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Maryland Educators, I.B.M. To Test Futuristic Computer System

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Maryland education officials, with the assistance of the International Business Machines Corporation, will begin installing an experimental computer networking system in five schools next month.

The system will test an idea that state officials have been working on for the past year with the guidance of an outside developer who envisions that such networks could revolutionize the American education system.

The project stems from an agreement last July between Maryland officials and the National Information Utilities Corporation, a high-technology firm in Vienna, Va., to demonstrate the futuristic concept of an ''education utility" in one or more schools by April 1985. (See Education Week, Aug. 22, 1984.)

As envisioned, the sophisticated technology will use airwave frequencies to instantaneously link computer terminals on each student's desk with a vast store of data, video transmissions, and educational software.

The "education utility," says Jack R. Taub, board chairman of niu, will consist of a telecommunications system that broadcasts vast amounts of administrative and instructional information, inexpensively and at high speeds, to designated receivers in schools.

Classroom computers, which will be operated by teachers, can then simultaneously direct the same piece of information, or different pieces of information, to the desk of each student from the school's controlling computer, which will also store the broadcast information.

Pending Negotiations

According to Michael Sullivan, Maryland's assistant state superintendent for instructional television, niu had expected to have an agreement with ibm "by which they, niu, would supply everything."

"But niu and ibm," he said, "never entered into an agreement, which we anticipated they would. So we're working directly with ibm on the hardware portion of the project."

An agreement with niu to provide the telecommunications and software components of the utility, Mr. Sullivan said, is still under consideration. Results of those negotiations, he added, should be known by next month.

Mr. Taub said last week that he is still negotiating "a major relationship" with ibm A spokesman for the company would not confirm that, saying it is against company policy to discuss pending negotiations.

"While we're negotiating," Mr. Taub said, "you can't hold up the whole world. Because we had to get the Maryland thing up, and rather than wait for us to be done with the deal, we decided that we would both go in individually."

ibm Lends Equipment

Other than some technical adjustments, "nothing has changed as far as the concept or design" of the education utility, Mr. Sullivan said. "We're still working along those lines, and it becomes clearer every day."

ibm, Mr. Sullivan said, has designed and demonstrated a classroom configuration of computers to Maryland officials. Beginning June 18, he said, a minimum of five such configurations will be installed in schools in Baltimore City, St. Mary's County, Queen Anne's County, Washington County, and Charles County.

"That means a minimum of 155 computers," Mr. Sullivan said. "We'll probably have at least four different ibm models, including the ibm XT, the ibm AT, the ibm PC, and the ibm PCjr."

Mr. Sullivan said ibm has also agreed to assist in training teachers and evaluating the project.

"All of this is gratis from ibm," he said. "We like to think it's because they share our belief that the concept is a viable one and the way technology has to go if it's going to serve education. If the concept is successful, and they are the first ones who have the model and configuration on the market, then it will result in sales for them."

"Education today, because of a lack of resources and a lack of people and materials, can only do so much," Mr. Sullivan added. "I'm hoping that through technology we can fig-ure out a way to break through some of those boundaries and do something that's going to be really meaningful for these kids."

ibm Focuses on Schooling

ibm officials declined to comment on the particulars of the project, referring inquiries to Maryland officials. But in a recent press kit, the firm touts the Maryland project as one of three showing that the company has "increased its focus on the U.S. elementary- and secondary-school marketplace."

The company also announced the development of two dozen education-software programs for use on the ibm PC group of computers and the formation of a corporate unit that will provide computer systems, educational courseware, and services to elementary, secondary, and vocational-technical schools.

According to ibm, the new business unit will concentrate on basic skills and literacy, science and mathematics, special education, teacher training, and adult literacy.

Letters of Intent

Meanwhile, Mr. Taub of the niu, who says 15 of the top 30 educational software publishers have signed letters of intent allowing their products to be broadcast via the "education utility," still asserts that the concept will revolutionize American education.

"We intend to do all the schools in the country," Mr. Taub said. "We imagine several hundred by the end of next year and in 10 states by the end of the 1986 calendar year."

According to Mr. Taub, because the system would keep a record of usage and reimburse publishers for the amount of time an instructional program is used, publishers would be motivated to produce higher-quality materials and to continually update them.

And educators, he said, would no longer have to worry about storing and protecting fragile floppy disks; they would buy one copy of an instructional program rather than one for each student or class.

"We'll make deals with publishers and transmit their products over the air," Mr. Taub said. "Initially, because of the ibm configuration, we will not be able to track usage. We're going to negotiate a flat fee for the first five classrooms. In the next wave of classrooms, we will have the ability to track usage and charge an hourly rate."

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