Lakeshore Public Media Partnering with Indiana Public Broadcasters to Roll Out Datacasting to Aid At-Home Learning

Lakeshore Public Media is one of several  Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations to receive $6.7 million in grants to use  datacasting to provide educational materials to students who lack broadband connections for at-home learning.

“Datacasting has the potential to impact thousands of region K-12 students,” said Lakeshore Public Media President and CEO James A. Muhammad. “We are looking forward to taking this first step to help school districts share lessons and educational material with students, especially those challenged to find reliable and affordable internet service.”

Datacasting uses over-the-air TV signals to deliver educational content that can be used on computers without having to access the internet.   IPBS began a datacasting pilot last month with WTIU in Bloomington, using its television signal to support remote-learning programs of Jennings County School Corporation in southeastern Indiana.

Teachers use datacasting to send files such as lesson plans, homework and grades to students who use special equipment to download the materials onto computers, tablets or smartphones. Through a $1.38M grant awarded in the pilot program, about one-third of the Jennings County’s 4,000 students are now using datacasting for at-home learning.

An additional $5.36M was awarded from the Indiana Department of Education through the CARES Act to expand this initiative to other school districts across the state through the remaining seven IPBS member television stations.

The second DOE award will enable the remaining seven member TV stations to offer datacasting to an additional 7,000 students in their respective viewing areas by the end of January, providing 1000 wireless receivers and 1000 window antennas for those who participate in the initial test.

With the state funding, each station will be outfitted with the necessary datacasting equipment to install into its primary broadcast signal.  A small portion of each television station’s broadcast signal will be used to also send data including images, video, and school curriculum to student’s homes through their Wi-Fi enabled laptops, smart phones and tablets.

To access the service, students would need a computer, antenna, and receiver. Data is viewed via an Internet browser that simulates the online experience. The datacasting signal enters the home over the air and goes to the student’s computer, bypassing the need for traditional Wi-Fi internet service.

IPBS will provide a home receiver and antennas, which costs about $225, to each participating student, according to Mark Newman, IPBS executive director.   Most schools in Indiana have already provided Chromebooks or laptops to their students, Newman said.

Once all of the stations have finished initial testing of the receivers, IPBS aims to expand service to students in school districts across the state, creating a platform to connect students to learning content who have limited or no internet access.

To provide educational datacasting services to the more than 84,000 K–12 students who can’t access the internet, IPBS must raise funds from other sources, Newman said. IPBS plans to focus on fundraising at the conclusion of the pilot phase.

“Datacasting is more reliable and cheaper than installing hotspots to deliver an Internet signal.   The annual maintenance cost of datacasting for IPBS stations combined is about $205,000 and will enable data transfer from schools within their signal range,” Newman said.  “In comparison, one small district could spend at least $20,000 each month for hotspot service with a fee that increases with the number of users.”

Operating out of its Merrillville studios, Lakeshore Public Media is the Northwest Indiana member of IPBS, serving Indiana’s second largest urban area through their Lakeshore PBS and Lakeshore Public Radio service.

IPBS stations currently send broadcast signals into about 95 percent of the state to deliver public television programs.  Other IPBS TV stations are located in Bloomington, Evansville, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, Muncie, South Bend and Vincennes.

“The ability to make datacasting effective will depend on several key factors such as availability of educational content, technology, and funding,” said Newman.  “Many of the items will need to be self-created by teachers, but could also be created by other parties or from PBS Learning Media.”

“Fifty years ago this year, PBS began as educational television,” Muhammad said. “This new technology is allowing us to come full circle and provide even more educational opportunities for our communities.”

Lakeshore PBS broadcasts its main channel over the air on 56, on Comcast on 17 or 21 (HD Channel 239), on Dish Network HD Channel 6320, AT&T U-verse HD Channel 1056 and DirecTV on 56 and online at lakeshorepbs.org.  Lakeshore Public Radio can be heard on 89.1 FM and streaming online at lakeshorepublicradio.org.