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Videodisk To Compete With Textbooks For a Spot on Adoption List in Texas

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By Peter West

In a move that could sharply accelerate the growth of videodisk technology in schools, a pioneer in the field has announced it will compete with educational publishers to have the state of Texas adopt one of its products as an alternative to conventional textbooks.

The Optical Data Corporation of Warren, N.J., which in 1982 produced what it calls the first videodisk for the school market, plans to submit its "Windows on Science" series to the Texas Textbook Committee as a potential teaching tool for science courses in grades 1-6.

A successful bid in Texas, the second largest textbook market in the nation after California, would "lend tremendous credibility to [videodisks] as an alternative to textbooks," said Optical Data's founder and president, William E. Clark.

Officials in Texas point out that the competition is still in its early stages--a decision is not expected before next fall--and that computer-software programs as well as textbooks are expected to compete with the Optical Data product.

The textbook panel will "probably do a split adoption, and I think that's a smart way to go," said Geoff H. Fletcher, director of the Texas Education Agency's division of educational technology.

But while school districts are unlikely to "walk away from textbooks completely," he said, state approval of the Optical Data package for use in Texas' 1,050 school districts would "create an incredible boom in the use of [videodisk] systems."

Some Texas schools already buy videodisks with scarce supplemental-materials money, but state adoption of materials using such technology would permit them to purchase approved videodisks with state textbook funds.

The Texas Board of Education has modified its selection procedure to permit the adoption of "electronic instructional-media systems" in lieu of books, as long as the electronic materials meet the same instructional criteria.

Failed in Home Market

Roughly the size of a traditional long-playing record album, videodisks resemble the plastic-coated, metallic compact disks that are rapidly supplanting phonograph records in the consumer market.

When videodisks first appeared in the American market in the late 1970's, they competed with videocassettes, a tape-based technology, in providing feature films for home viewing. But the popularity of videocassette recorders rapidly outstripped that of disk players.

Yet even as videotape became the medium of choice in the majority of homes, videodisk producers were quietly making substantial inroads in the training and education market, particularly for business and the military.

Although videodisks' inability to be used for recording limits their appeal for home use, their boosters say the medium offers certain advantages over videotape for classroom applications.

Each side of a videodisk contains 54,000 concentric rings dotted with more than 400,000 microscopic pits for storing data. The pits are capable of holding a total of 54,000 still images or an hour's worth of motion-picture footage. Twin audio tracks allow sound to be recorded in two languages--English and Spanish, for example--on the same disk.

The information "pressed," or recorded, onto the disk is scanned during playback by a laser, a method that reduces wear and tear on the playing surface. Because the information is stored digitally, in the same way that music is recorded on a compact disk, the images produced are remarkably sharp, clear, and free of distortion.

In addition, because information is stored in precise locations on the surface of the disk, users can select individual images without the lengthy scanning required when using videotape. Disk technology also allows users to freeze particular frames or images without distortion for extended study.

Backers of the technology are increasingly promoting its "multimedia" applications, such as the interactive use of videodisks and computers. Some say an especially promising approach is one that employs bar codes and electronic readers to allow textbooks to be used in tandem with disks. (See related story on this page.)

"Expansion, rapid expansion, is the best way to characterize the videodisk industry today," wrote Richard A. Pollack, president of Emerging Technology Consultants Inc., in his introduction to the company's 1990 edition of The Videodisc Compendium, a listing of more than 600 videodisks produced by 94 companies.

"It's difficult to quantify, but interest is increasing" among precollegiate educators, added Ron Nugent, director of the Nebraska Videodisk Group at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, which began developing educational disks in the late 1970's.

"[Schools] are seen as a considerable growth market by manufacturers," he said.

California's Efforts

Evidence of the growth curve can be seen in efforts under way across the country to weave the use of videodisks into K-12 curricula.

In California, as part of the "Science 2000" project, the education department proposes to make videodisks an integral part of 7th-grade science instruction.

The department, meanwhile, is involved in a videodisk project with the National Geographic Society and Lucasfilm Ltd., the production company founded by George Lucas, creator of the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" films. The cooperative effort produced GTV, a U.S.-history videodisk package that emphasizes geography's role in the nation's development. The disks contain graphics, film footage, and still images from a variety of archival sources, including the geographic society's photo files. A computer interface allows students to rearrange the images on the disk to create their own productions.

Though the product, aimed at students in grades 7-12, exhibits the slick production values associated with Mr. Lucas's films, those involved are quick to argue that its pedagogical underpinnings are sound.

"It's not a 'Star Warsian' presentation," said George A. Peterson, the geographic society's director of educational media.

In other recent developments:

  • The Ohio legislature has appropriated $1 million to fund the establishment of interactive-videodisk learning centers in each of the state's Joint Vocational School Districts.
  • Pioneer Communications of America Inc., the nation's leading producer of videodisk players, lastel10lmonth announced an agreement with three educational publishers--Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Corporation, aims Media, and American School Publisher--to produce more than 400 pieces of videodisk software for the K-12 market.
  • The Florida Institute of Technology is using $169,000 in state and university grant money to develop a science videodisk. As part of the project, 30 elementary-, middle-, and junior-high-school science teachers will gather this summer to submit between 1,000 and 2,000 images that will be imprinted on the disk.

High Costs Cited

Despite such initiatives, supporters of videodisks admit that schools generally have not invested heavily in disk technology, preferring instead to purchase videocassette recorders, a familiar technology that provides the ability to record programming.

Rockley L. Miller, president of the Interactive Video Industry Association and publisher of the Videodisc Monitor, said an estimated 20,000 videodisk players are in use nationally in education from the kindergarten level through college.

"It's not a huge market yet, but the pace of adoption is picking up," he said.

He noted that while disks have been used by schools for close to a decade, manufacturers only recently have begun producing equipment that is specifically adapted to the needs of educators and reasonably priced for the school market. Relatively simple playback machines are available in the $300-to-$400 range, while more complex, computer-interfaced machines can cost as much as $1,100.

Yet, as was the case with early computer-software packages, the costs of making full use of disk technology have limited its attractiveness as a teaching tool.

A 15-unit physical-science curriculum recently produced by an arm of the Texas Association of School Boards, for example, costs approximately $17,000. The package, which includes videodisks, computer software, and hardware, is comparable in price to comprehensive packaged reference works already on the market.

An article in the December Insider's Letter, published by the National School Boards Association's Institute for the Transfer of Technology to Education, says that while some disks for the home market may cost as little as $9, similar products for schools may cost 10 times as much.

According to the article, disk producers argue that the relatively small market and the documentation and preparation required to produce an educational product have kept costs up.

In addition, producers are concerned that because the technology to prevent duplicating the excellent videodisk images does not yet exist, unauthorized videotaping of their products by schools could drive down demand.

Powerful Adjunct

Few observers suggest that videodisks alone will generate the excitement and controversy that the microcomputer stirred in public education during the early 1980's. But many experts say that, used with computers as part of "multimedia systems," videodisks are a potentially powerful adjunct to text-based reference materials.

Coupled with the appropriate hardware and software, videodisks "have the potential to be the presentation tool of the 90's" for teachers' lessons, asserted Mr. Peterson of the National Geographic Society.

And as disks become more common in classrooms, predicted Mr. Fletcher of the Texas Education Agency, "we're going to see stations where kids are using disks themselves--as resources like encyclopedias--and that is when we're really going to see the power."

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