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Interactive Cable-TV Service Seeks To Engage Parents

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Parents in a Detroit suburb can inquire about their children's homework or read their completed assignments on their home television sets using a new interactive cable-television service that is expected to be available nationwide within a year.

Forty homes in Birmingham, Mich., have been linked electronically to two classrooms at Midvale Elementary School through the Teacher's Assistance Program, a pilot project of the IT Network, a Dallas-based communications firm.

The network allows students and teachers to broadcast full-color still images and an accompanying soundtrack to individual homes.

Lisa Martinico, the Birmingham school district's education-technology coordinator, said the project builds on research that supports the idea that "parent involvement in the education process is important to the intellectual development of children.''

She and cable company officials suggested that the service might be useful, for example, to parents who do not live in the same household as their children or those whose working hours make it difficult to keep track of their children's schoolwork.

Using a remote control and their television's cable signal-converter, parents can select from an on-screen menu of features.

"The strength of interactive television is that it allows [viewers] to tailor the programming to [their] exact needs,'' said John Reed, the executive vice president of the IT Network. "Parents are able to check on their child's homework assignment during a commercial-break [in a program], for example.''

In recent years, cable systems nationwide have begun offering educational programs and other services free of charge as part of the industry's national Cable in the Classroom initiative.

The Birmingham project is unusual, however, because it targets an elementary school and is aimed at fostering interaction between schools and parents.

Real Test To Come

Mr. Reed said the new service is also innovative because, unlike many video-based educational pilot projects that depend on technologies that are not yet widely available, TAP employs the existing cable-television link.

Hugh Jencks, the general manager of Booth Communications, the local cable-television company, estimated that more than half of the parents who have the service use it every day.

However, he noted, during the project's recently ended pilot phase, the interactive channel was available for free and only to a very small fraction of the company's 8,000 subscribers.

The real test of the channel's appeal is expected to come later this year when the company unveils an expanded interactive service that will include on-demand weather reports, sports results, and other services, including airline ticketing and an "electronic yellow pages.'' Viewers will have to pay for the expanded service, including the school access.

Mr. Reed said the success of the Birmingham pilot has encouraged the company to make the TAP service available to cable systems nationwide next year.

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