The Way We Were ... Education on the Fly: Forty Years Ago, the Flying Classroom Delivered Educational Programming to Schools in the Midwest

By Gibson, Dave | Technos: Quarterly for Education and Technology, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

The Way We Were ... Education on the Fly: Forty Years Ago, the Flying Classroom Delivered Educational Programming to Schools in the Midwest


Gibson, Dave, Technos: Quarterly for Education and Technology


One of the pioneering efforts of providing distance learning via television may be traced back to the early 1960s to a truly unique and comprehensive program, which I participated in as an elementary school student. The Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction (MPATI) was a nonprofit corporation founded and headquartered at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. The Ford Foundation and Westinghouse Corporation were the major funding sources, with the goal of providing exemplary instruction to large numbers of students via broadcast television. This was almost 10 years before the establishment of the Public Broadcasting Service.

Education Takes Wing

MPATI instructional television programs were produced and recorded on videotape at several educational television facilities located in the Midwest and elsewhere. These recording sites included WCET in Cincinnati, WTTW in Chicago, and at New York University. To maximize the audience of students, the program utilized television transmission equipment that was housed in a four-engine, DC-6 aircraft. This propeller-driven DC-6 became known as The Flying Classroom, although it resembled a TV station more than a classroom. Starting in September 1961, the MPATI videotaped programs were broadcast over UHF (ultrahigh frequency) channels 72 and 76 every school day during school hours. Flying in a figure-eight pattern at 23,000 feet, the MPATI plane was able to broadcast instructional television programming to schools in six Midwestern states (Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Kentucky, and Wisconsin). The 24-foot TV broadcast antenna was lowered from the belly of the plane once it reached the orbit point. During its time of operation, MPATI was the only organization in the world that utilized an aircraft on a consistent basis to broadcast television programming. Also, MPATI served the largest geographic region in the world (127,000 square miles) with one television transmitting facility.

MPATI airborne television offered several advantages to school classrooms in the Midwest, where instructional resources at the time consisted mainly of chalkboards, textbooks, filmstrips, and 16mm films. Hundreds of thousands of students could be reached simultaneously through this one television transmission facility. Master teachers, selected via a national search and evaluation process, could reach the most geographically isolated schools as well as those located in urban areas. High need, specialized courses were offered to expand the curriculum offerings of schools. Foreign languages were offered to elementary school students, and out-of-the-ordinary languages such as Russian were part of the secondary school MPATI curriculum. Advanced math and science courses were also provided as well as courses in language arts, social studies, and the arts. So MPATI was a groundbreaking effort in equalizing education via distance education technology.

MPATI was also viewed as one vehicle to bring America's educational program up to the level of the Soviet Union's, whose math and science curriculum was credited (by some) for the USSR's early successes in the space race. One could make the argument that Russia's launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 was a main force in helping America to launch the MPATI DC-6 in 1961.

Overcoming Hurdles

MPATI had many hurdles to overcome in order to provide its instructional resources to schools. First, there were the issues related to the electronic technology of the era. Operating a television transmitter and videotape players for six hours each school day in the back of a propeller-driven DC-6 was, in itself, a major challenge. Forty years ago, videotape technology was still in its infancy and more problem prone than it is today. The electronic equipment on the airplane was all vacuum-tube based and was subject to regular burn outs. The transmitter operated on the high end of the UHF channel band, so just finding the MPATI channels on a school's TV set was a challenge. …

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