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Schools Turning to Teleconferences To Reach Broader Audiences

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LOS ANGELES--The activity is brisk in the small studio here as several technicians gear up for a live television broadcast and the on-air ''personalities" review their scripts.

At precisely 7:30 P.M., the show's opening music begins and a computer-generated graphic--a spinning cube containing the letters "E.T.N."--fills television screens across California.

While the show's production value is comparable to that of any program produced at any television station in the city, the content decidedly is not.

For the next 90 minutes, a panel of principals, teachers, and parents explains to parents at dozens of "receive sites" the changes they can expect in California classrooms as schools move to implement a new language-arts curriculum.

As the "teleconference" progresses, viewers call in on a toll-free telephone line to clarify what they have heard or, in some cases, to challenge what they have been told.

The program represents a leading-edge application of teleconferencing--a relatively new, and increasingly popular, method of delivering in-service programming and public-service information to a mass audience.

An offshoot of the national growth in satellite-based distance-learning, teleconferences provide state education departments, school districts, and even local school boards a convenient, and relatively inexpensive, way to reach a range of audiences, including teachers, parents, and community residents.

At the same time, advocates point out, teleconferences provide the community, through "interactive" telephone links, an entree into the educational system.

Experts predict that the schools' growing use of distance-learning programs will spur a parallel increase in the use of teleconferencing as a "critical mass" of receiving equipment owned by schools accumulates.

"It may be that distance-learning will sweeten the breeding ground for teleconferencing," said Patricia Heffernan-Cabrera, executive producer of the Educational Television Network, the satellite network owned and operated by the Los Angeles County office of education.

Similar in many ways to the interactive "telecourses" distributed under the rubric of distance-learning programming, teleconferences tend, in contrast, to feature highly focused broadcasts aimed at a specific audience at a particular time.

Teleconferences may be broadcast over a variety of media, including modem-equipped microcomputers, but experts say satellite-delivered programming is the most common means precollegiate educators use to reach mass audiences.

Such organizations as ETN in Los Angeles, the Missouri School Boards Association, the Public Broadcasting Service, and Oklahoma State University each year collectively stage several thousand hours of material of interest to precollegiate educators.

"Satellite Learning," a programming guide published quarterly, lists dozens of teleconferences produced by various sources and directed at the precollegiate market.

In one recent guide, for example, the selections ranged from programs produced by Brown University's Child Behavior and Development Center to a three-part teleconference titled "Students at Risk: Prevention and Intervention," an MSBA production hosted by Bob Keeshan, better known as Captain Kangaroo.

ETN's rapid growth provides an insight into the booming popularity of teleconferencing for education.

The network was founded in 1987 with an equipment grant of $150,000 to meet the district's staff-development needs. County officials said the network was founded as one way to avoid the logistical problems of bringing people together in the far-flung metropolitan district.

Today, ETN produces some 200 hours of teleconferences that it beams to any county willing to pay its subscriber fees.

In addition to staff-development and parent-education programs, ETN also produces training materials for several public-service agencies, including the city's sheriff's department. ETN earns approximately $300,000 of its annual $600,000 budget by providing services to outside agencies, officials said.

Educators say teleconferencing is a particularly attractive method of providing staff development and training to administrators, teachers, and others.

In a teleconference scheduled this week, for example, newly elected school-board members in two states will participate in an interactiveast designed to make them aware of how to carry out their new duties.

The "Celebrate by Satellite" program is a joint project of the Arizona and Missouri school-boards associations, Oklahoma State University, and several school districts and postsecondary institutions.

The 90-minute program will include taped segments, produced by O.S.U., that demonstrate the value of distance-learning as a method of instruction, said Jack Peterson, the director of membership services for the Arizona School Boards Association.

In addition, Mr. Peterson said, the program will include "live" question-and-answer sessions with local and national legislators, educators, and representatives of the National School Boards Association.

Donations of production time and studio space by a local television station, he said, mean the program will reach host sites at a fraction of the cost of traditional distribution methods.

And because the signal will not be encoded--meaning that it can be captured by any satellite dish--the program will be available to a far larger audience.

Advocates also point out that teleences can be used as a powerful public-relations tool.

For the second year in a row, the Satellite Educational Resources Consortium--a non-profit partnership of the public-television stations and the chief state school officers of 22 states--recently encouraged its more than 600 member schools to open their doors as host sites for an electronic "parents night."

A spokesman for the consortium said that at least 180 schools indicated that they planned to participate in the program, which was designed to allow the parents to experience firsthand SERC's distance-learning curriculum.

The hourlong teleconference, which was opened by S.E.R.C.'s executive director in a live broadcast from Wisconsin, also presented "mini-lessons" in such subjects as world geography from a school in Alabama and probability and statistics from a school in Kentucky.

"It was chance for [parents] to do what their kids do during school," said Susan Watters, a spokesman for the consortium.

During a question-and-answer period, Ms. Watters said, at least 30 parents at the remote sites had a chance to pose queries.

In some cases, students are benefiting from teleconferences as enhancements to regular classroom instruction, experts say.

The Connecticut-based Talcott Mountain Science Center, for example, broadcasts a regular series of science-related teleconferences for students in subscribing schools from "Maine to Maui," said Donald P. LaSalle, the center's founder and director.

The teleconference series, he said, began as an offshoot of the science center's traditional outreach efforts to schools.

"The most important advantage [of teleconferencing] in my mind is that it makes the experience much more real," Mr. LaSalle said.

"The presenter is able to really [have a] dialogue, not just with the one student who asked the question, but with all those who are watching," he added.

Experts caution, however, that teleconferencing is not always the most efficient way for educators to reach mass audiences.

Ida Hill, who heads the Virginia Department of Education's Satellite Network, said the department often schedules satellite-delivered teleconferences when information needs to be distributed "immediately" to a large audience.

She also stages teleconferences over the state public-broadcasting network, rather than using the receiving sites in located every public high school, if the material is deemed to have wide appeal to the general public.

Last week, for example, Joseph A. Spagnolo Jr., the state's new superintendent of public instruction, laid out his proposals for reconfiguring the state education department during such a conference.

But often, she added, materials can be distributed just as efficiently--and at a lower cost--on videotape to teachers, who then can view them at their leisure.

"One of the things we're saying is that, if we use the satellite, it has to be interactive," she said. "We're trying to use the right technology to deliver the program."

Teleconferences are not a substitute for human interaction in every case, Mr. Peterson added.

"There are some services that you have to deliver in person," he said. "To get out with the troops, so to speak."

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