of the state, offering middle school students insight into Maryland’s geography, history, and economy. One episode on folk traditions in the state,  filmed at the Carroll County Farm Museum, features a local folksinger and storyteller, a segment on the tradition of “jubilee singers,” and another on Baltimore’s “arabbers,” street peddlers who sold produce from horse-drawn carts. 

Production staff for “The Numbers Game,” with the miniature set behind them and the full-size board game on the left.

For younger children, there’s “Numbers Game” (from 1970) in which the host is superimposed onto a miniature set with a full-size game board in front of her. Explaining basic mathematical concepts is the idea. Or check out “Book, Look and Listen” (from 1975) an award-winning program that introduces children 4-6 to a variety of books through three cartoon-like characters: “Hector Projector,” “Ethel Earphone,” and “J. Worthington Book.” (Both of these are wonderfully weird.)

“Basically Baseball,” from the same period, was filmed at the Baltimore Orioles’ training camp in Miami and features instruction from well-remembered players like Boog Powell, Merv Rettenmund, Paul Blair, and Mark Belanger. Our archive has two episodes available online. 

Screen capture from “Counterplot,” in which actor Nat Benchley played Nick Malone, Private Detective.

Counterplot” (from 1985) used the mystery genre to teach arithmetic to elementary school students. The leading character – Nick Malone, Private Detective – presented viewers with basic math problems that had to be solved in order to crack the case.

For high school students, there’s “State Spectrum” (1985) about the structure and operation of Maryland’s government, for example, or an episode of “Common Issues in World Regions” (1991), with a special segment on living and working on Smith Island in Maryland. And still relevant today is “T.J.’s Rights” (from 1990) about a teenager who goes to his school library to check out “To Kill a Mockingbird,” only to be told that the book has been pulled from the shelf because parents have complained about its contents.

Back in the day, classroom teachers were offered companion guides to help make the most of programs like these. Similarly, with the current “At-Home Learning” programs, there are online resources available – designed for parents, caregivers, teachers, and children, as well. This daytime programming service will continue throughout the summer and until students can safely return to their classrooms. The digital programs available for streaming in Digital Collections will continue to grow in number and serve as valuable resources, not only for teaching and learning, but for documenting MPT’s unique contributions to educational television.

* * *

MPT’s “At-Home Learning” schedule consists of ten daytime hours of educational programs, beginning at 7 a.m. on MPT and ending at 5 p.m. The weekly slate of programs is structured for three age groups, specifically:

• Early Learners (Pre-K through 3rd grade), from 7-10 a.m., includes favorites from PBS Kids including “Wild Kratts,” “Molly of Denali,” and “Let’s Go Luna:”

• Middle Grades (4th through 8th grades), from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., offers programs such as Nature and Nova, among others;

• High School (9th through 12 grade), from 2-5 p.m., features more programs from the vast PBS library of primetime documentaries.

Jim Baxter completed a master’s degree in journalism before coming to work for Special Collections in Mass Media and Culture and is a researcher in early television.

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