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Globe Editorial

High-tech history

THE CORPORATION for Public Broadcasting is chasing teenagers. But instead of courting them with content about sex, music, or MySpace, the corporation is investing $20 million to develop multimedia content -- from television shows to Web-based games -- about American history and civics.

Big yawn. That could be the reaction of seen-it-all teenagers.

Don't bother, was the reaction from adult critics in 2005. In an open letter that year, Garry Denny, then president of the board of the Public Television Programmers' Association, argued that this project would "yield very little for stations' prime time schedules while focusing on teens who rarely watch public television."

Still the corporation deserves credit for taking the risk and not just hoping teens will grow into watching "Nova" and "Frontline."

Launched in 2005, this project asked public television managers to develop media projects that "measurably improve" how middle and high school students learn civics and history. Public television was asked to work with educators, filmmakers, and high-tech content providers. This month, the corporation announced that seven of 88 proposals would get funding to develop prototypes.

Among these are "Virtual Congress," a Web-based game about getting bills passed; "Flashback," a reality show and online game about completing historic missions; and "American Dynasties," an online role-playing game in which students interact with historic figures.

"It's an unmet need," says Bridgid Sullivan, WGBH's vice president for children's, educational, and interactive programming. Granting that this is hard work, Sullivan says it's crucial to reach teens where they are, in the world of new media.

WGBH will provide all the projects with technical assistance. Each project will be evaluated for educational impact. And the most promising ones will be released in 2009.

Asked about the effort, Anita Walker, the new executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, says teenagers should be asked about what topics they find relevant, and the projects should see how these topics can be informed by history.

Any attempt to teach history and civics will court controversy, because the question of what to include is so politically charged. Yet public television veterans are used to tangling with such issues. The unfamiliar challenge will be to develop multimedia civics lessons that actually catch on with teens.

This effort will pay off if it only yields one good project. Public broadcasting should compete with the reckless violence of some video games -- not to chase the impossible dream of replacing them, but rather to be an engaging, mind-stretching alternative.

( Correction: An editorial in Sunday's Globe misspelled the name of a WGBH vice president, Brigid Sullivan.)

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