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Indiana Districts Test Electronic-Learning Network

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A handful of Indiana school districts are cooperating with two state universities to test an electronic-learning and communications network that researchers hope will one day link the state's more than 2,100 elementary and secondary schools.

The experimental Electronic School District now links the computer networks of six local school districts through a central computer at Indiana University's Bloomington campus, allowing schools in those districts to share a variety of academic and instructional data.

The project is a cooperative effort of the state education department, Indiana and Purdue universities, and the International Business Machines Corporation, which has donated more than $2.5 million in computers and equipment for the endeavor.

Now entering its second year, the project is viewed as a way both to infuse technology into the public-school system and improve communication among educators, said Michael Halla, its technical director.

"In the future, some sort of electronic network is inevitable," Mr. Halla said. "What we're trying to do is to get out in front of that inevitability."'

As part of an effort to determine which services are most beneficial to precollegiate educators, researchers at the Purdue school of education are studying the network's effectiveness in various areas: administrative uses; an electronic peer/mentor network; an inservice training program; and a teacher-referral service.

James D. Lehman, an associate professor of educational computing at Purdue, is also studying the network's capacity to deliver instruction to remote communities in rural areas of the state.

Mr. Lehman offered a beginning computer course to teacher-education students over the network last spring during its initial operations.

Despite a higher dropout rate, he said, the performance of distance-learning students who completed the course was comparable to that of students who took the course on campus. But "people off-campus perceived that they were spending more time on the course," he said, because they received less feedback from instructors.

While they plan to modify offerings this year, researchers say they are hopeful that the network will advance beyond the "experimental stage" as word of its usefulness spreads among potential users.

One goal, according to Mr. Halla, is to persuade the state to step in with funding for an expanded version of the network at some point in the near future.

Researchers on the project have been encouraged, he said, by Gov. Evan Bayh's announcement this month that he will spend much of September developing a 10-year education plan for the state.

The Governor said he would devise a "comprehensive program for lifelong learning" that would include "technology in education" as one of its major components.

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