Last April, Eskimo children from St. Lawrence Island, Alaska - just 50 miles across the Bering Sea from the Siberian coast - and other isolated arctic villages used some of the most sophisticated satellite communications in the world to talk directly to a NASA astronaut.
After viewing a 30-minute film on the US space program, students from 15 Alaska high schools linked together by a state-financed teleconference network questioned astronaut Vance Brand about his job while he sat at a desk in Washington.
That event is one of the highlights of the first year of operation for the Learn Alaska Instructional Telecommunications network. Considered a pioneer in educational circles, the network was created at a cost of about $15 million from riches that befell Alaska after discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay.
The Alaska Legislature, pressed by court cases demanding equal educational opportunity for students in a land area one-fifth the size of the US, financed the project to deliver educational programs to rural areas. Students in some of Alaska's tiniest villages now have access to college-level courses. They take them over the teleconfer-ence network at a designated site in their village.
Don Cecil, a community college teacher in the southeastern Alaska town of Sitka, taught an English course by audio conference to students in the small panhandle communities of Petersburg, Wrangell, Angoon, and Kake.
''There was some resistance to the new technology at first, but students soon realized they could learn over the phone just as easily as sitting in the classroom,'' Mr. Cecil says.
Learn Alaska is composed of a 24-hour-a-day instructional TV network, a teleconference network that can link teachers with students hundreds of miles away, and an advanced computer network that equips students in rural schools with the latest in a variety of courses.
State of Alaska employees who run the network try to use the three components to complement each other. For example, the session with astronaut Brand combined use of the film and broadcast over the TV network with the teleconference system.
Though Learn Alaska's budget this year is about $2.5 million, advocates of the new system say it can save educational dollars in a huge area like Alaska. Delivery of educational services and courses over the 550,000 square miles of territory with the help of a satellite saves transportation costs and time, they say.
The cost of the teleconference with the astronaut, for example, was about $ 650, according to Learn Alaska operations manager Charles Hickman. ''We figured that it would have cost $16,000 if we had brought all the students together and Vance Brand up here.''
The teleconference network was heavily used last year. Mr. Hickman boasts that Learn Alaska handles ''more conferences per month than anywhere else in the whole world.''