Ed-Tech Policy

Maryland Will Pioneer a Space-Age Computer Hookup in Its Classrooms

By Linda Chion-Kenney — August 22, 1984 16 min read

Maryland education officials have agreed to demonstrate an experimental high-technology system that backers say could bring more variety to classroom instruction than was previously imaginable.

The envisioned space-age “education utility” will use airwave frequencies to link computer terminals on every student’s desk instantaneously with a vast store of data, video transmissions, and educational software.

As the first to risk making real what has until now been only an educational dream, the state is being closely watched by specialists in educational technology across the country, who applaud its boldness but remain unsure whether the idea can work.

They are also unsure whether the idea’s originator--an entrepreneur named Jack R. Taub, who is the founder of a national computer database called The Source--can put together all the commercial and technological pieces that will be necessary to make the system function.

The agreement Maryland officials have reached with Mr. Taub--to demonstrate the technology in one or more schools by April 1985, and possibly another 100 by the end of the year--is seen as a major victory for the businessman. In recent months, he has been traveling the country attempting to inspire educators with his $100-billion plan to remake the education system over the next 20 years with the advanced networking technology.

The desk of the student is “the real frontier,” Mr. Taub says. His proposal is to provide every student with a desktop computer terminal that has cheap and instant access to continually updated information, including databases, software programs, electronic mail, video, and other instructional materials.

The “education utility,” Mr. Traub claims, consists of a telecommunications system that is capable of broadcasting vast amounts of administrative and instructional information to virtually unlimited numbers of addressable school receivers inexpensively and at high speeds. Classroom computers, he said, which would be operated by teachers, would then be able to simultaneously direct the same piece of information, or different pieces of information, to the desk of each student from the school’s “controlling” computer, which would store the broadcast information.

Keep Track of Usage

“The system will keep track of all the usage and the school, based on a negotiated sum, will pay that fee; something like 50 cents an hour is what we’re shooting at,” Mr. Taub said. “From that number we will pay the royalties to [the information suppliers]. They would get a percentage and we would get a percentage.”

Mr. Taub said he is negotiating with major publishers for the rights to transmit their materials, but he would not specify which ones he has been in contact with.

The electronic system, Mr. Taub said, was developed over the past three years at a cost of more than $3 million by the National Information Utilities Corporation, of which he is board chairman. The three-year-old high-technology firm is based in Vienna, Va., and employs 20 people, who work in engineering, software development, and marketing.

Patents and Costs

The company has applied for patents for the “highway system"--the means of transmitting the information to the school and receiving and storing the information at the school--and the “education utility"--the means of transmitting information, including video, from the school’s controller computer to the desk of the student.

“The system we propose,” Mr. Taub said, “is much cheaper than putting stand-alone computers on the desk of every student and dozens of times more effective. The stand-alone computer doesn’t allow you to update. You can’t have electronic mail from a student in Baltimore to a student in Chicago.”

Assuming that a school has its own computer terminals and video monitors, the following estimated expenditures would be needed to establish an “education utility,” according to Mr. Taub: A $10,000 classroom computer that can operate up to 32 desktop terminals; a $20,000 school computer that can operate 30 to 40 classrooms; $2,000 to $15,000 in storage capacity, depending upon a school’s needs; $30 a month for a receiver; $7,500 to control video programs for the whole school; and $1,000 for each classroom to receive the video programming.

“It’s our intention,” Mr. Taub added, “to lease these systems to schools as well for a monthly payment.”

Letter of Understanding

Under the terms of Maryland’s agreement, contained in a letter of understanding signed on July 4 by David W. Hornbeck, superintendent of schools, and Mr. Taub, the niu is to install and demonstrate the technology in one or more schools before April 1985, according to Michael Sullivan, the state’s assistant superintendent in instructional television.

If the project is successful, he added, “we both agree to use our best efforts to equip at least 100 schools during 1985. That’s our intent, if we have the local support and the local interest.”

Mr. Sullivan said the state is open to dealing with other vendors that have a similar system, but “we haven’t been able to find any.”

The technology would make use of Maryland’s public-television network and will be discussed this month and next, he said, with officials in the state’s 24 local school districts, which represent 1,232 public schools and some 683,000 students.

Interest Elsewhere

Meanwhile, the New York City Board of Education has shown a strong interest in the technology, and the state of Virginia has applied to the U.S. Education Department for a $186,752 grant to test the technology in an application for 2,400 homebound students in Northern Virginia.

“We expect this to be successful in demonstrating how the technology can be employed for educational purposes,” said Ronald Sturman, deputy director of the Virginia Department of Telecommunications, who applied for the “Project NoVaNet” grant in cooperation with the niu; the Central Virginia Educational Television Corp.; George Mason University; the Northern Virginia Educational Technology Cooperative; Education TURNKEY, Inc.; and the Virginia Department of Education.

“We believe,” Mr. Sturman added, “that it can make a contribution to the entire education system, not just special education. If this is successful, I would like to see other projects of this nature throughout the state.”

Traveling the Country

Irwin Kaufman, the director of technology for the New York City school system, said that “when the technology is in place, we do expect that we will be among the leaders, or the leader, in its implementation.” The city, he said, has had several meetings with Mr. Taub and “we’re coming closer to some sort of decision.”

For several months, Mr. Taub, who founded The Source in 1977--an on-line database network that plugs individuals and their computers into a wide range of information sources via telephone lines--has been traveling the country discussing with state education officials “what the dream is, where we’ve been, and why we know we’re going to get there.’'

To provide a service like The Source to schools at a price they can afford, he said, it was necessary to find an alternative to telephone lines, which he termed expensive and uncontrollable. “As the volume gets bigger and bigger,” he explained, “you might have a lot of problems getting into the system” via telephone lines.

The information services of the niu, he said, will travel over existing telecommunications systems, including public radio and television, cable, satellite, and microwave frequencies.

fcc Ruling

In 1983, said Paul Geffert, the company’s senior vice president, the Federal Communications Commission approved the full commercial exploitation of so-called subcarrier channels, which are airwave frequencies buried within broadcast channels.

That means, he explained, that “while you’re hearing a symphony, buried within that broadcast channel could be a subcarrier channel transmitting elevator music. While you’re watching Kojak, buried within that broadcast channel could be a subcarrier channel transmitting a television program for the hearing-impaired.”

What makes the fcc ruling significant, however, is that for the first time the agency allowed broadcasters to use the subcarrier channels to transmit information to a specific, addressable, location, Mr. Taub said. “The ability to send elevator music to a specific elevator was not allowed,” he explained. “Now it is. That’s important when you’re sending software and electronic mail. It was the life and death of this whole business.”

For the receiving party to capture the buried signals of digital text [electronic impulses that are “understood” by a computer], the niu will provide an addressable receiver--similar, but much smarter, than the box that sits on top of a cable-subscriber’s television set--which would unscramble the coded message and ensure its accuracy.

Once received, Mr. Geffert said, the information could then be accessed by the classroom computer, controlled by the teacher, who could then drive the information to the desk of each student.

Mr. Taub claims that within 5 to 10 years, developments in laser-disk technology will enable a school to store “databases and much of the Library of Congress at an affordable price.” But they would only have to store what they need, he added.

Selling the ‘Utility’

The “education utility,” Mr. Taub argues, “would allow the customization of education to every student--poor, remote, handicapped, gifted, and slow.”

A class of 32 students, for example, could work on the same piece of software, or different pieces of software simultaneously. Instruction would be controlled by the teacher, he added, who at any time could plug into the terminal of an individual student--or homebound student--to observe what he or she is doing.

Also, Mr. Taub said, because the system would keep a record of usage and reimburse publishers for the amount of time an instructional program is used, publishers would be motivated to produce higher-quality materials and to continually update them.

The Education Marketplace

“Nobody’s ever looked at education as a marketplace for technology,’' Mr. Taub said. “You do it as a charity and God knows for what other reasons, but the fact is that as a viable business opportunity it has not been successful. I believe that as a result of people like myself, we’re going to make the desk of the student drive technology in America because we will organize the buying power, the leverage of the school system.”

Educators, he added, will be able to evaluate, modify, update, or replace instructional materials without expending a large amount of money; and publishers will be able to bypass their “middle-man” costs for marketing and distribution. In addition, he said, educators will not have to worry about storing or protecting fragile floppy disks and will only have to buy one copy of an instructional software program rather than one for each student or class.

“At one time, you had computers that were relatively limited and then somebody said, ‘Hey, let’s put a little software on them and let them do a little more, and let’s figure out how to put two or three terminals on a computer so we can share it,”’ Mr. Taub recently told a group of educators. “The third leg of that hardware-software stool is telecommunications, the ability to move these services on site. There will be no effective education system within 20 years, in my opinion, without the three pieces.”

The ‘Catch-22'

Reaction to Mr. Taub’s proposal is mixed.

Some say he is selling a dream with unproven potential.

Others say the concept is promising and could work but that they do not wish to share the risk of pioneering it.

“It’s a Catch-22 situation,” said Gil Valdez, manager of the technology and curriculum integration section of the Minnesota Department of Education. “We’re waiting to see how well it works, and they [niu] can’t make it work well until enough people are in it. I’m one of those people waiting to see how well it works out in Maryland.”

James L. Phelps, the associate superintendent for the bureau of planning and management for the Michagan State Department of Education, agreed. “Thankfully there’s always somebody that says we’re going to jump in and try it,” he said. “I think we need some people to be adventurous, to try it out so the rest of us can benefit from that experience. I just don’t think it’s ready for everybody to do it.”

Enough Good Software?

Mr. Phelps said his reservations have nothing to do with the technology, “which I think is impressive.”

“My reservations,” he said, “are on the side of what you’re going to transmit. I am not so sure right now that we have enough quality software that makes rapid communication all that worthwhile.”

Dean Crocker, the director of statewide computer services for the Iowa Department of Public Instruction, agreed that “one of the keys to [Mr. Taub’s] success, as far as all schools are concerned, is niu’s ability to offer a variety of film, software, and other materials from publishers. It appears from what I’ve been told that the niu approach offers those publishers a virtual guarantee to recover their costs without fear of copyright violations.”

Mr. Crocker said Mr. Taub has been invited to address a roundtable of educators from North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Kansas who will meet in September in Iowa to discuss the distribution, evaluation, and purchasing of instructional software.

“He has an innovative and unique idea for distributing software, something this kind of group would be very interested in hearing,” Mr. Crocker said. “For publishers, it could solve the copyright problem and we would benefit from getting better software, sooner.”

Negotiating with Publishers

Mr. Geffert said the niu is negotiating with major publishers, “those with the largest sales,” to obtain permission to transmit their materials. He would not say, however, which companies the niu is negotiating with.

But P. Kenneth Komoski, the executive director of the Educational Products Information Exchange, which evaluates educational computer hardware and software, said he has an unsigned agreement with Mr. Taub to offer epie’s services through the niu system.

“We are interested in getting our stuff into the schools,” Mr. Komoski said, “and there’s a lot of interest in the technology on the part of lots of states.”

Interest and Reservations

Among the states that have expressed an interest in what the niu is selling are Illinois and New York, whose officials also have reservations about the technology.

Ray Schaljo, the director of computer technologies for the Illinois State Board of Education, said his state has “no plans that are solid,” but that “we are very interested in the technology. We’re just now finding out about it. We think that a lot of what they’re doing makes an awful lot of sense,”

Gregory W. Benson Jr., the director of New York State’s Center for Learning Technologies, said there has been “absolutely no agreement” between his state and the niu, despite numerous discussions that have taken place between the two parties.

Mr. Kaufman said New York City has been working closely with the state in discussing the applications of the technology with the niu, but that any decision by the city to use it does not necessarily mean the state will follow.

“What I have told Jack [Taub] is that New York State cannot buy the concept of transportation. We buy cars,” Mr. Benson said. “I can’t buy the dream or the vision of a multifunctional integrated application that delivers databases and connects with all kinds of micro[computer]s ... Everyone in the world is dreaming about the same thing.

“Conceptually, [the education utility] is good,” he added, “but understand that that’s all it is. There is no demonstrable technology to support the utility function at the present time.”

Under state procurement laws, Mr. Benson said, he is bound to explore other alternatives and to verify whether any other company is offering the same technology at a cheaper price. Before he can do that, he said, he needs to see the technology demonstrated. And though such a project is planned pring, and possibly sooner, in this “volatile industry,” he noted, “that’s a long way off. In the first quarter of next year, ibm might have a utility.”

It is “in fact this kind of situation,” Mr. Benson said, “that brought about procurement procedures to protect the public interest.”

A Place to Grow

While New York waits to see the dream demonstrated, Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Hornbeck have decided to give the technology a place to grow.

“As far as the dream-thing goes, that’s partially true,” Mr. Sullivan said. “I guess it’s as much a dream as a national interconnected telephone system was when Alexander Gra-ham Bell said, ‘Watson, come here. I need you.’ The technology itself has been demonstrated, but all the pieces have not been put together. Some minor pieces are missing.”

As for taking a risk, Mr. Sullivan said he is “chagrined that educators feel there is something sinful about taking a risk. On the other hand, because we deal with public money, that’s natural. But very little of any consequence is accomplished without some risk. If every state says we’re going to wait before we see it before we buy it, nothing’s going to happen. Someone has to say build it here and show us.”

Pay ‘For What We Get’

“We’re going to pay for what we get,” Mr. Sullivan added. “We’re not going to pay millions and millions of dollars up front and buy the whole service. We’re going to purchase on a step-by-step basis and each step is going to have to be effective before we take the next step. It’s really Jack Taub’s risk. He is going to have to deliver every step of the way or it dies at that point.”

Mr. Sullivan said he expects the first state contract with the niu to be around $40,000, although “no formal discussions about how much money is likely to be involved or where it is likely to come from” have taken place.

Mr. Taub, however, at a recent meeting of educators referred to the ''Maryland thing” as “almost a billion dollars over 10 years.”

“When we talk to Jack and he talks a few cents an hour per student [for the usage charge], and there’s 683,000 students in Maryland, he’s certainly right,” Mr. Sullivan said. “It doesn’t take long to get into millions of millions of dollars.”

Most of the money, however, would be local dollars, he said. “We’re certainly not talking about consequential sums of state dollars. I would be extremely surprised if over a number of years the state ever approached [spending] $100,000.”

‘On-site Disposable’ Books

What the state is interested in, Mr. Sullivan said, is making the niu system available to all local school districts through the state’s public-television network.

“Right now, I’m trying to provide more and better instructional materials at a cheaper cost,” he said.

In the future, he added, that could even include textbooks, which Mr. Taub said will become “on-site” and “disposable.” Instead of ordering textbooks today that will become obsolete in a few years, he explained, “the teacher can say, ‘I’ll take chapter one from this book, chapter two from this book, and these two research papers’ and push a button and you’ll start printing them out there [at the school]. They won’t be as fancy as the ones you’re getting now, but you’ll only pay a buck and a quarter for a book that’s current until a day or two ago.’'

A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 1984 edition of Education Week as Maryland Will Pioneer a Space-Age Computer Hookup in Its Classrooms


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