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ABC Television and adult education

Henrietta Clark
Head, Children's and Education (TV) Department
Australian Broadcasting Corporation

ABC Television has provided schools' programs for thirty years. It has no clear mandate and has developed no policy for the provision of adult education programs. Various approaches are described and the question is posed - where should the ABC's priorities lie?

The ABC is a publicly funded corporation receiving approximately $450 million a year from the Federal Government. By landline or satellite it can be received by all Australians. It has one television channel and four radio networks (in capital cities).

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation Bill 1983 describes a function of the ABC's charter as "broadcasting programs and television programs of an educational nature" 6.(1)(a)(ii). Nowhere does the Charter define "educational" but in 1987 the ABC Board incorporated into its policy the provision of a "national comprehensive daytime schools' television service."

No such policy exists for the provision of adult education on television, though from time to time programs have been broadcast ranging from the "University of the Air" programs in the 1960s to today's Learning Network provision and daily parent education programs.

The development of a clear viable policy is complicated by the broadness of adult education and the variety of uses to which broadcasting can be put.

One starting point is with the particular characteristics of the ABC. The ABC reaches almost all Australians and its programs are free to the end user. For education this means equal access and opportunity for all.

The ABC is a national broadcaster. It transcends State and territory boundaries and is outside their discrete education systems. The weakness is that the education communities stand apart from the ABC. The strength is that ABC broadcasts are a unique means of creating a national focus, a national dynamic.

The ABC is independent. Its policy is determined by the Board, and the ABC takes full editorial responsibility for everything it transmits. For education this means that its broadcasts are not the voice of any specific educational community, and that it cannot offer its transmission to other organisations.

The ABC has one channel. For education this means that it cannot afford to put to air, in a timeslot where there are many potential viewers, a program which might be anathema to most.

Finally the ABC is paid for by the taxpayer. The taxpayer must get reasonable value for money, ie. reasonable audiences in overall numbers or percentage of a defined target. If it does not it is possible that the government of the day would not allocate funds to the ABC.

In developing a policy for adult education, one cannot ignore the experience of over thirty years of schools' television.

Schools' television

The first schools' programs were live broadcasts of lessons. They were delivered by teachers and served the State education departments' curricula. ABC producers were recruited from the teaching ranks and trained in broadcast techniques. State advisory committees, comprising representatives of public, independent and Catholic schools' systems, and parent and teacher representatives set the agenda.

Today schools' broadcasts are often indistinguishable from general programming. They exploit the full range of techniques available to television - documentary, drama, animation, puppetry, computer graphics. The actors and presenters are professional. The producers are first and foremost broadcasters. Schools programs today are not seen as substitutes for the teacher, but as resources for the teacher to incorporate in his or her teaching program. Advice and assistance is still actively sought from each State authority, and the ABC works in close partnership with them, but as transmission is national, in the absence of a national education authority, it is the ABC that sets the agenda.

In designing television programs for schools and establishing production priorities, capitalising on the strengths of the medium comes first.

Television can motivate, change attitudes, and whet the appetite. Maths and science programs are therefore designed to arouse curiosity, to raise questions, to model enquiry processes, to be fun, rather than to demonstrate answers. Language programs are embedded in their culture using carefully selected graded language patterns, but leaving the basic instruction to the teacher or to other media such as audio-cassettes or work books. The best history programs are those that use authentic documentary footage of the event. English programs dramatise plays and novels, stimulating reluctant readers to turn to the original. Television can ease the difficulties found by teachers of personal development by providing a focus outside the pupils' own experience, allowing them to deal with intrusive subjects such as child abuse, sexuality or anti-social behaviour.

Television reaches many people at the same time. It can therefore be an effective leader serving curriculum change. When Commonwealth priorities are set, television programs can bring the approach into every school. For example, in response to the Asian studies initiative, the ABC currently has in production a series to introduce Standard Chinese, and a fortnightly magazine program focusing on Asian current affairs and culture.

In developing an adult education television policy, the ABC has a useful history on which to draw - the consultation process with schools' authorities, the realisation of the value of a range of production styles, the understanding of television's unique strengths as a motivator and stimulus, and the experience of providing support materials and teacher education. It also has the example of radio.

Education radio

In 1985 ABC education radio faced a crisis. A national survey demonstrated that secondary schools were hardly using schools' radio at all. The primary audience was still respectable, particularly for music and story programs (an area in which the medium excels) - but clearly the secondary schools' audience was insufficient to warrant the cost of the service. The Board was therefore asked to ratify a change of policy which diverted resources from secondary schools into adult education. Despite enormous difficulties in setting priorities, in defining 'education' programs (as opposed to educative programs such as the Science Show) and a desperate struggle for consistent timeslots, adult education on radio has survived. Radio has the advantage of being relatively cheap and flexible, compared with television. Consequently, the department was freer to experiment and to move quickly on to other approaches if one came to a dead end. After three years of work and rigorous self-examination, the following list of programs exemplifies its current approach:

OffspringDaily national program for parents, caregivers and professionals in related fields. 11.30 am ABC Regional Stations.
Australian AccentCurrently exploring writers and places in Australia that are important to them.
A Good SleepFour programs on problems associated with sleep.
Take TimeWeekly series for older Australians.
RelationshipsWeekly series on understanding ourselves and our dealings with others. Currently in a 12 part series called Happy Families, a look at relationships throughout the 20th Century in Australia.
WorkingFour programs on changes in the workplace, problems associated with returning to work, and redundancy, early retirement, etc.
Practical PoliticsA series on how to organise and run your own pressure group. Radio National.
HomespunWeekly program on ways of making our everyday lives easier. From making mud bricks to stained glass.
Education NowTen programs for parents, teachers and others with an interest in educational issues.

Television had no such clear brief to move out of schools' broadcasts. Audience figures for secondary programs - though naturally smaller than for primary school programs - were considered reasonable and teachers supported the service. Adult education is therefore an add on rather than something that fills a vacuum.

Adult education - in search of a policy

Most attempts at a policy (and there have been several) begin with a European Broadcasting Union definition hammered out over countless meetings and promulgated in 1983:
"...These are programs which aim to give adults progressive comprehension of a body of knowledge or help them acquire skills in a defined field or equip them better for participation in community life. This should contribute to the development of individuals and increase their understanding of a changing society. Attaining this aim is normally best achieved:
  1. when during or after programs listeners and viewers are encouraged to adopt participating attitudes towards program subject matters, b) when the programs are integrated with other learning opportunities (booklets, enquiry service, written documents, correspondence courses, study or discussion groups, and other organised local opportunities)


  2. when programs are organised systematically (for example in series).

The programs should normally be devised in consultation with appropriately qualified advisers..."

The wording ("is normally best achieved ... should normally be devised") portrays the difficulty the EBU authors were under in establishing a definition.

A different approach to the problem is to examine a program and hope to arrive at a definition.

Is the series Ten Great Writers, shown on the Peter Ross Sunday Afternoon program, adult education? The answer may be "no" in Australia but "yes" in Great Britain. Channel 4, in association with London Weekend Television International, the National Extension College and the University of London, has created a telecourse intended for viewers to study the writers "systematically under their own steam" with the National Extension College preparing a study guide and booklets on each of the writers.

The UK system avoids the confinement of definitions and encompasses every shade of adult education. There are the 'accredited' courses offered by the Open University and the new Open College; the programs from the BBC's Continuing Education Department which range from language courses to a knockabout prime-time healthy-eating program; and ITV's "back-up" approach where Community Education Officers maximise educational opportunities from the general program output as well as initiating community education programs themselves.

Another angle in the search for a policy is to look at the potential audience. In Australia today it could comprise

As well as these general audiences there are those within universities and colleges where television can be used as part of the formal education process as it is in schools. It can broaden and stimulate as well as demonstrate experiments and techniques, express the abstract with skilful graphic representation, bring the very best teachers to all students.

Clearly the ABC cannot satisfy all needs, as well as continuing to service the schools. The parameters for the debate are:

  1. The ABC is most unlikely to release airtime for specific adult education programming between 3 pm and 11 pm, or between 7 am and 10 am.

  2. Any development of adult education will either be at the expense of the schools' service, or must recover its costs (unless the schools' systems could be persuaded to pay either directly or indirectly for what they have previously had free).

Models for adult education - formal

Disregarding these limitations temporarily, several approaches can be considered, none of them mutually exclusive.

For formal adult education, the ABC schools' service might provide a model. Accepting the diversity and independence of the tertiary systems, advisory groups could represent their interests to the ABC which would set its own priorities and produce programs and supporting course material with advice from the appropriate institutions. A formal Liaison Office network would be set up to ensure proper advice was received, to publicise the programs, to encourage effective use, and to provide the ABC with feedback.

Alternatively, Australia could belatedly create an Open University. Although the broadcasting component would come under the control of the ABC, the University would be an autonomous body with its own funding and paying for transmission and production costs.

The British Open College is another model, receiving free airtime from Channel 4, but paying all its own production costs and using local colleges to facilitate and 'sell' its courses.

The existing Learning Network could be further developed.

The Learning Network acts as broker for distance educators by arranging transmission, or develops its own telecourses.

It pays the ABC its out of pocket expenses for transmission. The ABC exercises minimum editorial control and ensures programs comply with the guidelines. At the moment the midnight to dawn timeslot is only used at the weekends. The ABC might look kindly at an organisation willing to pay full transmission costs for its use.

On an even more entrepreneurial tack, the ABC might, with its Marketing Division, set up its own telecourse business. It could make and sell telecourses for a wide range of students, perhaps using the broadcast medium as a showcase to entice students to buy a full package of video, audio-cassette, work- books, software etc.

Non-formal adult education

Alternatively, the ABC might turn its attention to non-formal education on the grounds that whereas 'closed' groups of enrolled students have other means of accessing video material, the broadcast medium is best-suited to reaching people who the normal systems will never touch - as well as attracting the uncommitted, the people who don't yet know what they want and possibly bringing them in to the education fold. Given that non-formal adult education encompasses many audiences, different strategies could be developed.

One strategy, along the lines of the ITV Community Education Officers, is to outpost educationalists in general program units with a view either to influencing the content of programs, or to extending their educational reach. Hard dramas, soft soaps, programs such as Quantum, The Body Show, Four Corners, Geoffrey Robertson's Hypotheticals are all educative programs. Already the ABC (with the assistance of government authorities) has distributed free educational packages derived from Hypothetical programs. The advantage of this strategy is that it is comparatively cheap and it capitalises on peoples' normal viewing. The British include phone-ins on local radio, community meetings and other activities - Body Show aerobics in every suburb?

In addition, many current schools' programs attract an adult audience, which could be developed by suitable marketing and support. Foreign language programs, history programs, ESL programs, programs such as the recent PowerHouse series which explored the Australian identity through its crafts and forms of expression could be related to adult education courses.

The other side of the same coin is for the educationalists to produce programs which will attract a prime-time audience. This is a challenge and a risk. To succeed, programs usually need a higher budget than normal, and have to take their chance against all offerings. However, when the strategy succeeds (as the Children's Television Workshop did with Sesame Street) it is possibly the most productive of all.

The more likely scenario is that a few clearly designated 'adult education' programs will be made - possibly funded by the ABC, but more likely by outside sources; that they will go to air in the daytime (or possibly between midnight and dawn); but that the ABC will never be in a position to provide a comprehensive adult educational television service.

If only a few programs can be made, given that audience needs for all forms of adult education are insatiable, a basis for setting priorities is crucial. This is where returning to the essential characteristics of the broadcast medium is useful.

ABC broadcasts reach almost all Australians. They reach people who, for example, are isolated by lack of educational opportunity, by distance, by involvement with young children, by age and infirmity, or by their knowledge of English. Apart from the cost of the set and electricity, broadcasts are free to the user. This gives unrestricted access to people who are out of work, to pensioners, to the poor. Top priorities might therefore be to provide basic education to those who have missed out, to provide health education and consumer education, to provide information on citizens' rights, to provide education for a meaningful life for adults at key developmental stages, and Lo provide education for employment. Given limited budgets, the legitimate needs of other audiences may need to be served by non-broadcast means. Video material for upgrading technical and management skills and material for universities and colleges, could be efficiently produced for a specific target audience and distributed by close circuit, by satellite or by tape distribution.

The current debate on the ABC hinges on whether it can and should be a comprehensive service or whether it has spread itself too thin and should select areas in which it can excel. As it could never provide a comprehensive adult education service, where should its priorities lie?

Author: Henrietta Clark is the Head of the ABC's Children's and Education (TV) Department, which is responsible for the ABC national schools' television service. She has worked as a broadcaster for children - both in and out of school - for twenty years. During the past year she has presided over a jury for the Japan Prize for Educational Broadcasting, attended the European Broadcasting Union Workshop for Educational Programs hosted by the BBC and will be a juror for the forthcoming Asian Broadcasting Union Conference.

Please cite as: Clark, H. (1988). ABC Television and adult education. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Designing for Learning in Industry and Education, 13-19. Proceedings of EdTech'88. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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