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Publisher Launches Computer Network for Schools

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Scholastic Inc., the well-known publisher of classroom periodicals, last week launched what it says is the nation's first computer network aimed exclusively at teachers and students.

The new service, which carries a $295-a-year subscription fee, allows classes to use their computer modems to carry on electronic conversations with authors, scientists, policymakers, and other students around the country.

Pupils who are plugged into the network, for example, will be able to talk by computer with such children's-book authors as Frank Asch and Virginia Hamilton, to ask questions of journalists who covered the floods that ravaged the Midwest this past summer, and to carry on science projects with students in other regions of the country.

The network also sets aside space for teachers to talk with their colleagues nationwide. They can, for example, tap into the network for advice on upgrading their schools' technological services or to take part in professional conferences that will be conducted on-line.

"We're looking at this as a way to facilitate on-line learning communities,'' said Susan Mernit, the director of network development for Scholastic.

Officially launched on Thursday, the new service already has an estimated 500 to 600 subscribers. It is piggybacked on America Online, a nationwide computer network, and Scholastic subscribers will have access to both networks.

Ease of Use Cited

Unlike America Online and other national and international computer networks, which computer-savvy teachers already use to link their students with data banks and other classrooms, the Scholastic network is dedicated to instructional use.

For that reason, Scholastic officials say they developed a software program that is so easy to use "a child can master it in an hour.'' Teachers can get notice of the specially designed classroom projects and events available to them on the network through listings on a computer bulletin board or in subscriber mailings.

The service will also allow students to gain access to eight national news wires and to read past articles from Scholastic publications. Several databases, information from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Weather Service, and Compton's Encyclopedia will also be available by computer through the new service.

"One of the real values of this kind of service is that we will be able to provide a sense of timeliness to classroom instruction,'' Ms. Mernit said.

The $295 annual fee, however, may prove to be beyond the reach of some schools--particularly those that do not yet have computer equipment or a dedicated telephone line to make use of the service. There are also additional fees if subscribers use more than five hours a month of network time.

Ms. Mernit said, however, that, while it hopes the new effort will turn a profit, the company is also trying to be "sensitive to the equity issues.'' The company is offering "a limited amount'' of grants to defray the cost of the service for schools in disadvantaged areas.

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