Window On The World

By Jennifer Chauhan — January 01, 1995 8 min read

Teacher Celine Robertson greets her third-year Chinese language students and directs their attention to a large white screen in the corner of a spacious, dimly lit classroom. Holding a tiny black remote, she pushes a button, and instantly a menu appears on the screen. From a host of subjects listed—science, mathematics, history, and the arts, among them—she selects number seven: Chinese.

After navigating quickly through another set of menus, a young Chinese couple appears and begins talking in Mandarin. The students listen attentively to a few seconds of conversation. Then Robertson pushes another button on the remote, and the action stops, a clear image of the man with his mouth wide-open suspended on the screen.

Robertson, in polished Chinese, prods her students: Who is this man? Who is this woman? What is their relationship? The students respond, somewhat in unison, that the two are new friends. Pleased, Robertson pushes the button again, and the encounter on the screen continues. When the clip is finished, the teacher returns to the menu and selects another scenario. The clips last only a few minutes, but Robertson, through a series of stops and starts woven seamlessly into her lesson, uses each as a springboard for class discussion.

The tool Robertson is using to teach her class at Lincoln (Neb.) High School won’t be available in schools for some time. But its developers at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., believe this technology will one day revolutionize education. The tool—known as EduPort—allows teachers to fetch on demand a wide range of educational materials not typically available at schools. The faculty at Lincoln—Nebraska’s largest high school—is the first to test EduPort in a school setting.

In a way, EduPort is a vast library or museum without walls. Once the teachers and students at Lincoln High learn the ropes of the technology, they can wander and explore the offerings at will. They have access to materials provided by the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, NASA, and the American Chemical Society, to name but a few. These materials—video, text, still images, and audio—have been digitized into computer language. All the information is stored on a large mainframe computer—or server—housed at the University of Nebraska. Fiber-optic cables, donated by Lincoln Telephone & Telegraph, connect the server at the university with Lincoln High School. Teachers, using a multimedia computer system, can retrieve the material they want and present it to their students on a large screen in their classrooms. At this point, 90 percent of the digital information available on EduPort is video.

With a push of the button, a science teacher can show students footage from NASA of the 1994 space-shuttle mission that replaced solar panels on the Hubble telescope; an art class can study American paintings hanging in the National Gallery; music students can watch an African dance performance at the Kennedy Center; a history teacher can show his or her class film footage of one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats, supplied by the FDR Library; and a geography class can listen to experts talk about the destruction of the earth’s ozone layer. The Chinese dialogue that Robertson is using in her foreign language class comes from the Asian studies department at a Florida community college.

“By the end of this century,” writes Miriam Masullo, a researcher at IBM who is spearheading the EduPort project, “large-scale digital libraries, containing the collective legacy of human knowledge and information, will be accessed in real time, on-demand over gigabyte networks.”

EduPort not only gives teachers at Lincoln High access to a storehouse of educational material but also lets them control and manipulate it, so they can integrate it into their lessons as they see fit. A science teacher, for example, can show a film clip on a specific subject when it’s most useful instead of when it happens to be airing on television or when he or she can get a videotape and sign up for the VCR. EduPort is also a one-stop source for information, so if a class discussion leads into another subject area, as it often does, teachers can quickly call up images or text to build on the digression. “You’re not just showing a film all the way through,” explains Kathryn Piller, principal at Lincoln High. “You can take lots of clips about different things.”

For students who live in rural areas miles from the nearest museum, an educational tool like EduPort can broaden horizons and provide opportunities that children who live in urban and suburban areas have. “The goal,” Masullo says, “is to provide equity access, to make quality education materials available to all students—in rural areas as well as in the inner cities.”

Masullo first began researching “video on-demand” and testing its capabilities in the labs at IBM a few years ago. “I wanted to find new ways to use this technology for education,” she says. U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska heard about Masullo’s work and asked her to consider testing the project in a school in his home state. So last April, a team of researchers from IBM flew out to Nebraska to set up and demonstrate the system at Lincoln High as part of National Science and Technology Week.

Then, in late May, Kerrey invited Lincoln principal Piller and one of her students to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate EduPort for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which was working on information-superhighway legislation. Education observers and policymakers say government and other funders need to support projects like EduPort to ensure that schools are not bypassed by the ever-expanding information infrastructure. “We should use this technology to make learning more valuable, more relevant, and more exciting,” Kerrey said at the hearing.

Since then, the project at Lincoln High has been slowly evolving. So far, only a handful of teachers at the school has been trained to use EduPort, but those who have say it’s a powerful classroom tool. During a morning art class, teacher Rosalie Kotwas calls up several segments in different subject areas to get her students thinking about order, perspective, and symmetry as they design jewelry. From the mathematics menu, she selects a segment in which scientist Benoit Mandelbrot explains in a heavy Polish accent his theory that there is a radical sense of numbers in nature. She then clicks to another segment so her students can watch NASA footage of their home state taken from space. “These are things that I just can’t go out and get,” she notes. “It’s material that’s new, current, and technically correct.”

Piller now hopes to expand the use of EduPort at Lincoln High. She wants to train more teachers to use the technology and to familiarize them with the current offerings. She’ll also ask faculty members to suggest ways to enhance what is currently available on the system. Eventually, she says, teachers will be able to create their own videos, graphics, and other learning materials for EduPort.

The principal says the system also has the potential to be an excellent professional development tool. One segment already loaded in EduPort features psychologist Howard Gardner discussing his views on multiple intelligence from his office at Harvard University.

Soon, some Lincoln students will be able to tap into EduPort at home, using a special television and phone system linked to the university by cable. This will be especially beneficial for students with learning disabilities or those who need a second look at something, Piller says.

At the committee hearing in Washington, U.S. Sen. Jim Exon of Nebraska expressed concern, as others have, that high-tech tools like EduPort will turn students away from such traditional teaching tools as books. But most advocates say EduPort is simply a powerful educational resource, not something that will replace books or teachers. “Improving instruction through educational technology is a lot more than just EduPort,” asserts James Van Horn, vice president for business and finance at the University of Nebraska and a key player in the partnership with Lincoln High. “EduPort is just one, albeit very important, technological advancement.”

Even students seem to agree with Van Horn’s assessment. “Sometimes there’s just no substitute for a really good classic book,” says Lincoln senior Amy Beckwith.

Those involved with the EduPort project say the real hurdle to overcome is funding. “If you go to the school board with something like this,” says Shirley Rine, Lincoln High’s instructional coordinator, “they’re going to say, ‘I don’t think so.’ “Case in point: The federal government recently denied a $1 million grant Lincoln High had requested to expand its use of EduPort. Now the school is seeking private funding. According to Piller, the money is needed to bring the system to more classrooms, to provide more extensive teacher training, and to support ongoing research to ensure the technology is truly improving student learning.

While the expenses of setting up EduPort may be more than most school districts can afford, collaboration can bring the price tag down and make it cost-effective in the long run, Masullo suggests. “If we mobilize a university,” she says, “the cost to a school is minimal.” The project at Lincoln High, she points out, was made possible by the alliance between the school district and IBM, the University of Nebraska, and Lincoln Telephone & Telegraph.

The University of Nebraska is currently working to develop a national EduPort initiative with two other higher education institutions—Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York state and California Polytechnic State University. The idea is to extend the experiment out of the Cornhusker state to more schools across the country. “The project is scalable,” says Van Horn of the University of Nebraska. “But that’s a longer term objective.”

Still, it’s a goal Piller believes is worth pursuing. “The most important thing we can do in education is give students the desire to want to learn,” she says. “Kids get so excited about video games. This is beyond that.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Window On The World