Learning by satellite

As the apricot hue of dusk fades to night, the inhabitants of a remote village in India wander in from their day's chores and gather in the village center. Perched on a step in front of the seated crowd is an oddly out-of-place guest - a television set.

Such a scene would have been virtually impossible a decade ago. Now, however, it is not only possible to send television signals to remote villages like the one described above, but, in some cases, it's actually happening.

These villages are geographically cut off from the modern world; for many of them, electrification is still a thing of the future. What has made the difference in creating the potential for electronic communication? Satellites - which we in the West have come to take for granted. Those orbiting relay stations are beginning to open up new possibilities for development in the third world.

There is every reason to believe that communications satellites may lead to an information revolution among developing countries. Satellites are going up all over the third world. The Arabs are putting one up. There is a planned program among the Andean countries called the Condor Project. Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia all have plans. Feasibility studies are under way in Africa.

To date, the best known and certainly one of the most ambitious efforts to use satellites for education development in rural areas is India's Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE).

According to Sandra Lauffer of the Rural Satellite Program, which is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (AID), SITE was a well-planned, one-year experiment begun in 1975. It was designed to help India develop its own satellite system. The United States repositioned its Applications Technology Satellite over the Indian Ocean. From there, it beamed educational programming into 2,400 rural villages equipped primarily with inexpensive receivers manufactured in India.

The programming concentrated on language and mathematics skills at the primary level, health, nutrition, family planning, and agriculture. India has since continued to experiment, using its own satellite. The entire Indian program, however, suffered a setback last spring when it lost contact with its sophisticated US-made satellite. India is scheduled to launch another satellite this month.

AID has been helping third-world nations use satellites to develop isolated rural areas. AID is in the third year of a five-year contract with the Rural Satellite Program. The program has been involved in setting up two-year pilot projects. These projects are aimed at using satellites already in space to spread information to rural areas in the third world. A spokesman for the program says, ''These projects may serve as models for future efforts, as educators look for ways to overcome the problems of delivering quality education to even the most isolated citizens.''

The Rural Satellite Program is now involved in three pilot projects. The target areas are Indonesia, the West Indies, and Peru. There are hopes for a project in Senegal which could get the go-ahead by the end of the year. These projects are jointly funded by AID and the target countries.

Perhaps Indonesia is one of the most dramatic examples of how satellites can be used to overcome almost insurmountable difficulties. The main obstacles were distance and water. The universities of Indonesia's eastern islands are spread out over 1,600 miles of ocean. According to Ms. Lauffer, the new Indonesian project will link 12 sites throughout the eastern islands.

The system will be linked by the Indonesian Palapa satellite. It will be equipped with teleconferencing capabilities using two audio channels. That means students at distant campuses can not only see and hear their professor, but they can also ask questions live and transmit images back to their instructor. Instructors also have the capability of using audiographic support, which enables them to use a type of ''light pen'' to actually write on the television screen.

According to Bob Schenkkan, general manager of the Rural Satellite Progam, ''It is this two-way communication part which we are convinced is one of the keys to the use of the satellite for development purposes. This has not been very practical in the past because the technology did not exist to provide a signal to the satellite from a small, inexpensive earth station. That has now changed. . .''

As satellites have become larger and more sophisticated, earth stations and reception equipment have the potential to become simpler and cheaper. Cost is a very important factor. Education has not been a top priority in the development plans of many third-world countries. Earth stations capable of teleconferencing now cost anywhere from $70,000 to $500,000, but in the next few years it is possible that the price of such stations for medium-power satellites could come down to around $20,000. That is widely affordable.

AID will be looking at the impact of the Rural Satellite Program on institutions within each of the pilot countries.

For instance, what changes might a third-world country expect in its rural regions if it decided to set up an educational system using satellites?

Carrying out such programs in the third world will depend on clear answers.

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