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This post first appeared on aud.life

Electrical Research Products, Inc (ERPI) was a subsidiary of the Western Electric Company (which was the manufacturing division of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company -- that is, AT&T). Founded in the late 1920s, the organization believed that non-theatrical films could be a huge market, so it developed equipment along with films for other venues, particularly schools.

From Paul Saettler's The Evolution of American Educational Technology:

One of the educational committee’s first efforts was producing a demonstration educational sound film. The scheme was to use excerpts from a series of diverse shots to illustrate a talk by Harry Dexter Kitson of Teachers College, Columbia University. The result, in two reels, was entitled First Experimental Demonstration of Educational Talking Pictures. The ERPI demonstration film was first publicly exhibited on July 23, 1929, at Macy Hall, Teachers College, Columbia University, to a gathering of 200 members of the Columbia faculty.


During the early months of 1929, William Lewin of Newark, New Jersey, urged [ERPI president Colonel Frederick] Devereux to make a survey of the school market. When the plan was approved, Lewin embarked on a nation-wide tour to show the demonstration film and distribute questionnaires regarding the advantages and disadvantages of the new medium, the comparative value of the various parts of the film, and the improvements that might be made. Upon his return, he recommended to ERPI that there be a close correlation between textbooks and film production. He further suggested that ERPI purchase the motion picture rights to textbooks. However, Devereux rejected these recommendations.

The University of Chicago acquired Encyclopaedia Britannica Films as well as the catalog of ERPI films in 1943.

An investigation of ERPI found that,

ERPI”s production has been second and third rate with the exception of the University of Chicago films. Much of ERPI”s production has been salvaged from U.F.A. and other sources. ERPI has spent large sums (reputed to have been seven million dollars) for advertising and sales efforts, but few sales resulted. The total gross volume during the first ten years did not exceed $200,000. ERPI’s educational talent (except that secured through the Chicago tie-up) has consisted largely of young graduate students taken from Teachers College, Columbia University. The only thing that ERPI can point to with pride is its contract with the University of Chicago. Even there, the production cost of from $8,000 to $10,000 per reel is too high. What does an ex-American Telephone and Telegraph Company Accountant [Devereux] know about the needs of American education anyway?

Sound anything like the high production costs and low revenue of MOOCs (or prior to MOOCs, of other video-based course initiatives like Columbia's Fathom and Yale's AllLearn)?

I do love the irony, of course, that AT&T is today a partner with MOOC provider Udacity. Way to keep the faith in educational films...

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Audrey Watters


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