Stations birthing a PBS counterpart:
an online portal for education
A handful of public TV stations looking to strengthen their educational services are planning a new national nonprofit, parallel with PBS, that would establish and operate an education "portal" on their behalf.
In talks facilitated since last fall by CPB and consultants from Booz-Allen, a working group of station leaders has sketched out the proposed organization and its services. About a dozen stations in the working group are preparing to make formal commitments this month to finance start-up of the new entity, tentatively dubbed the Online Education Service (OES). The CPB Board last fall invested $1 million to bring the concept this far, and is now looking to stations to invest in and launch OES.
Members of the working group presented plans for OES to other station executives last weekend at the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA) Conference in Savannah, Ga., hoping to recruit more financial and content contributors. During a Jan. 10 meeting in Savannah, the working group formed committees that will consider how to create a nonprofit, recruit its management team and brand its service.
While OES is clearly a work in progress, the general concept is to bring together the various education services offered by public TV stations in a single "portal" delivered over the Internet and other digital connections. According to a presentation at NETA, the group would offer two distinct services:
- Classroom and Professional Development Resources, including K-12 and college-level materials, and training for educators. Libraries of streaming video and audio segments would be indexed, and lesson plans would be accessible on demand.
- Learning Communities, including post-secondary certificate and degree programs, workforce training for adults, resources for faculty, and online communities. These services would expand on stations' relationships with community organizations.
Local stations would feature content that matches local needs, while giving access to a broader range. The local "face" of the service would be co-branded with the local affiliate and shaped to suit the community.
Representatives from PBS and the Annenberg/CPB Project have sat in on talks, and may take part in the service, according to participants.
Through this "learning portal," Nebraska ETV could point local educators or students to content from PBS, KCPT in Kansas City, or Maryland PTV, explained Rod Bates, Nebraska's general manager. The portal would establish the Nebraska network as "the place to turn to for formal education in my community. It makes me indispensable, and strengthens my service." Bates, a member of the working group, plans to invest in OES.
The flexibility of the new online service will allow WNET to provide "a wealth of content" that it couldn't before "because we didn't have the space on our broadcast schedule," said Ann Mauze, deputy director of the New York station's educational resources center. WNET also plans to back OES.
All parties to the discussions also see the service as a means to distribute their own educational content more widely.
OES "gives stations a niche in the education market," said Ted Krichels, g.m. of WPSX, licensed to Pennsylvania State University. WPSX and Penn State's World Campus, which offers online coursework, have both participated in talks, and may jointly sign on as OES founders on behalf of Penn State.
The initial business plan projects that OES would need to raise $50-75 million over the first five or six years, during which it could become self-sustaining. The business plan was drafted by Nebraska ETV, WGBH in Boston and Maryland PTV.
During the Jan. 10 meeting, the working group agreed to ask stations to commit $50,000 each to help launch the company, according to Bates. Investing stations would have seats on an interim board of directors, until the organization's governance is formally established.
Stations don't have to commit money from their own budgets to OES; they can also raise funds from state education departments or university licensees, which Bates intends to do. "We want people who want to do this so bad that they're willing to raise the money," he said. Stations could opt to participate as content or distribution partners.
Beyond the station and ITV communities, other potential funding sources for the nonprofit OES are CPB's Future Fund, foundations and corporations. Eventually, OES is to support itself by charging fees to schools, universities and students.
"From a station perspective, this is not a big money-making opportunity in the near future," said Mauze. OES will go through a "real growth period in building assets and markets before it can turn into something like that. But it's imperative that we get going on it."
"There's some urgency to getting this done because for-profits and nonprofits are trying to dominate the online education field, and we feel it's our birthright," said Bates. "We need to take advantage of the assets we've developed over the years to create a learning portal."
Among the forces jumping into online education, the U.S. Army recently awarded a $600 million contract to Price Waterhouse to establish bachelor's degree programs online, and the Navy is planning a similar service, according to Doug Weiss, CPB's v.p. of strategic planning. New York City Schools are setting up a citywide intranet for education. Phoenix University, the for-profit offering online degree programs for adults, raised $70 million in its initial public stock offering. William J. Bennett, the former Secretary of Education, is chairing an online venture called "K12" that will begin offering services next fall, backed by financier Michael Milken's Knowledge Universe Learning Group.
This emerging market in online education brings risks as well as opportunities. In 1999, PBS sold its Business Channel, a distance-learning service that delivered corporate staff training via videoconferences and other channels. The Williams Companies, PBS's partner in the venture, invested $20 million in the channel, but backed out after two years [1999 article].
Virginia Fox, executive director of Kentucky ETV and a PBS Board member during the Business Channel venture, is also a member of the OES working group. Plans for the OES do seek to avoid the mistakes of the Business Channel, which had less working capital and a shorter timeframe to begin operating in the black, she said.
As a nonprofit, OES could seek funding from a broader range of sources and would be under less pressure from investors, according to the presentation at NETA. Its nonprofit status would be consistent with public TV's mission and licensing and more attractive to educators, and it would allow for more flexible pricing.
Twenty-one organizations have signed on as founding members of public television's newest start-up, the Online Education Service. By agreeing to invest $50,000 apiece in OES, founding members will participate in early decisions about the organization's governance.
As envisioned in a planning process facilitated by CPB, OES will connect educational services of public TV stationsand other institutions, creating a "learning portal" that's accessible over the Internet and other digital connections. As a nonprofit, OES will need to raise $50-75 million to keep going during its first six years of operation before it breaks even, according to initial plans.
Among higher ed institutions, the 26-campus California State University System and Pennsylvania State University aretaking high-profile roles in shaping OES. State-wide university licensees, such as North Carolina's UNC-TV, New Hampshire PTV, Nebraska ETV and Wisconsin PTV, are also among the founding members.
Several public TV networks and ed-tech groups are participating, including PBS, the Pennsylvania Public Television Network, the National Educational Telecommunications Association, the Satellite Educational Resources Consortium and the Agency for Instructional Technology.
In January participants in the CPB talks began working through committees to move forward on start-up plans, according to two key participants. OES has retained Korn/Ferry International to recruit executives to lead the company. Razorfish Inc., the design firm that developed PBS's latest branding campaign, is devising a name and brand identity for the service. OES also has applied for a grant from CPB's Future Fund.
Web page posted Feb. 7, 2001, revised Oct. 7, 2002
Copyright 2002 by Current Publishing Committee