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Telephone Technology Opens Lines to Long-Distance Job Seekers

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San Antonio--Karen DeShetler shifts a little nervously before posing a query of her own to a panel of prospective employers as her job interview draws to a close.

"I'd like to know what are the possibilities for [being hired],'' she says. "And how do they feel about [hiring] someone who's not right there?''

As Ms. DeShetler fidgets, her image momentarily blurs and skews. The jarring shift on the television monitor reminds the interviewers that Ms. DeShetler, a 3rd-grade teacher at a U.S. Defense Department school in Britain, is not seated with them in a hotel suite here. In fact, she is speaking into a video camera six time zones away.

The give-and-take of this interview over thousands of miles was made possible by a relatively new application of telephone technology to video teleconferencing, a technique more frequently associated with satellite broadcasting and the business world than with education.

The exhibition at the annual meeting of the American Association of School Personnel Administrators here last month--which used telephone technology to interview educators who soon will lose their jobs due to the reduction of U.S. armed forces in Europe--was really only an interesting lure, organizers said.

More broadly, the demonstration was designed to open the eyes of school administrators to the instructional and administrative potential of "digital compression,'' a rapidly developing technology that allows telephone companies to transmit voice, video, and computer data over conventional copper telephone lines.

Because the technology allows phone lines to perform similar tasks as the more sophisticated--and far scarcer--fiber-optic cables, it is regarded by some observers as one method the nation's regional telephone companies may use to bring new information services to the public school market.

Interviews of the Future

After three hours of asking questions, Janet Magnuson pushed herself back from the table impressed with the technology.

"It was fascinating,'' said Ms. Magnuson, the assistant director of human resources for the St. Paul public schools. "I really see this as the way interviewing is going to go in the future.''

And despite some technical glitches that pushed the interviews back into the late-evening hours overseas, some of Ms. Magnuson's colleagues here agreed that they had witnessed a new, and potentially valuable, application of telephone technology in educational administration.

Ms. Magnuson predicted that such a system could dramatically cut costs for school recruiters, who now travel a national circuit of job fairs in search of in-demand teachers, such as those who are members of minority groups or have backgrounds in mathematics or science.

Others at the meeting here, though, were skeptical about whether the benefits of the system outweighed its hefty price tag.

Herb Salinger, the president of the A.A.S.P.A., said the project was an offshoot of a cooperative venture between his organization and the Defense Department to find jobs in the United States for the soon-to-be-unemployed teachers.

A survey of the association's membership late last year revealed that many districts were interested in hiring former teachers from the Department of Defense Dependents Schools, Mr. Salinger noted.

But both the districts and the department were daunted by the costs associated with matching up teams of U.S.-based interviewers with overseas teachers.

"It's not too easy to get a board to approve a trip to Europe, even if it is to fill vacant teaching positions,'' Mr. Salinger joked.

Technical Flaws

Still, while the video demonstration here was far cheaper and quicker than a flight across the Atlantic, it had several flaws that illustrated the potential obstacles to wider use of the new telephone technology.

It was not until September that association officials and Eddyth Worley, an educational-telecommunications consultant, were able to bring together enough resources to mount an electronic job fair here.

The relatively short time was a contributing factor, Ms. Worley noted, to the technical problems that left more than 20 teachers and an equal number of administrators on two continents waiting hopefully while a San Antonio-based technician attempted to patch together the remote sites.

"How about just a plain old conference call,'' said one frustrated interviewer as the delay stretched into hours. "I just want to talk to them.''

As they waited, Peter Olhaver, an employee of VideoTelecom, the company that supplied the cameras, monitors, and software for the demonstration, frantically called as far afield as Chicago and Los Angeles to clear and test the transcontinental cables needed to establish a two-way link.

Ms. Worley, meanwhile, pointed out that "the problems we're having are endemic to a temporary installation.''

Such connections generally are established at least a month in advance and tested for 24 hours before teleconference, Mr. Olhaver said.

Still, he was able to create the San Antonio-to-London link within 36 hours, despite a compounding problem with the hotel's internal telephone system.

The jury-rigged connection produced a full-color moving image that was only noticeably different from a standard television signal when the subject on camera made rapid movements. And that problem was corrected the following day, when the interviews continued.

The experiment was so intriguing that even after several hours of false starts and delays, word of a successful link-up spread quickly through the conference, bringing several people to watch the interviews.

Expensive Equipment

Although unusual in precollegiate education, the techniques and technology used in the demonstration are routinely employed in the business world, Ms. Worley said.

"But, like everything else, [precollegiate] education is the last to have it,'' she added.

Mr. Salinger and others contend that the regional telephone companies, which are anxious to tap into the educational market with sophisticated new services, would probably willingly accommodate districts that wanted to test such new approaches.

At present, the start-up costs of the systems may put them out of reach of all but the largest school systems.

The combination of hardware and software used in the demonstration, for example, currently is available commercially at a minimum cost of $47,000, although savings could be made by eliminating certain functions.

A VideoTelecom spokeswoman noted, however, that a few districts, from Illinois to Alaska, have purchased the equipment for a variety of instructional and administrative uses.

Ms. Worley added that the capital costs could be absorbed more readily if the technology were spread over several different uses, from teacher training programs to distance-learning.

She also noted that the telephone-based system offers significant savings over the costs of distance-learning by satellite, particularly for intradistrict programming.

The cost of one hour of satellite time with a one-way video channel and a two-way audio channel can be as much as $13,000 an hour, she noted. By contrast, the system in use here--with two-way audio and video channels--is available for $30 an hour in the United States and $225 an hour internationally.

Cost and Benefits

Even at current prices, Ms. Magnuson observed, the system could save big districts the heavy cost of recruiting and interviewing large numbers of teachers each year.

Richard J. Sederstrom, the director of personnel for the Concord, Mass., schools, added that the system offers several advantages over a conventional telephone interview.

Being able to see prospective candidates helped streamline an important step in the interview process, said Mr. Sederstrom, a veteran of 14 years of personnel administration for the 2,300-student district.

"I think it's vital for you to see [the candidate's] body language and facial expressions,'' he said.

Mr. Sederstrom also noted that his district, which currently employs some 230 teachers, has hired 107 replacement teachers in the last five years and spends substantial sums on teacher recruitment.

Even so, he added, a decision to purchase such a system would require a serious cost-benefit analysis.

For their part, the teachers who took part in the interviews said they were unfazed by the technical wizardry.

A 'Personal' Touch

Some said they even enjoyed the experience.

"It gave a more personal aspect to [the process] than just listening to a disembodied voice,'' said Kathleen Louderback, a 4th-grade teacher at a school in Britain. "You learn more about the person you're talking to.''

Yet several employers said that they would bypass technological solutions to offer jobs. They plan to send conventional application forms to candidates, whose resumes were contained in a thick folder distributed by the Defense Department as an adjunct to the interviews.

Others said they would get in touch with prospective teachers immediately--by fax.

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