Schools’ Interest in Learning by Satellite Surges

By Peter West — November 29, 1989 22 min read

San Antonio--Three maps lining the walls of a small television control room here chart the rise of an educational phenomenon--an experimental state resource that grew into a national network for long-distance learning.

Patsy S. Tinsley, co-founder of what is now TI-IN Network Inc., the country’s only for-profit purveyor of educational programming by satellite, admits that the venture “grew much faster than we ever dreamed it would.”

The first of the maps, an outline of the state of Texas, proves her point. It shows the modest state of play in 1984, the year Ms. Tinsley and her partner borrowed $12 million to launch the Texas Interactive Instructional Network. Its mission was to beam courses developed by the Texas Education Agency into small, rural school districts unable to employ teachers in those subject areas.

Two years later, the company’s name had been changed and its reach extended well beyond Texas--into nine other states.

A large U.S. map tells that continuing story, reflecting, in a patchwork of 900 lighted dots, the inroads TI-IN Network Inc. has made to date in an eager market of small school districts.

Ti-in now dispatches each year more than 5,000 hours of live, interactive high-school coursework, in-service training for teachers, and additional “enrichment” programming to more than 900 sites in over 30 states.

And its expansion is not completed, as the third map testifies.

It shows the 152 schools in North Carolina using TI-IN instructional services to help them meet state reform requirements. North Carolina and Illinois are the first states to forge cooperative agreements with the network that allow any or all districts to receive TI-IN programs--and the state to use TI-IN hardware to deliver locally produced programming.

The network’s executives insist that profitability remains several years and several hundred customers away. But observers of their impressive growth curve cite the company as a “major player” in what they say is a surging area of interest for schools nationally: applying distance-learning technology to persistent problems of educational equity.

As officials in dozens of states investigate the potential of learning by satellite, the scrutiny being given this “major player’s” problems is as intensive as the recounting of its success.

Lloyd O. Otterman, TI-IN’s chief executive officer, identifies one of the biggest stumbling blocks as overcoming the “bureaucratic nightmare” of certifying teachers and curricula across state lines.

Another long-time employee talks of the difficulty of changing mindsets--teaching the ins and outs of the business to educators “still applying the old thought processes to something that’s quite new.”

Most in the industry agree that, though financing will remain a problem for TI-IN and its host of emerging nonprofit competitors, the toughest battles ahead may be perceptual. The task, they say, will be to convince schools and public officials that interactive instruction by satellite is not only an acceptable substitute for classroom teaching, but an increasingly vital adjunct to it.

‘Explosive’ Growth in Field

A federal report released Nov. 17 helps make that case, calling distance learning a “growing force in K-12 education in the United States.”

In the time since TI-IN made its first broadcast, the report by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment shows, the pace of state and local activity in the field has been brisk.

“Five years ago, few states or districts had projects or plans for distance education at the K-12 level,” says Linking for Learning: A New Course for Education."Fewer than 10 states were promoting distance learning in 1987; one year later, two-thirds of the states reported involvement.”

“Today,” the report says, “virtually all states have an interest or involvement in distance education.”

Linda G. Roberts, who directed the study, says the growth has in many ways been “explosive,” driven by both advances in technology and needs to provide poor or isolated areas with the wherewithal to meet upgraded requirements for teachers and the curriculum.

The report cautions, however, that “many students and teachers do not now have access to needed but distant resources.” Fewer than 10 percent of schools, it says, have the equipment to receive satellite instruction.

“Right now, the whole distance-learning phenomenon in public schools is really a very tiny enterprise, serving a few thousand students in a handful of districts,” says James A. Mecklenburger, executive director of the National School Boards Association’s Institute for the Transfer of Technology to Education.

But the clear trend among states, he adds, is to turn more toward the medium.

One of the consequences of that turning, as the OTA report points out, has been the extension of distance learning’s impact beyond its primary target audience of small, rural schools.

In Kansas City, Mo., for example, a group of magnet schools has contracted with the Education Satellite Network--an independent arm of the Missouri School Boards Association--to get the satellite dishes they need for receiving “enrichment programming” from a variety of commercial sources.

“They’re using this as a cultural induction” for students, reports Carter D. Ward, the association’s executive director.

Based on the success of the program to date, the district plans to use almost $300,000 in grants from the state education department to equip all of its 76 schools with satellite dishes in four years, said Jack Casner, assistant superintendent for computer and media services.

Diversity Among Providers

The growth of satellite programming for schools is happening in the context of expanding needs throughout the U.S. economy for increased telecommunications capabilities.

Parallel technological developments in various sectors are fortuitous for the schools, says Linking for Learning, because they have “stimulated an active marketplace for hardware and services that has brought industry and the private sector to the door of the education community.”

In addition to the instructional programming offered by TI-IN and similar concerns, schools have been the beneficiaries in recent months of moves made by several commercial-television entities to increase the amount of televised learning in classrooms.

Cable networks such as the Learning Channel, the Discovery Channel, and the Cable News Network have offered educators access to special programming. And Whittle Communications Inc. has promised schools free satellite receiving equipment if they agree to show its “Channel One” newscast.

According to industry spokesmen, states and school systems are exploring a range of media--from cable television, to short-range broadcasting via microwave towers, to fiber-optic technology--in their search for new, electronic ways enrich their curricula.

That much of the exploration is now focused on satellite-delivered instruction is due in part, some argue, to that technology’s cost-effectiveness compared with competing media--and its ability to bridge vast distances.

Some experts, such as the NSBA’s Mr. Mecklenburger, predict that the commercial satellite networks are “one step away” from offering instructional and in-service programming. But Mr. Otterman of TI-IN says he believes his organization is secure for now from direct competitive pressures.

“You can take a look at Whittle and [Ted] Turner and the Discovery Channel and what you see is a big play on trying to deliver more televised resources into schools,” he says. “But if you break that out into categories, we’re still the biggest provider of instructional resources.”

The economics of the school market will act to discourage imitators of the TI-IN approach, Mr. Otterman maintains.

“People who are going to enter a business start analyzing all the variables,” he says. “I think they’re going to come down on the side that there are probably easier places to go.”

‘Pioneering’ Efforts

Even though its for-profit status sets it apart, TI-IN is far from being the only provider of satellite-delivered instruction for the K-12 market.

The states of Florida, Kentucky, Oregon, and Virginia have either established or are in the process of establishing independent satellite networks allowing them to tailor programming to their needs.

In addition, postsecondary institutions have long been providers of some forms of distance learning for K-12 classrooms. Oklahoma State University and Washington State University are among the leaders in this area, having developed their own satellite systems for educational programming.

The awarding of more than $30 million in federal Star Schools grants to regional consortia, such as the Satellite Educational Resources Consortium Inc., a partnership of public broadcasters and chief state school officers in more than 18 states, has encouraged additional experimentation.

The TI-IN United Star Network, a consortium linking TI-IN with several higher-education institutions, has also been among the beneficiaries of the federal program, receiving approximately $9 million. (See related story on page 12.)

This growing field of providers notwithstanding, TI-IN must be regarded, says Ms. Roberts of the OTA, as “one of the pioneers.”

“There was an obvious need and [TI-IN] addressed it,” agrees Gregory M. Benson Jr., director of the New York State Center for Learning Technologies, Policies, Research, and Development.

He argues that TI-IN’s founding in 1984 “was a milestone” in distance learning.

The concept was not entirely new, he and others point out. It had its roots in the “correspondence courses” that for years gave students in rural communities access to a broader spectrum of instructional offerings. The Public Broadcasting Service had also, for two decades before TI-IN entered the scene, produced and delivered professional-quality educational programming via television.

But, according to Mr. Benson of New York, TI-IN’s approach added a new dimension: It enabled students to take an active part in televised learning, no matter how remote their classroom.

The distribution system the network perfected established a blueprint for other services to follow, he and other observers maintain.

‘Interactivity’ a Key

From its studios in the Region 20 Education Service District here, TI-IN transmits lessons to a central control facility in suburban San Antonio, where the signals are encoded to prevent unauthorized use by non-subscribers..

The programs are then beamed to the Spacenet II satellite, one of hundreds of communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit thousands of miles above earth. Transmitters aboard Spacenet amplify and rebroadcast the images toward earth, where they are then picked up by individual satellite dishes.

When the signals arrive at the receiving school, they are fed over a cable to a decoding device before they appear on a television set in the classroom. Students then are able to view on the TV monitor a classroom lecture or a laboratory demonstration taking place miles away.

Ti-in’s innovation--and the key difference between its programming and traditional broadcast instruction--is that students can also respond to the on-screen teacher lecturing from Texas. They do so by way of a toll-free telephone line. The exchange between teacher and student becomes part of the nationwide broadcast, heard not only by those in the responding student’s class, but in classrooms hundreds of miles away.

Instructors can also assign homework and provide other handouts from the studios here by using a facsimile machine. Each TI-IN subscriber classroom has a “fax” machine for receiving the material.

An adult “facilitator,” usually an employee of the subscribing district, though not always a certified teacher, assists TI-IN’s Texas-based master teachers in maintaining classroom discipline, coping with students’ problems, and handling the logistics of collecting and returning homework assignments.

Overcoming Skepticism

Ti-in’s emphasis on interactivity, a feature that has been adopted and, in some cases, improved upon by other satellite-programming providers, demonstrated that the technical problems inherent in distance learning were surmountable, Mr. Benson points out.

The network “really did a service for the whole industry because the viability of the technology is almost unquestioned now,” he says.

Until TI-IN went national, the New York specialist adds, educators remained generally skeptical that the technology could be relied on to deliver high-quality, interactive, curriculum-based programming over long distances.

“I knew [the technology] was viable,” says Mr. Benson, “because I watched the nightly news. You wouldn’t see it used live on the networks if it wasn’t. But nobody was looking at the application in the education field.”

One of TI-IN’s major contributions to the acceptance and popularity of distance learning, he maintains, was its provision of “proof in the education context.”

TI-IN’s executives tend to downplay the technical aspects and concentrate on the substance of their offerings. These include more than 25 high-school courses, in subjects ranging from French to marine biology.

Network officials argue that, because of television’s ability to enhance experiments--to freeze frames during a physics lesson on waves, for example--some students may actually benefit more from their televised courses than from the traditional classroom presentation.

“There are certain points that our medium really intensifies,” Dixie Boyd, TI-IN’s vice president of programming claims.

Others point out that the network’s services are able to meet the needs of first-year and experienced teachers hungry for greater training opportunities. TI-IN beams more than 400 hours of in-service programming to districts every year.

Enrichment programming, such as interviews with famous artists and authors and special presentations on dance and other fine arts, can amount to the electronic equivalent of field trips, they add.

“A lot of our enrichment programs go beyond what even a large district could offer,” says Ms. Boyd.

She and others argue, in addition, that TI-IN can offer students in small, isolated schools an invaluable element of social interaction.

Though it is possible for classes in various parts of the country to relate to one another over the television screen as well as the telephone lines, installing satellite “uplinks,” or broadcasting facilities, at schools is usually cost-prohibitive. Instructors aid the interaction with others in the network, however, by displaying photographs and other mementoes of classes elsewhere taking part in discussions.

“We’ve had students [who met over the network] go to each other’s proms this year,” says Sandra Gudat, who until recently acted as TI-IN’s public-relations representative.

Until recently, however, few researchers had studied the educational effectiveness of distance-learning programming.

"[The technology] works and they’ve packaged it well,” Mr. Benson says of TI-IN. “But that says nothing about the content.”

‘Quality Learning Experience’?

The dearth of research on effectiveness is a function of the relative newness of the satellite-education industry, according to Bruce O. Barker, now an associate professor of education at Brigham Young University of Hawaii.

Writing last year in the journal Research in Rural Education, Mr. Barker said that “the novelty of course delivery via satellite has grown so rapidly in the last three years that few questions relative to program quality have been asked.”

For a more recent study--one of the few published to date that assess TI-IN’s operations--Mr. Barker critiqued the teaching styles of three TI-IN instructors during a five-day period in February and March of this year.

He says he set out to determine if TI-IN--a “prototype,” in his view, for similar services--was offering students a “quality learning experience.”

He concluded that “quality instruction can and does occur” over the TI-IN Network.

“The important thing,” he wrote, “is that the instruction was indeed interactive--students and teachers were in fact talking back and forth to each other via the medium. In essence, the major aspects of a traditional classroom were being employed, albeit via long distance.”

Mr. Barker, who was employed by Texas Tech University when he completed the TI-IN study, also said that teachers on the network “appeared to have a good rapport with their students” and that each of the three studied “displayed a genuine interest in their students’ affairs.”

But he found some disadvantages inherent in the medium.

“The teacher is not able to see the students,” he wrote. “This severely limits teacher sensitivity to non-verbal clues to behavior.”

As a result, he said, the medium “makes it easy for students to hide from the teacher.”

Other educators, particularly those in the foreign languages, where direct interaction is often a vital instructional component, echo this assessment.

Whatever its potential drawbacks, however, TI-IN is filling a need, its customers argue, that some similar operations may not.

Statewide Networks

North Carolina’s experience as the so-called “first TI-IN state” bears testimony to this fact, officials there say.

Elsie L. Brumback, director of media and technology for the North Carolina Department of Education, explains that TI-IN’s services are part of a statewide effort to help districts meet increased academic standards.

The legislature set aside $3 million in 1987 for establishing a distance-learning capability to aid schools in poorer or isolated areas, she says. Officials signed a three-year contract with TI-IN in January of 1988.

Although evaluators from the education department investigated other sources, Ms. Brumback reports, “TI-IN’s programming met more of our requirements--including a cap on number of students enrolled” in a course.

The courses offered by TI-IN cost between $400 and $500 per student, according to Ms. Brumback, for a total cost of roughly $500,000 for the 1,000 North Carolina students served during the last school year.

That amount, the director argues, represents a cost-effective solution to some districts’ dilemma. Both budget constraints and geography have hampered teacher recruitment in many North Carolina districts, she explains, especially those in remote, mountainous terrain.

“We have a basic education plan that says that we will furnish every child an ‘equitable education’,” says Ms. Brumback. “The only way we can really do that in a cost-effective way is through satellite education.”

An additional 17 sites, mostly rural high-schools with a high percentage of Chapter 1 students, are receiving programming through the TI-IN United Star Network.

“The biggest problem we’ve got is schedules,” says the technology director, noting that TI-IN’s headquarters are located one time zone away from the closest North Carolina classroom.

But, she adds, “they have helped us by starting some classes at 7 A.M.”

Local Uses Hailed

TI-IN’s executives view their contract with North Carolina--and a similar arrangement recently worked out with the Illinois Department of Education--as the realization of Ms. Tinsley’s original vision for the network.

“What I envisioned,” the co-founder says, “was setting up a superstructure that would be an umbrella for state networks, to do what a state entity doesn’t need to be doing--namely technology and program development, as well as installation and maintenance.”

“TI-IN integrates the instruction, the technology, the administration, and the socialization into one package,” Ms. Tinsley says.

North Carolina’s provision of local satellite programming has operated to save money in some instances, officials there say.

Earlier this year, for example, the state’s uplink produced a teleconference for 143 district superintendents.

The program provided Bobby Etheridge, the state schools chief, with a cost-effective vehicle for reviewing all education-related legislation passed during this year’s session.

The alternative, Ms. Brumback points out, would have been to bring all of the local superintendents and their aides to the state capital. The two-hour broadcast, produced and distributed for less than $2,000, was a bargain in her view.

Among future projects, the state plans to offer elementary teachers in-service training by satellite to help them meet a new legislative mandate that all elementary schools provide foreign-language instruction.

‘Critical Mass’ Missing

There remain, however, formidable obstacles to TI-IN’s future, according to company executives and other observers. Some are the result of decisions made years ago; others stem from the economics of the public-school market.

In 1986, two years after its founding, the network reached a critical point, Ms. Tinsley says, where it had to decide whether to remain a regional operation--and turn a profit in three years--or “go national and make a profit in the long run.”

“Our projections were that it would be profitable in 1989-90,” Ms. Tinsley recalls. But Mr. Otterman adds that the estimate has proved to be overly optimistic.

“We’ve made dramatic progress,” he admits. “But in terms of financial success, it’s been the experience of the investors that it’s taken much longer up to get up to a reasonable size than anyone dreamed possible.”

Although he declined to discuss finances in detail, he said the network generated gross revenues equal to “several million dollars” a year.

Overhead, including such costs as maintenance of satellite dishes and other equipment, teacher salaries, and rental for “transponder time’’ on the satellite, is high. “This is a capital-intensive business,” Mr. Otterman says. “We need a critical mass [of subscribers] to cover costs, and it takes a while to achieve that.”

Money a Stumbling Block

If the network is to be profitable, Mr. Otterman maintains, it will have to as much as double the number of downlinks it has installed to date.

The main stumbling block to achieving that goal, he says, is the one cited again and again by educators attempting reform: money.

“The number-one limiting factor is the status of education funding,’' says the CEO. Many small districts that would like to obtain TI-IN’s services--"probably 1,000" in Mr. Otterman’s estimate--find it almost impossible to justify paying the $18,000 initial installation cost and the approximately $7,000 in annual service charges.

Ti-in has targeted primarily schools in the South and Southwest as potential markets. That is partly a recognition, officials say, of the constraints of operating a “live” interactive service for four time zones.

But other areas of the country, Mr. Otterman admits, also have been less receptive to the network’s approach.

“The most difficult to get to is the Northeast,” he says."I think they have the interest, but there is a ‘not made here’ issue as far as curriculum goes.”

There are some pilot TI-IN sites in New York State, Vermont, and other New England states, but their scale is limited.

‘Bureaucratic Nightmare’

Compounding these expansion problems is the “bureaucratic nightmare’’ of cutting through state and local red tape.

According to Mr. Mecklenburger of the NSBA, “the laborious process of getting their teachers certified in several states probably is the single most serious problem they’ve got.”

TI-IN, he says, is “really hamstrung in some ways because of the time and energy it takes to cope with the fact that state regulations are oriented to pre-TI-IN days.”

Mr. Otterman estimates that TI-IN spends an average of $2,000 per teacher on credentialing. The figure includes costs to meet various state and local requirements in subject matter, as well incidentals such as physical exams.

Other large-scale providers of satellite educational services have had fewer difficulties in this area.

The Satellite Educational Resources Consortium, for example, has established cooperative agreements that remove barriers to teacher certification.

There is, says Leslie J. Flanders, satellite-classrooms manager for Kentucky Educational Television’s Star Channels System, “an agreement among the members of SERC that the [credential] of teachers chosen by the producing states will be accepted” by those states that use the courses.

TI-IN’s Mr. Otterman has proposed to the Council of Chief State School Officers a similar type of reciprocity for his services, but there has been no indication yet of that group’s response to the suggestion.

NEA Criticism

A different aspect of the teacher-certification issue--whether the classroom “facilitators” who act on site should be regulated--has attracted the interest of the National Education Association.

In a report released last summer, the NEA’s educational-technology committee warned of the potential for distance learning and other technologies to replace “the personal student-teacher relationship with a teacher in an electronic box.”

“Quality teaching,” it asserted, “is a matrix of professional decisionmaking which requires on-site attention.”

The report called on schools that use distance-learning services to employ “licensed teachers” to assist in delivering the instruction.

Ms. Brumback of North Carolina, however, argues that satellite teaching can be advantageous only if districts are free to appoint as facilitators employees of the district other than teachers. “Otherwise,” she notes, “you’re defeating the purpose in some of these rural schools.”

“Some of the best facilitators we have are teacher assistants,” the director adds. “They get in there and learn along with the students.”

Such disputes are not likely to be resolved soon, says Mr. Mecklenburger of the NSBA, who predicts an escalation in their number as the distance-learning phenomenon grows.

As states begin to deal with the implications of distance learning, the accreditation of teachers is likely to take a back seat to accreditation of the agencies that produce the programming, he says.

At some point in the near future, he predicts, schools and government entities will have to decide whether distance learning “is an important way to provide instruction.”

If the answer is yes, he says, “it raises a very serious set of questions about the regulation process.”

The new OTA report concurs, suggesting that “federal and state regulatory policies will need to be revised to ensure a more flexible and effective use of technology for education.”

Assessing the future, the report says that for distance learning to play a greater role in upgrading quality there must be “expanded technology; more linkages between schools, higher education, and the private sector; and more teachers who use technology well.”

But for Ms. Tinsley, who recently left TI-IN to join the multistate consortium SERC, satellite learning, as refined by her trend-setting Texas network, is already a force to be reckoned with.

“The way you measure success,” she says, “is by looking at the kids who have gone through it--like the guys at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the ones studying to be doctors.”

Copies of Linking for Learning: A New Course for Education, are available for $9 each from the Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402-9325. The stock number is 052-003-01170-1.

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 1989 edition of Education Week as Schools’ Interest in Learning by Satellite Surges