THE program producers at Massachusetts Corporation for Educational Telecommunications (MCET) nearly panicked recently when Seymour Simckes, the host of their ``Writing Workshop,'' still hadn't reappeared and air time was four minutes away.
It was the first show of a new season, and Mr. Simckes had forgotten to bring in a couple of props that always adorn his on-air desk - most notably an antique inkwell that belonged to his grandfather, also a writer. So he dashed to his car and sailed off toward his apartment in Brookline a few miles away, taking along a reporter who was visiting the MCET studios that morning.
As he negotiated the labyrinthine streets of Cambridge, Simckes talked about the experience of teaching writing to as many as 150 kids at once through interactive television - one-way video (the students see him) and two-way audio (they can talk with him and with each other). The students are 9th through 12th graders, with a smattering of middle schoolers.
Most are in TV-equipped classrooms in Massachusetts, but quite a few are as far away as Nebraska or Montana. Simckes, a writer of novels and plays, says he quickly tunes into the youngsters' voices and gets to know them, though he never sees them. ``Often I can hear them coming from a nervous giggle,'' he says. ``It's a very endearing experience.''
And a demanding one for teacher and students. The kids have to produce on the spot, with a number of two- to four-minute slots during the 50-minute shows devoted to composing short pieces of fiction. When time's up, Simckes invites someone to read his or her work, then throws the show open to critiques, either by himself or other students. Everyone has to follow his first rule of criticism: Talk about the strengths first.
Just before each show ends, Simckes gives a mail-in assignment for the week ahead and can expect to plow through hundreds of essays before the next on-air class meeting. But he enjoys the work and says his goal is ``not just to make a writer, but a listener and a communicator - a fuller person with more empathy, who has learned how to relate on the shot.''
On that recent morning, Simckes made it back just in time to continue his work. After a quick makeup job and a moment to catch his breath, he welcomed his students and got them rolling with a two-minute ``warm-up'' piece of writing.
In addition to Simckes's weekly writing workshop, MCET covers dance, painting, foreign languages, math, physics, geology, botany, and other subjects. It also has special one-shot programs with performing artists.
``It's a way of bringing in programming that has often been cut from schools - arts, dance, performers,'' says Beverly Simon, MCET's director of communications and membership.
While many other states have ``distance learning'' services that use satellite links or fiber optics, MCET stands out for its commitment to producing a wide range of material that can augment standard school curricula.
The agency is quasi-public, established by the Massachusetts Legislature in 1982. It has the ability both to receive state funding and make use of outside resources, executive director John Flores explains. In recent years, MCET has won a number of grants from the federal government and from private foundations, which have allowed special programming in the sciences and in teacher training.
An example is ``The Private Universe Project.'' This show, currently running, is intended to give teachers a better understanding of how school- children respond to science instruction. The National Science Foundation, the Annenberg/CPB Math and Science Project, and the Smithsonian Institution are jointly funding it.
About 85 percent of the public schools in Massachusetts use MCET. School districts become members for an initial payment of $3,000, Mr. Flores says. Two-thirds of that goes to installation of needed equipment, such as satellite dishes, phone systems, and VCRs. The remaining $1,000 buys the rights to all programming. Continuing membership is $1,000 a year. Out-of-state schools can also subscribe. Virginia provides MCET programming to all its schools, for example, as does Los Angeles County in California.
In addition to its interactive-TV offerings, MCET runs the Massachusetts Educational On-line LearnNet. It keeps educators up-to-date on MCET programming through computer links and provides a medium for them to evaluate the programming and keep in touch with each other. It is also a ``gateway'' to the Internet, with its vast communications and research options. This fall, through MCET's collaboration with the state's education department, the LearnNet will reach every school district in the state.