TV Tech Plugs in Where Schools Leave Off

Teleclasses, interactive videodiscs, and news programs help fill resource gap

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

`HALLO, Michael ... kannst du mir bitte deine Notizen leihen?'' ``Ja, Gern!''

So began a normal day's German class at Banning High School here recently with one important difference: The teacher was in Oklahoma City, and student Brian Rice sat with six classmates next to a flickering television monitor in this small, desert community school. Outside, framed against the desert sky, a mammoth black radar dish was aimed at the sky.

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Rice and his classmates practice their German with the aid of this live satellite hookup. A telephone on the desk allows them to call the instructor and ask questions. For the sake of dialogue practice, the sounds of another class - this one in Fairfield, Mo. - are piped live into the studio.

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``No, no, Fairfield, you are pushing the `a' sound into your nasal cavity,'' says professor Harry Wohlert. ``It should always remain in the chest. Let's try it again.''

The Oklahoma State University Arts and Sciences Teleconferencing Service (ASTS) began to offer ``German by Satellite'' in 1985 in response to requests from local districts seeking help in meeting new state, foreign-language requirements. Seeing his curriculum with chronic holes in math, language, and the sciences, principal John Porter applied for a county district grant. The $6,000 he received nearly paid the $7,200 bill for a satellite dish, control panel, and wiring to two rooms.

Teleclasses

Nationwide, many others have followed in a rush to teleclasses. Strapped by limited funding and short staffs, many districts have found it impossible to meet curriculum requirements mandated by states.

At least 33 states currently promote ``distance learning,'' real-time instruction that uses electronic links to enable teachers and students to interact with each other. In 1987, the number was only 10. Last year the Kentucky Education Network began math classes to 65 remote high schools. Virginia took aim at having stations at all its 289 high schools. In Texas, a private network known as TI-IN has gone even further, sending instruction to more than 750 school districts in 29 states.

This year 12,000 to 15,000 students in 40 states will learn such previously unavailable courses as Japanese, Russian, trigonometry, and calculus through satellite education. The idea is to let technology - primarily TV - transport information, not people.

``[Distance learning] represents the great harnessing of television technology as the great equalizer,'' says Frank Withrow, designer and administrator for the federal Star Schools program, which is distributing about $20 million in grants to four projects designed to expand educational opportunities. ``The idea is to bring equal access and choice to students regardless of where they live.''

Fueling the push to distance learning are sponsors that include federal and state governments, universities, public-television stations, and commercial networks.

Training teachers for such a setup can be a problem, a number of critics of satellite education point out. ``The biggest shock is the camera lens,'' agrees Lloyd Otterman, TI-IN's executive director, ``and the absence of students.''

Bruce O. Barker, an associate professor of education at Brigham Young University, says that many producers turn out good products, but he cautions against calling distance education a ``panacea.'' Besides the lost nuances of eye contact - which lets the teacher know if his messages are being accepted and understood - the possibility of 2,000 students calling in by phone can either cause logjams or be an effective deterrent to asking questions.

Interactive videodiscs

Not far from Banning, at the Condit Elementary School in Claremont, another part of television's techno-revolution is taking hold. While her fourth graders kneel around a TV monitor, teacher Loretta Wilson punches keys on a Macintosh II personal computer. Paintings by Renoir, Monet, and Pissarro appear on the screen. Discussion ensues and students are back to their desks working on art assignments.

What makes today's lesson remarkable is that the pictures were derived from a bank of 50,000 stored on a 12-inch videodisc. By typing the word ``garden,'' Ms. Wilson instructs her computer to find every painting in the collection under that classification. With her CAVI (computer assisted videodisc instruction) interface, she has control of the speed and direction of presentation.

``I would've had to go through a library's worth of books to create this lesson,'' says Wilson. ``But even then, holding up the books wouldn't have been nearly as exciting to the kids.''

Sometimes called ``records that play television,'' videodiscs first went public in 1978 and players are now available from such electronic giants as Sony, Hitachi, and Philips for from $250 to $1,500. Not only does the average disc cost about half the price of pre-recorded videotape (about $30) and one-tenth the price of 16-mm film, it also lasts indefinitely because nothing touches the playing surface except light.

Total video, film, and lesson libraries can be stored at a fraction of the cost of other media: A lesson with 10,000 photo slides, 96 film clips 15-seconds long, 45 minutes of spoken explanations, and 15 minutes of music fit on one side of one videodisc.

Add these advantages to the access, storage, and programming capabilities of computers - all developed with the capacity to move at the learning speed of the using teacher or student - and you have television's second classroom revolution - depending on who you ask.

``Videodisc systems have become commonplace in schools and have demonstrated that their interactive capacity can be a powerful motivating tool,'' says Hugh McKeegan, a professor of education at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. Problems with CAVI include the cost of computer interfaces ($3,000 and more), lack of standardized equipment, and - so far - relatively low commitments by disc producers.

Linda Roberts, project director for the Department of Commerce's Office of Technology Assessment, is more enthusiastic, listing such uses as archival encyclopedias, desktop publishing, testing, student projects, and even teaching programming. ``You can't understand the future of education in the US unless you grasp the many functions of videodiscs,'' she says.

``The promise of videodisc has been there for years - and we're still waiting for them to take off,'' says Phoebe Webb, project director for the Los Angeles County Office of Education. Although the added attraction of computer interfacing multiplies the possible uses of videodiscs, she says, lack of funding in most school districts leads them toward available technology such as VCRs.

``If videodiscs take off in the home first, then you will see more widespread use in the classroom,'' says Ms. Webb.

News programs

The advent last year of two similar shows, aimed at the same student audience nationwide, has sparked a heated debate about both the use of current-events telecasts in the classroom and the commercial interests behind them.

``Channel One,'' a daily, 12-minute news program for teenagers, raised hackles when it was test-marketed last year chock-full of jeans and soft-drink ads.

Restricted or banned in some states - New York, California, and North Carolina, among them - the show, offered by Whittle Communications in Knoxville, Tenn., was formally launched March 5 in some 14,000 classrooms in 400 schools. The first program included news from the Soviet Union and East Germany along with commercials for M&M candy, Chee-tos chips, and Gillette razors. The 2,900 schools that have signed up in 34 states will each receive $50,000 worth of equipment, including a TV for every classroom, two VCRs, and a satellite dish for the school.

Turner Broadcasting's current-events show for schools was launched last August. ``CNN Newsroom'' is a 15-minute offering with no commericals, culled from the same global, 24-hour news gathering resources that support the nine-year-old Cable News Network. Offered free to schools - with 7,000 now signed up - the multimillion dollar cost of ``CNN Newsroom'' is to be absorbed elsewhere in Ted Turner's cable empire.

``Channel One'' has fast-paced visuals and disco-beat music. CNN is somewhat slower paced. Both score high among users for quality content that fills a gap. Whittle gives the schools much-needed equipment that can be harnessed in other ways; CNN gives free programming.

On one side of the issue are administrators such as Stan Jasinkas, principal of a Kansas City, Mo., middle school, who says, ``Denying students access to technology to help them learn more is a greater ethical risk than controlled exposure to ads.''

On the other, administrators such as Bill Honig, superintendent of California's public schools see dangers ``We're afraid that commercialism is going to corrupt the whole educational process,'' he says.

Balancing both sides are such academics as Garth Jowett, a professor of communications at the University of Houston. ``The benefits of both these offerings far outweigh the dangers,'' he says. ``American mass media have never done a great deal to improve the educational system of this country, and this seems to be a harnessing to good purpose.''

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