Should public media make Education its mission?

UPDATE: I added some comments about what “education” means to me at the bottom of the post.

O'Reilly RadarAn interesting new article was posted last week that caught my eye (thanks to @kevintraver):

A More Public Role for Public Broadcasting: Education
by Dale Dougherty / O’Reilly Radar

The gist of the article seems to be that public media — though Dougherty focuses almost solely on public TV — should use it’s ample broadcasting bandwidth to focus on educational content, from traditional kids programming up through lifelong learning and civics topics. Using TV is considered better than using the web for accessibility reasons (which broadly makes sense given the cost of broadband in this country).

While I like the idea in broad strokes, I think Dougherty is missing a lot of insider knowledge of the industry as it exists today and how it’s funded. So I submitted a comment to the site that goes like this:

This is a nice idea that will never happen. At least not without a huge change in direction for public media and government (i.e. voters).

Whether or not education / lifelong learning was in the 1967 PBA is now irrelevant. Public media institutions have drifted far from education over the years and aren’t coming back. Why? Because education doesn’t make enough money to be self-sustaining. Which is why taxes pay for schools and students pay for college.

With all due respect to Mr. Lippincott and other former colleagues in public TV, let’s get real. PBS’s best work is done in children’s programming and it’s marginally educational. The only way it’s strongly educational is with deep parental involvement (rare) or direct classroom tie-ins in schools (limited for political and time management reasons).

To make the Education mission a reality in public media, taxpayers would have to agree to foot the bill of perhaps $1-2 billion annually. That would be cheap for what we could get, but not likely. Further, it’s becoming very clear that education via online video and other means is exploding and to do this work via TV is anachronistic if not downright wasteful.

The short-run plan for PBS: keep doing what it’s doing until it collapses financially (by 2015, I’m betting). Once that happens, the children’s programming will remain in a reformatted PBS, the news content will go to a reformatted NPR, and WGBH will gobble up the rest and become a national superstation.

If, on the other hand, you consider quality news a form of education (which, in truth, it is), then you’re talking about NPR for the most part, and they’re the shining hope for public media.

I’m big on having a bold mission, articulating it and making meaningful community impacts. But my take is that well-done news that intelligently informs the electorate in times of turmoil (say, the next 25 years) is more supportable and more meaningful than trying to take on the education monster, in which everyone has opinions of what should be done but no one is really in charge and everyone is underfunded.

UPDATE 14 Oct 2009 2:30am EDT

After a Twitter exchange with @MarkRyanWFWA (follow him!) I realized that I may be defining “education” more narrowly than others would like.

For me, education is a fairly systematized approach to providing information and then following up to ensure the information was understood and can be practically applied. So when I say public media should not adopt education as its primary mission, I mean it. I just mean it in my own way.

Of course, “public media” can even be debated as to its meaning. In it’s largest sense it means creating / curating / sharing media in service of a public good. That’s great, but I do think for practical reasons we have to sharpen our missions much more than that. To me, that means news and information aimed at already-educated (to some degree) people to allow them to live their lives more successfully and make decisions as citizens that have positive impacts.

Education is definitely a public good. I just don’t think public broadcasting, as it moves to public media, should focus exclusively on that mission.