Groups Vying for Piece of Star Schools Pie

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A new interstate consortium is among a number of educational-broadcasting groups vying for federal "Star Schools'' funding to promote the development of innovative distance-learning systems.

If it wins an award, the Satellite Educational Resources Consortium, representing some 17 state public-broadcasting stations and state education departments, hopes to enable its member states to assume a prominent role in what experts see as an increasingly competitive arena: the satellite delivery of packaged video instruction to school markets.

But the grant competition, which promises to be vigorous, will pit the fledgling interstate group against several more-established public partnerships and some fast-growing private-sector firms, which have moved more quickly than public educational broadcasters to exploit satellite technology.

The objective of the Star Schools program, a brainchild of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, is to encourage further development of partnerships among private corporations, education agencies, and state and local governments to make courses in mathematics, science, and foreign languages available to small or remote schools. The legislation gives priority to systems that propose to serve schools with large populations of Chapter 1 students.

Experts in distance learning say the program's emphasis on encouraging large-scale, interstate cooperatives favors partnerships that would distribute their instructional wares via satellite.

In its first year, the program will award matching grants totaling $19.1 million. The Congress authorized total spending of $100 million over five years, with spending not to exceed $60 million in one year.

Although some Republican Senators opposed the program, contending that it was an "unnecessary piece of legislation and one that is a very low priority,'' the U.S. Education Department, which will administer it, has been flooded with inquiries.

Frank Withrow, a spokesman for the department's office of educational research and improvement, said a briefing held for prospective applicants in April attracted a "standing-room only'' group of more than 200. And the office's mailing list of those interested in the program swelled to more than 800, he said.

Applications, due by June 15, "will be legion, unfortunately,'' predicted Jack McBride, general manager of the Nebraska Educational Television Network, one of four systems that will produce pilot programs for SERC, the interstate consortium.

"The fact is, there are very substantial efforts that are under way and have been underw ay for some time,'' said Gregory M. Benson Jr., director of the New York State Center for Learning Technologies, of the growing telecommunications activity in education.

Numerous interests

Among the larger, established applicants for Star Schools money is the privately operated TI-IN Network Inc., based in San Antonio, Tex. Currently the leader in satellite-supplied educational programming, TI-IN serves more than 480 schools in 27 states.

Also applicants are such established collegiate satellite networks as Oklahoma State University and Eastern Washington State University, which have formed partnerships with their states, and the Massachusetts Corporation for Educational Telecommunications, a New England cooperative that served as the model for the Star Schools program.

Paul M. Norton, executive director of Wisconsin Public Television and one of the originators of the SERC initiative, said its proposal may be one of the few seeking to tailor programming to the needs of state departments of education.

"The unique feature of SERC is that it is a consortium of states, the decisions are in the hands of the users, the departments of education,'' said Gail Arnall, a consultant to the project.

A New Direction

Mr. Norton said he suggested 18 months ago that the 33-member Organization of State Broadcasting Executives consider using its existing resources to distribute educational programming via satellite.

Typically, state-sponsored educational programming now is delivered over public-broadcasting or other video channels. Satellite technology, experts say, can enormously expand the quantity, flexibility, and geographic reach of such programming.

But developing a satellite-based system, they note, requires: an "uplink'' to send signals to a satellite, which costs an estimated $200,000 or more; a license from the Federal Communications Commission to broadcast signals into space; and a satellite "dish'' at every receiving school.

Said Mr. Norton: "There was this need defined and what it came down to was the public schools could not afford it and that bothered me.''

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting furnished the executives' group with a $45,000 grant to get SERC off the ground, he said.

"The PBS stations all across the country were born in an educational cradle,'' said George L. Hall, who heads the Office of New Technology Initiatives, an in-house consulting organization for the Public Broadcasting System. "I think TI-IN has shown quite clearly, to anyone who doubts, the potential for this kind of programming. But it hasn't all been a response to TI-IN.''

For now, SERCs member states contribute $20,000 to the effort and enroll their chief school officers and heads of their public broadcasting system in the consortium. And while they are eager to win a Star Schools grant, Mr. Norton and Mr. McBride said, the consortium will continue with its plans regardless.

Pilot Program

SERC charter members Nebraska, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Wisconsin, for example, are pooling resources to produce pilot, one-semester programs for use by the consortium next January.

Nebraska is producing a program on Japanese language and culture; Kentucky is preparing a course in probability and statistics; South Carolina is producing an inservice program on the teaching of calculus; and Wisconsin is compiling an inservice program for teachers of science.

The programs initially will be distributed to four schools selected by the departments of education in each of the four states during the spring semester of 1989.

The consortium will use a satellite owned by the CPB to distribute the signals, but state officials will decide how the programs will be offered to individual schools.

Mr. McBride said state broadcasters will use a variety of transmission methods, including direct satellite broadcasts; rebroadcasts from television studios; and distribution over the Instructional Television Fixed Service, a group of high-frequency channels set aside for educational use.

Ms. Arnall said SERC is "committed to a highly interactive approach'' using telephone links or perhaps electronic mail via computer to allow students in the classroom to respond to questions and to pose queries of their own to instructors.

Difficulties Assessed

Experts, meanwhile, say the high-technology delivery system offered by satellites does not resolve the difficulties inherent in video instruction, and may even create new ones.

"Consortia make a lot of sense in any type of telecommunications because you've got economies of scale,'' said Charles Blaschke, president of Education Turnkey Systems Inc., a consulting firm in Falls Church, Va. "But only three or four projects have been able to do this successfully.''

The Utah Department of Instruction's satellite system, supported by the IBM and Bonneville International Corporations and once the nation's third-largest educational satellite system, has stopped distributing its Spanish-language lessons by satellite, according to Bruce O. Barker, assistant professor of instructional technology at Texas Tech University in Lubbock and author of a study of satellite-delivered instruction networks.

"It was strictly a fiscal issue,'' explained Bruce Griffin, Utah's associate state superintendent for operations. "We were doing an experimental program with a limited number of sites. The satellite instruction was very effective, but the numbers we had just simply did not justify the expense of the satellite.''

Mr. Griffin said the two-year experiment reached 2,000 to 3,000 students in six states at a cost of approximately $30,000 to $50,000 yearly. To be cost-effective, he added, the program would have had to reach between 25,000 and 50,000 students.

The programs are now sent out on videotape, but the state is "retaining the option'' of distributing via satellite, according to Mr. Griffin.

Utah also is joining in the applications of two consortia of Western states for Star Schools grants, Mr. Griffin said.

In addition to the uncertainty of cost-effectiveness, coming up with programming that members of a partnership can agree on may be as difficult as "walking a bunch of kangaroos,'' said one Star Schools applicant.

Mr. Benson of New York State also said that while satellite programming is effectively used at the collegiate level and in industry to train and inform adults, most programming at the precollegiate level cannot compete with commercially produced television.

At the secondary level, he said, "you really are competing with cable, you're competing with low attention spans, and that's the catch.''

And in the lower grades, he added, instructional programming "would have to be competitive with a 'Sesame Street,' produced at a cost of about $1 million per hour.''

Vol. 07, Issue 38

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