EVA PAWLOWSKA, Heather Dinallo, and Jenny Shulman know what the United States would be like if Michael Dukakis had been elected president. Using resources stored on a single videodisc, the three seventh-graders examined Mr. Dukakis's positions on abortion, drugs, education, and the environment, then compared each with the views held by George Bush. They examined commercials by the candidates, answers to reporters, and remarks during the presidential debate, and then looked at maps and exit poll data to determine which answers were the most important to the electorate. And they did it all without leaving their classroom in Shrewsbury, Mass.
What made the project possible was a desktop, computer, a computer-controlled videodisc player, and a single plastic disc containing thousands of still photographs and dozens of short segments of ABC News television footage. Similar videodisc workstations are being introduced in the United States military and businesses around the US are using them to train workers at a fraction of the cost of warm-blooded teachers.
The system is so easy to use, Eva says, that ``a first-grader could use it.''
``We were just playing and found a lot of different things,'' adds Heather.
``You don't have to do anything but sit and press buttons,'' Jenny says.
Even so, teachers report that the systems are very good at helping students learn - perhaps because the systems force the students to think very hard about which buttons to press.
Although videodiscs, first available in the late 1970s, haven't caught on in the home entertainment market the way videocassette recorders have, the technology has created an industry all its own: interactive video-training, which combines printed text, sound, still photographs, and full-motion video to teach students or develop business skills. A single 12-inch disc can hold 50,000 individual photographs or two hours of video; under computer control, any frame on the disc can be displayed in a few seconds. On a high-quality color monitor, the images look as good as color photographs in glossy magazines.
Another videodisc at the Shrewsbury High School contains a photograph of every painting in Washington's National Gallery of Art, with short video segments in which art historians explain details such as brush stroke technique.
A third videodisc contains tens of thousands of photographs of plants, animals, and fungi, as well as a dictionary of biological terms, each one with a written explanation and a full-color photograph.
Promoters of the technology say one of its key strengths is that videodisc education is self-paced. The students agree: ``You can go back to the issue and take out every detail that you missed,'' says the button-pressing Jenny.
``It captivates the interest (of students) who are very difficult to motivate in the traditional sense,'' says Ruth Adams, a Shrewsbury teacher who has taught with the system.
``It's one thing to talk about cell division and see still-life pictures of it in a textbook, ... [and another for students] to see a cell actually dividing in a video sequence before their very eyes.'' Unlike movies, Ms. Adams says, students have control over a videodisc system. ``They can stop it at any time, they can interact with it, they can look up more information.''
While each videodisc system is different, most of them use a mouse, keyboard, or touch-sensitive screen to allow the student to navigate through the vast multimedia database. Some systems ask questions and give students extra reinforcement when they make mistakes; other systems are more like computerized encyclopedias.
Shrewsbury's public schools are one of a handful across the nation where videodisc systems are being used by students on a daily basis. Far more ``multimedia workstations'' are being used for employee training in large corporations. One of the first systems, InfoWindow, was developed five years ago by IBM to train its own employees.
``We spend $1 billion a year on internal education programs,'' says James Dezell, vice president and general manager of IBM Education Systems. ``We were looking for ways that we could deliver that knowledge more effectively at less cost.''
``One of the first courses that we developed ... was to train that young person coming out of college [to sell computers to] a specific industry,'' says Mr. Dezell. One course consisted of ``11 hours of self-study, followed by 40 hours at Duke University to orient people into the health industry. We replaced that with a nine-hour interactive course. We find a 35 percent increase in knowledge retention,'' he says.
More important, says Dezell, ``the reaction of the participants was that this was a much better, much more enjoyable, and much more effective way to receive knowledge.''
Even though a multimedia workstation can cost $10,000 or more, the money saved with the systems is ``substantial,'' says Dezell. The systems also have the advantage that the training can be given ``on demand, rather than waiting six months for a course to be given at a specific place... [Students] can also go back and do refresher work,'' whenever required, he says.
IBM isn't alone in discovering the benefits of the new technology. ``Well over 30 studies compiled to date have found that interactive technologies reduce learning time requirements by an average of 50 percent,'' says Rockley Miller, editor and publisher of the Videodisc Monitor, a trade publication.
One of the largest users of multimedia training is Federal Express, with more than 1,000 installed systems, says David Lubin, co-founder of Applied Learning in Bedford, Mass., which designed the Federal Express system.
``Everybody who is involved in dealing with the public is trained on one of these interactive systems,'' says Dr. Lubin. The computer, Lubin explains, teaches the employee what he or she needs to know, then administers a test and remembers the results. ``The training is designed to help an individual do better on that test,'' he says.
Each month, when employees are retrained, the computer automatically gives each employee the material that he or she didn't do well on before, as well as any changes in corporate policy.
For those who think that these systems sound a little too much like George Orwell's ``1984,'' Lubin says not to worry. ``It's actually better than that; it's 1989. The different between 1984 and 1989 is that 1984 people were viewing computers as a device that was there to keep track of you, keep a file on you. In 1989, our employees view this computer-based system as a device that helps them get a promotion, earn a raise, or be better prepared to meet the need of a client or the company. It's the carrot, not the stick.''
The systems are also making a big difference in the US military, says Mr. Miller. The most impressive ones that he has seen have desktop mock-ups of tank instrument panels and are used to train gunnery personnel.
``You look through an eyepiece very similar to what you would actually be looking though in a tank,'' says Miller. Inside the eyepiece is a tiny television screen connected to a videodisc player. ``You select your ammunition, aim, and fire your weapon.''
The simulation is so good, Miller says, that when students move to live ammunition, more than 93 percent score hits on their first try. Since live ammunition costs almost as much as the computer system, he says, ``they pay for themselves almost every time they are used.''
The systems also make training fun: ``This is one of the first training systems ever to be placed in the military where recruits have been known to break into a training center in order to be trained.... We often joke that if you put a quarter slot on it, you could reduce the defense budget.''
According to Miller, there is an installed base of nearly 140,000 videodisc players being used for purposes other than home entertainment. Approximately 68,000 of those systems are used for industrial training, 20,000 in education, 13,000 in military training. ``We are finding that the industrial market is growing at a 30 percent growth rate annually,'' he said.
Only a quarter of the cost of interactive training is hardware, says Miller. The rest is production of the videodisc and writing the computer program. Nevertheless, cost remains a major stumbling block for schools.
``We had to wait weeks to complete our project,'' complains 12-year-old Eva. Her school has only two videodisc systems - two more than most grade schools in the US.
Another barrier is the difficulty in compiling the multimedia database. Filming and collecting the textual explanations can be a long, arduous process, complicated by securing permission from the copyright owners of the source materials.
Even after all the information is assembled, getting everything to work together properly can be a challenge. ``It would show you a picture of a clam and the text was of an octopus,'' says Ralph Mastrorio, a Shrewsbury biology teacher, of one of the early videodisc systems.
An even newer technology that might help interactive training involves compact discs similar to those used for music. Called Digital Video Interactive, it uses a special computer-chip to squeeze hours of video onto the tiny disc and another chip to play it back. Right now DVI is still in the research laboratory, but IBM plans to make it - or a competing video compression scheme - standard equipment on its line of personal computers within a few years.