New Medium Requires 'Camera Presence'

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San Antonio--From behind a desk, David Marshall coaxes the students in his science class through the intricacies of chemical bonding.

After demonstrating the mathematics needed for a correct answer, he poses a problem about the bonding of fluorine and oxygen atoms. Then he awaits a response.

A hesitant student finally offers the right answer, provoking a torrent of praise.

"Great. Now you're thinking," Mr. Marshall says into a television camera. "Lots of students get bogged down in this section, but you guys are sailing through. You're really concentrating."

In an adjacent control room, a technician follows Mr. Marshall's every move on a bank of television screens, ensuring that his audience benefits from exactly the right camera angle.

"Dave is really a good motivator," the technician says, switching from a full-frame shot of the equation to a close-up of David Marshall's face.

The 37-year-old teacher is one of the newest of a cadre of on-air instructors who work for ti-in Network Inc., the nation's only for-profit distributor of satellite-delivered instructional programming.

And his classroom encompasses not only a studio in the Region 20 Education Service Center here, but also high schools from Minnesota to New Mexico.

Charismatic 'Live Wires'

Mr. Marshall, who left San Antonio's Northside Independent School District this fall to work for ti-in, is one of the handful of teachers each year who successfully pass the network's unusual screening process.

"There's a lot of response to the ads we run, but the fact is, you need an awful lot of applicants to get the right person," says Lloyd O. Otterman, the network's chairman and chief executive officer.

That is so, he and others at ti-in suggest, because the medium's interactive and highly technical nature re4quires a combination of attributes few classroom teachers--even successful veterans--possess.

Even to be considered, applicants must be "very well-versed in their subject matter" and have years of experience, Mr. Otterman notes.

David Marshall, for example, was a 13-year veteran who had taught in high schools, middle schools, and alternative schools throughout the city. He was seeking when he applied to ti-in an alternative to the summer-school courses he had taught for years to supplement his income.

That kind of experience is not unusual, according to Edward Vara, Region 20's instructional coordinator. Ti-in does not employ teachers fresh out of college, he says, because "you need to know the classic kinds of things that go on in schools in order to be able to do this job."

The range of experience among ti-in's present crop of about 15 on-screen instructors is from 3 to 20 years. Many, Mr. Vara says, hold master's degrees, and some have earned doctorates.

But the medium requires a dimension beyond the intellectual, according to network executives. Successful teachers must project an image that will capture and hold the eye of a distant, sometimes unreceptive, audience.

"You really need to have camera presence," Mr. Otterman explains. ''You just can't be a dead-head. You have to be a charismatic live wire."

Screen Tests

Telegenic qualities are put to the test in a 10-foot-square broadcasting booth in the Region 20 studios, where ti-in subjects all of its applicants to what amounts to an elaborate screen test.

Seated at a specially designed workstation, would-be employees are asked to teach while manipulating overhead cameras, videotape machines, and other equipment.

"It's a unique kind of environment," says Mr. Otterman. "You have to have a good solid academic background, but you really have to be facile in the use of technology."

Mr. Marshall, who passed his first screen test, has learned that the medium imposes its own special framework on teaching.

"The first couple of times, you have to force yourself to talk to the camera lens," he reports. "In a regular classroom, you have 30 people giving you feedback." The awkward sense of talking to a void, he says, "goes away, once you get the idea that somebody really is there and they're watching you."

Many, however, are not as confident or adept as Mr. Marshall. A lack of qualified teachers, the ti-in chairman complains, is limiting his network's plans for expansion.

"Recruiting is very tough," says Mr. Otterman. "There really isn't any teacher-training institution preparing people for this kind of role."

Not a 'Beauty Contest'

Despite the emphasis placed on academic credentials, ti-in officials admit that the screen test generally is the determining factor in hiring.

"It's not a beauty contest," says Sheila Nicholls, director of telecommunications for Region 20, "but on-air image is important. Important enough, we feel, to pay attention to."

Mr. Vara, who is responsible for hiring, says he does not view an audition tape with any specific criteria in mind.

"I look for raw material," he explains. "I know instruction is important, but the first thing kids relate to is the face on that screen."

He looks also for a willingness to experiment.

"I ask myself, 'How teachable is this person?"' he says. "Nobody comes in here knowing exactly how to do this."

Tough Working Conditions

To Mr. Marshall, the medium's challenge was a key factor in his decision to try "teleteaching."

After 13 years in a regular classroom, he says, "I was pretty well ready for something a little different. It was so different that I said, 'Maybe I should try this for a little while."'

After a succesful summer-school season with the network, he signed on as a ti-in teacher for the regular school year.

Now, in addition to teaching a conventional classroom in the mornings for Region 20, he teaches one physical-science course in the afternoons to between 50 and 60 students in small schools in Illinois, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Texas.

He considers the courseload "fairly manageable."

Ti-in teachers are allowed to teach no more than two courses a day. One reason, officials say, is that even though the courses are capped at 200 students, the size of the televised classes produces a heavy load of homework to grade.

And because teachers also are required to spend part of their day in "office hours," available for students calling in with questions on a special toll-free telephone line, the workload from more than two courses would be overwhelming.

A third factor, according to Ms. Nicholls, is the "energy depletion of being on the air."

For their efforts, teachers typically earn an average annual salary that is comparable to the national average of approximately $25,000 a year.

For his part, Mr. Marshall says he is generally enjoying his first semester on the air, though he misses the personal interaction with students.

A Different Medium

"It's definitely different from the standpoint that you don't have kids in front of you, so you really don't know if they're confused or following along."

But, he concedes, "it takes a while to build up that rapport," even in a regular classroom.

One element he particularly enjoys is having an adult "facilitator" at every school to enforce discipline and cope with classroom minutiae.

"It frees you up a little more, so you can actually do the teaching part of it," he says. "They've been real good at helping the kids, because they see them on a day-to-day basis."

He also is pleased he has been allowed to experiment, using, for example, a videodisk curriculum on air.

Although unsure about whether he will remain with ti-in for the balance of his career, he admits that interest in the medium among his friends and colleagues has lent his work a certain cachet.

"A lot of people have a fairly good insight from their perspective on what the teacher does in the classroom," he says. "But, just if you teach on television, that adds a little splash to it."

Vol. 09, Issue 13

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