Flying Classrooms in the Midwest: The MPATI’s Experiment in Regional Educational Television

Curator's Note

The Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction (MPATI) in some ways seems like an odd footnote in the history of American television. Like many educational broadcasters of the 1950s and 1960s, the founders of the MPATI imagined in television an extraordinary educational tool that could remedy a perceived crisis in education, in which there were far too few qualified teachers in classrooms and far too many pupils enrolled for educational systems to handle coupled with a profound fear of the superiority of the Soviet educational system (accelerated after the launch of Sputnik). The goal of the MPATI was to bring high quality instructional programming to thousands of students in an economical and efficient way. To do so, it would need airplanes. Utilizing Stratovision, a broadcast distribution system developed by Westinghouse in the 1940s, the MPATI equipped two DC-6 airplanes with transmission equipment that broadcasted over two UHF channels. The planes flew over Montpelier, Indiana, and the telecasts reached schools within a 200 mile radius of the planes. Schools in six states—Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin—could be reached by the signals and formed the core of the MPATI’s audience. Continually burdened by financial difficulties, the MPATI broadcasted from 1961-1968, after which it ceased its telecasts and became a tape library for instructional programming.

The MPATI officially dissolved in 1971. What distinguished the MPATI from other experiments in educational television, aside from the use of the airplanes, was its regional—rather than local or state-based—scope. In planning the curricula, the MPATI sought the counsel of school superintendents from all six states and devised at least one program, Your State Today, which addressed the particularities of the region in which it was broadcasting. The regional nature of the MPATI was crucial to its mission and to the way it promoted itself to schools, potential donors, and other broadcasters. It was also a factor in why many educational broadcasting groups disapproved of the MPATI, believing that educational broadcasting—like school curricula--should be the purview of individual states. In addition, national circulation of its own programming was a consistent priority for the MPATI, as was the poaching of effective instructional materials from schools and states outside of the Midwest region. So what defined the MPATI as regional television was its distribution, not its programming; the reach of the planes was regional, while the shows circulated to educational stations across the country. But the reach of the planes was really important.

The images in the slideshow here are taken from MPATI promotional materials, which emphasize not only the benefits of instructional television to students but also the technical capabilities of the airplanes and the geographic area these “flying classrooms” could broadcast to. Stratovision liberated the MPATI from the comparatively limited reach of the ground-based television station, not only expanding the size of the audience but also reimagining the relationship between broadcaster and community. Indeed, the MPATI was not a regional network, but a regional broadcaster. If it had flourished, the MPATI was to become a prototype for similar regional educational broadcasting systems that would supplement—and possibly displace--local ETV stations. In the process, they would substitute regional communities for local ones as the primary audience of educational broadcasting. I’ll admit that what first attracted me to the MPATI was that it struck me as a quirky moment in the history of educational television, a history—much like that of regional or local television— that largely gets ignored, or is quickly dismissed as the less interesting and less financially tenable precursor to public broadcasting. I have become increasingly interested in the ways that the MPATI experiment encourages us to rethink the taken-for-grantedness of the local television station/ national network dyad, and the central role of television distribution technologies—both adopted and failed—in shaping the parameters of how we understand the spaces of television and the communities which it is to address.


Thanks, Allison, for this evocative and insightful introduction to MPATI. As I've mentioned to you previously, Stratovision is an object I have been researching for several years, though mostly in its evolution at Westinghouse in the 1940s. The MPATI efforts actually put the technology to use. I completely agree that there is something almost beguiling about this object, despite or even because of its evident obsolescence. The imagery in particular seems at once antiquated and futuristic, which speaks to the historic moment in which this evolved. The Stratovision tech was developed at an awkward juncture of the known and the unforeseen: nationalism was paramount as an ideology - at a peak due to the war effort, and soon to be escalated into the Cold War master binary. But "live" national address was only possible for radio at the time; it would be years before this would be available for television, and then at a spare rate for still more years. So as you suggest, distribution was always the key to this tech, which was intended to deploy a series of planes in constant rotation above the continental U.S., affording television coverage and signal relay at local, regional, and national levels. It oddly pre-figures something like satellite technology years before the space race even existed. So your placement of MPATI in the context of Sputnik anxieties can also underscore what we might call the technological ironies of this device. Another unforeseen irony in what you have included in this terrific slide show is the motif of the word "airborne" within the MPATI promotional materials, which I can't help but associate with Pynchon's notion of an impending but ambiguous airborne toxic event (in White Noise). The most compelling image in the presentation appears to depict a signal being uploaded from Purdue, and then disseminated across the region. Is it me, or does it looks so much more threatening than benevolent? I would enjoy knowing more about the actual educational benefits from the years of service that MPATI provided. But the PR materials fairly literalize the Althusserian notion of an Ideological State Apparatus?

Hate to be a contrarian here, and I certainly would need to know more info on the program and its intentions, but instead of invoking Althusser here, could this simply be a more benignly intentioned version of distance learning--using technology to provide chemistry and physics teachers to rural areas that can't afford such teachers in their high schools?

Thank you for the wonderful comments, Mark! It's true that the word "airborne" is often very prominent in the MPATI's promotional materials and the hovering planes play a central role in the visual imagery it deployed. Though perhaps intended to seem powerful, they do look somewhat menacing and almost Big Brother-ish. The MPATI folks, like many educational broadcasters of the time, had a fairly utopian view of the potentials of television to transform education. They saw in television a technological fix to what amounted to a social problem: not only the lack of qualified teachers to meet the needs of an expanding student population, but also the lackluster resources of many school systems--especially in rural areas--to educate their students adequately. One of the selling points of the MPATI was in its ability to serve rural schools (the little boy in the slide show is Rodney Johnson, an 8-year old student in a school in rural Indiana), communities that were under-served both in terms of their schools and their access to educational television (via ground-based ETV stations). Though references to Sputnik and the Soviets came up a lot, underscoring both the excitement and the fears of technology at this time, they were a fairly strategic way to secure resources for educational broadcasting. The National Defense Education Act (1958), which was passed directly in response to Sputnik, amongst many other provisions allocated federal monies for the development of educational technologies. Afterwards, educational broadcasters repeatedly drew on the anxieties that Sputnik embodied to legitimate and argue for resources to develop educational television. Testimony in favor of the Educational Television Facilities Act (introduced in 1959, finally passed in 1962), is filled with references to the cold war to express the urgency and the stakes involved in facilitating the development of educational television. Aside from the use of Stratovision, MPATI prided itself on "high quality" instructional programming (this phrase comes up repeatedly). What was meant by this was programming that was effective pedagogically, that used television to bring experiences to students that the classroom teacher could not, and that looked good. So the "quality" of its materials was celebrated in contrast to that of other educational broadcasters, which the MPATI delicately, yet implicitly, suggested often wasn't up to par. The MPATI routinely surveyed schools to figure out how teachers and students responded to their programming. In its early years, the most frequent complaints they received involved reception. By and large, elementary school students and teachers responded much better to the programming than secondary schools and colleges. Science and language arts classes were especially effective; foreign language classes got mixed reviews. From what I've gathered, the MPATI's problems rarely stemmed from the utility of its programming to schools who had decided to use it. Rather, the organization continually over-estimated how many member schools it would have each year and nearly-always operated at a deficit. The founders had assumed that the MPATI would expand to 6 UHF channels, and when the FCC denied their petition (but encouraged the MPATI to apply for licenses in the newly-created Instructional Television Fixed Service part of the spectrum), the organization's hope for expanding its membership with the promise of 6 simultaneous channels was dashed.

Jeff, that is very much how the MPATI understood what it was doing. Its goal was to improve the quality of education and to provide instruction in subject areas to students who otherwise would never be exposed to them. I haven't been able to track down any videos of the MPATI's programming and only have read dribs and drabs as to what it looked like and how it addressed its subject matters (I do know that puppets were used frequently).

I was thrilled when I heard that Allison was working on this topic, as it has fascinated me for years. I've wondered also what connection (if any? if "only" philosophically?) the MPATI project had with the concurrent extension education project launched by the major land-grant educational institutions of the Midwest (though extension ed. predates the MPATI, the project itself seems defined by the same principles). The MPATI seemed somehow convergent with the Big 10 campuses, in particular, in terms of an ethic of agrarian community outreach. I think Allison's work is so important, too, in excavating an overlooked site of Educational TV which was really invested in a "rural uplift" rhetoric indebted to New Deal logics, prior to the definition of public television's mission as expressly indebted to Great Society programs focused more on urban America into the 1970s. MPATI was active during a period of much think-tank strategizing regarding how to stop the hemorrhaging of "young America" from rural communities, particularly in the Midwest.

From the materials I've looked at, I haven't come across any mention of MPATI participation in extension education, though land-grant schools were very actively involved with the MPATI (its home base was Purdue, where the planes were housed, and faculty at schools like Michigan State and Ohio State acted as advisors both to the MPAI and to participating member schools). But certainly the program seems in the same spirit, and the MPATI actively worked to convince ETV stations to rebroadcast its materials to expand exposure to its educational materials. Vicky's point about the distinction between educational television's and public television's respective missions is great and the MPATI experiment certainly bears it out. This quotation from the "This is Airborne" publication speaks well to it: “Ever since the cornerstone was laid in 1916, Wildcat’s 12 grades have turned out their fair share of successful students. More than a few have stayed in Tipton County and the money they have earned in growing corn, soybeans, hogs and cattle has helped to support the school." “The school is certainly no less competent than it was 45 years ago. But the parents today want more for their children. And the world wants more from them… in science, foreign languages, mathematics, and appreciation of art and music." “Wildcat Township School, hampered like most rural schools by a teacher shortage, cannot teach the wide range of subjects it would like. Yet these subjects can be taught by Wildcat’s teachers with assistance from the nation’s best on the television screen. In this way, Rodney and his classmates are not shortchanged in their education.”

Hi Allison, Sorry to be a little late to the contributing party here. This is a really fascinating tidbit in broadcasting history; I'd never heard of this until you mentioned it. I've got a few questions about MPATI and its reception: 1) Was this part of the preparation for a possible nuclear attack -- to develop an air-based and mobile broadcasting system that could function if the terrestrial and/or satellite broadcasting relays were destroyed? I get that it was intended to provide higher quality education to communities that may not have had any, but were there other motivations behind it -- either as envisioned by MPATI itself or as part of the National Defense Education Act? (Let's face it: stranger programs than plane-based educational broadcasting were developed and implemented during the Cold War!) 2) Was MPATI a public, private for-profit, private non-profit, or hybrid institution? It seems like it was a private non-profit outfit ... but I'm not certain given the description. Where did its funding come from? And how did that shape its ability to broadcast to and be received by its target communities? Did MPATI provide televisions to the classrooms in question? 3) This seems in some ways to prefigure Channel One -- albeit without the commercial impetus/intrusion (depending on your point of view) -- and the kind of online distance learning increasingly offered by colleges and universities, both ones with a physical campus and those with entirely virtual campuses (e.g. University of Phoenix). While I can't imagine that there are direct, easily traceable connections, are there *any* links between MPATI and successor classroom video technology or services? 4) You note that the MPATI broadcast from 1961-68; was there any concern about the content of the broadcasts in terms of civil rights issues & tensions? Southern states tried to use the "states' rights" claim to rebuff what they saw as intrusion by the federal government; might there have been some concern or skepticism in the rural communities receiving the broadcasts (as opposed to the educational broadcasting groups, which you already mentioned questioned the value of this kind of programming) that this was an attempt to subvert their authority in designing and implementing curricula? 5) Lastly, was MPATI ever intended to broadcast directly to homes, rather than to schools? From what I recall of projects like "University of the Air," the major advantage they had was being able to reach communities (especially farmers and other rural residents) through the airwaves directly, rather than through an intermediary such as a school or other institution. If so, was any broadcasting ever developed for direct domestic consumption; if not, why didn't MPATI consider that as a possibility (or why did MPATI dismiss it)? Again, this seems like a really fantastic artifact to study, and it's clearly linked to the utopian hopes and possibilities for television (and any broadcast medium). Thanks so much for sharing what you know about this!!

Some of the comments about MPATI are quite good an some are otherwise.

As a Purdue student, I worked a night shift at MPATI for about three years. We made copy tapes from the master tapes. Only the copies were allowed on the plane. We had five large B&W-TV recording machines in the basement of the Memorial Building at Purdue. Each was air-conditioned to keep the vacuum tubes cool. We used two inch wide recording tapes. I often commented to my co-workers that the entire operation could be reduced to a disk, a laser beam and a Piper Cub.

Only once did I fly in one of the two DC6 airplaines. To gain the high altitude the DC6 would fly towards Indianapolis and then to Montpelier and then fly a figure eight pattern for a few hours each school day, weather permitting. It had a 200 mile radius TV signal. There was a time the plane was ordered to fly a lower altitude by the FAA. Some DC6 lost cabin pressure and all DC6 planes were ordered to the lower altitude until the problem was solved. We may have lost several schools during this time. Each participating school paid a dollar per student per year. Also, there was a repeater tower at Detroit. Yes, anyone at home or school could receive the MPATI signal on a UHF-TV. I think, if my recall is correct, the channels were 72 and 76.

I think the word "Airborne" was used because it was simple and easy to understand. Why make it complicated with "Stratovision". I see no relationship between MPATI and the Cold War other than to improve the education system.

We had a good selection of tapes for the time. Only a few had puppets. I don't recall any tape that was slanted in a Civil Rights way.

In my opinion, these are the reasons the planes came down.

Our tapes were getting old (the oxide was wearing off) and outdated. Color TV was here and we were still B&W.

Local Educational TV towers were begining to pop up. They were on several hours a day and every day.

Sony had a new, small, reel-to-reel, one inch wide, slant-track, heavy, but portable tape recorder. It was more convenient for the teacher. It was a forerunner of the VCR. We used one of these at MPATI when we became a tape center and mailed one inch tapes to some schools. (A play only laser disk system was produced, but the VCR became the more popular system.)

Time was the killer. During the summer of 1968, Indiana was on Central Standard Daylight Saving Time. We stayed on CSDST all winter. We lost the Ohio and Michigan schools. The planes came down and we became a tape center. The planes could not be sold as TV planes. They were gutted and sold as cargo planes.

I hope this information is helpful for someone.

Wayne Newhart

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