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Thursday, June 16, 2005 09:39 am

Fade to black

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The ISBE television facility at 100 N. First St. in Springfield in the mid-’70s
PHOTO BY BUD BARTLETT

In just a couple weeks, Mitch Hopper will turn off the spotlights and floodlights in the Illinois State Board of Education’s television studio, probably for the last time. A staff member since 1971, Hopper is the last professional from a TV operation that once sent programs all over the United States.

“We had over a thousand programs,” Gloria Ruff recalls. Ruff, the audiovisual librarian for the state board, retired from the agency in 2003. The library was the studio’s main distribution arm. Programs made there — and programs acquired from other places and duplicated to the education agency’s videotape — went to public and private schools, colleges, prisons, and public and commercial TV stations. Ruff recalls shipping a state-board TV program about 12-month schooling to New Zealand.

The library was shut down by a division of ISBE in 2002. “They just closed it,” Ruff says, recalling that there was no wind-down — the day the library closed was the day service ended. Now the studio and program-duplication facilities are being closed, too. “When June 30 comes, it will no longer actively be used as a TV studio,” says Becky Watts, ISBE director of public information.

You don’t need a degree in mass communications or electronics to draw a parallel between the decline of ISBE television and the budget woes of the state itself.

“The governor called on the agency . . . to streamline in as many places as possible,” Watts says, “so that we can direct as much of the education budget as possible directly to Illinois classrooms.”

She mentions — more than once — a pressing need for ISBE to reduce the costs of its main Springfield office by cutting leased floor space. The agency’s once-extensive printing plant is also gone, Watts notes: “We no longer have printing presses at the State Board of Education.”

Amid laments over the loss of a place where award-winning programs once were created are hints of recurring problems in blending technology into education.

For example, the library included many motion pictures for use on portable classroom projectors. Most were titles that couldn’t be converted to videotape. In some cases, the original producers wouldn’t permit the conversion; in others, there was little demand. “We had the films, too,” Ruff recalls, “but nobody took the films.”

She thinks agency management was reluctant to convert the library’s tapes to DVD recordings. Across Jefferson Street from the former library, in the ISBE television-studio facility, some video discs in recent years, copies of newly produced programs, had been made, but that’s a different matter from converting a 1,000-title library from tape to disc. Watts, who has been an ISBE executive for only a few months, doesn’t know whether the idea was discussed.

Educators have usually hoped that the newest mass medium would revolutionize teaching. They have almost always been disappointed, although the verdict is still out on educational applications of the Internet. Places for the phonograph and radio were found in classrooms, but neither made fundamental changes in teaching methods or student achievement. Until the l990s, TV programs seemed to promise major improvements in classroom presentations, homeschooling, and teacher training.

It isn’t clear whether the Internet is more compelling — or better. In District 186, Sue Ruff — director of information and technology for the Springfield School District and Gloria Ruff’s daughter-in-law — has noticed an interesting conversion. “The TV has become a display,” she says. Television picture tubes are usually larger than computer displays, so some of the district’s classroom TVs are now used for computer data, permitting more students to watch a single screen.

The Springfield public-school system, once a frequent user of ISBE television programs, now operates Insight Cable TV’s educational-access Channel 22. District 186 continues to use some other educational television, including the highly regarded language-skills series Reading Rainbow. “If you have the tape, it’s obviously clearer,” Sue Ruff says, comparing conventional TV with programming on the Internet.

Watts, who is working with Hopper to parcel out the remaining TV programming and paper files, compliments the studio’s staff: “They have done award-winning work and have been groundbreaking in the technology area.” All ¬†went to other ISBE jobs or retired.

“Some of the equipment will be used by other departments within this agency, and at this time we are finalizing an interagency agreement with the Illinois Information Service of CMS [the Department of Central Management Services], and some of the equipment may come into play in that interagency agreement,” Watts says. IIS operates a modest television studio in a building just a half-block from ISBE. Files of historic documents on Illinois public broadcasting will go to the Illinois State Archives. Programs such as In Mr. Lincoln’s Footstepsand Echoes of Abraham Lincoln, once uplinked to satellites serving U.S. public TV stations, and the award-winning Survival in Auschwitz, may go there, too. The files of stock tape footage, showing students and schools, probably can’t be transferred anywhere. The original permissions for its use in programs and public-service announcements were granted only to the ISBE.

In TV and the movies, some visual effects are transitions between scenes. There are “dissolves” and “wipes.” Another one, often used as a closing, could also describe the end of ISBE’s television production: “fade to black.”

Bud Bartlett, a local broadcast veteran and a regular contributor to Illinois Times, was employed by ISBE in the 1970s and ’80s.

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