Did You Know?: Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction

October 9, 2014  

MPATI plane

Two men stand in front of a Purdue-owned airplane that was used to broadcast televised courses through the Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction, or MPATI. Purdue played a key role in the regional initiative from 1960 until 1968, when the program ended. (Photo courtesy of Purdue University Archives and Special Collections)
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From 1960 until 1968, Purdue played a key role in a regional initiative designed to broadcast top-notch educational courses to schools in an era before satellite television or public broadcasting.

Called the Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction, or MPATI, the initiative sought to use airplanes to broadcast videotaped courses to schools in a six-state area. Purdue became involved in the initiative's early stages when President Frederick Hovde offered MPATI executives use of Purdue-owned aircraft and well as the University's administrative resources, according to documents housed in the Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center.

The executives behind MPATI, which was based at Purdue and had administrative offices in New York and Chicago, had high hopes that it would serve as a model for other initiatives across the country and world. They also hoped it would help usher in an age of top-tier, cutting-edge education tailored to the changing times.

The initiative, however, was plagued with financial concerns and other issues that eventually led to its end in 1968. But before that, MPATI was an involved and high-profile effort, and Purdue was in the thick of it.

In 1960, shortly after the Federal Communications Commission approved MPATI's use of two ultra-high frequency channels, the initiative began accepting taped "auditions" from primary, secondary and college teachers around the country. Then, MPATI's TV Teacher Preliminary Screening Panel gathered at Purdue to select the 50 best tapes; of these, 24 teachers' tapes were chosen.

MPATI classroom

Seventh- and eighth-grade students watch a course televised through MPATI. The initiative used a Purdue-owned aircraft to broadcast videotaped courses from fall 1961 until 1968. (Photo courtesy of Purdue University Archives and Special Collections) 
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The chosen teachers then were asked to come to Purdue to help develop outlines for their courses, which were taped elsewhere and later broadcast from a Purdue-owned plane. Using a broadcasting technique known as Stratovision, the plane flew a figure-eight pattern that centered over Montpelier, Ind. Schools in a 150- to 200-mile radius could access the broadcasts, including schools in Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.

When MPATI began broadcasting in fall 1961, its signals were available for six hours each day, four days each week during the academic year. The taped courses covered a wide range of subjects, including social studies, science, language arts, government, math, music, French, Russian and Spanish.

Eventually, MPATI's administrators hoped, it would be able to broadcast across six channels, which would expand the number of courses that could be shown and lengthen the overall broadcasts.

However, the costs associated with MPATI were high. MPATI's initial pilot period, which lasted from 1961 to 1964, cost $7 million, according to the documents.

Of that total, $4.5 million came from the Ford Foundation, which is based in New York and focuses on advancing education as well as other aspects of human welfare. MPATI's remaining costs came from contributions from private firms.

Once the program's seed money was exhausted, funding MPATI's production and operations costs became difficult.

Originally, schools that wished to access the broadcasts were asked to pay $1 per student to supplement costs. Even when that amount increased to $2.50 per student by 1966, however, MPATI still struggled to remain financially self-sufficient. Further, although MPATI's goals involved 5,600 member schools, only about 1,770 schools ever became paying members.

Compounding MPATI's difficulties were competing educational and instructional television programs, as well as the fact that the FCC refused its request to broadcast across more channels.

In 1968, MPATI's executive board decided that, based on its membership income, it could no longer afford to produce and broadcast courses. For three years, MPATI lent its videotaped courses to member schools. Eventually, the tapes found a home in the Great Plains National Instructional Television Library, which is housed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

More information about MPATI is available in Purdue University Libraries' e-Archives or by contacting Archives and Special Collections at spcoll@purdue.edu.

Writer: Amanda Hamon Kunz, 49-61325, ahamon@purdue.edu 

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