TV Teachers Go The Distance

Network brings high school courses down to earth

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From behind a desk in his San Antonio “classroom,” David Marshall coaxes the handful of students in his summer school physical science class through the intricacies of chemical bonding. After a brief demonstration of the mathematics involved, he poses a theoretical problem on the bonding of fluorine and oxygen atoms and awaits a response.

A few moments later, a hesitant student responds with the right answer, provoking an outburst of praise from his teacher.

“Great. Now, you're thinking,” Marshall exhorts. “Lots of students get bogged down in this section, but you guys are sailing through this. You guys are really concentrating.”

Marshall is talking to a television camera. In an adjacent control room, a technician follows the teacher's every move on a bank of television screens, ensuring that his audiences benefit from exactly the right camera angle.

“Dave is really a good motivator,” the technician notes, switching from a full-frame shot of the equation to a close-up of Marshall.

Marshall, 37, is one of the newest of the roughly 15 on-air teachers who produce educational programming for the TI-IN Network, Inc., the nation's only for-profit distributor of satellite-delivered educational programming. And the walls of his “classroom” stretch from the studio in Region 20 Education Service Center, operated by the Texas Education Agency, to states as distant as Minnesota and Mississippi.

Marshall's science lessons are among more than 25 high school courses, in subjects ranging from Spanish to marine biology, that TI-IN beams from several other studios in Region 20 via the Spacenet II satellite to receiving dishes located in small, rural school districts nationwide. In fact, TI-IN now dispatches more than 5,000 hours of live, interactive high school, in-service, and “enrichment” programming annually to more than 900 “downlinks,” or earth stations, in more than 30 states. And, bolstered in part by a two-year, $9.7 million federal grant, it continues to attract new customers.

The key difference between TI-IN's programming and traditional televised instruction, say company officials, is that its students can respond “live” to the teacher in Texas over a toll-free telephone line from almost anywhere in the country. Satellite teachers can also dispatch homework assignments over the network to a facsimile machines supplied by TI-IN.

Marshall, who left San Antonio's Northside Independent School District last summer to work as an on-the-air teacher for TI-IN, is one of a select group of educators who every year successfully pass the unusual screening process TI-IN imposes on its applicants.

“There's a lot of response to ads we run [in national publications], but you need an awful lot of applicants for one position to get the right person,” says Lloyd Otterman, chairman and chief executive officer of the five-year-old network. That's because the interactive and highly technical medium requires a unique combination of factors that few teachers—even successful veterans of the conventional classroom—possess.

To be considered for the job, applicants must be “very well-versed in their subject matter” and have considerable classroom experience, Otterman says.

Marshall, for example, first applied to TI-IN seeking an alternative to the summer school courses he taught for many years at Northside. He taught 13 years—or “13,000 hours” as he jokingly puts it—in high schools, middle schools, and alternative schools across the city.

His experience, however, is not unusual among successful applicants, according to Edward Vara, Region 20's instructional coordinator—a position roughly equivalent to a high school principal.

The amount of experience among TIIN's present crop of instructors, he says, ranges from three to 20 years. Many, he adds, hold master's degrees, and some have earned doctorates. But the medium of satellite education requires more than just intellectual prowess.

Although a typical classroom teacher may have mastered the use of an overhead projector and perhaps a microcomputer, TI-IN's approach to teaching requires that teachers be fluent in the simultaneous use of several different electronic learning aids, from television cameras to videodiscs.

Most importantly, according to network executives, successful teachers must project an image interesting enough to capture and hold the attention of distant, and sometimes unreceptive, students. “You really need to have camera presence,” Otterman explains. “You have to be a charismatic live wire; you just can't be a deadhead.”

TI-IN applicants undergo what amounts to a screen test in a 10-by-10-foot booth in the Region 20 studios. Seated at a specially designed workstation, would-be video teachers are asked to teach while manipulating a dizzying array of overhead cameras, videotape machines, and other electronic enhancements.

“It's a unique kind of environment,” Otterman concedes. “You have to have a good, solid academic background in your field, but you really have to be facile in the use of technology.”

Marshall, who successfully passed his first screen test, agrees that the medium forces teachers to adapt. “The first couple of times you have to force yourself to talk to the camera lens—where in a regular classroom you have 30 people giving you feedback,” he explains. But, he adds, “after a while that comes to you.”

“Once you get the idea that somebody really is there and they're watching you, that experience goes away,” he says.

Yet, Otterman stresses, not everyone who submits to the test is as confident as Marshall. And he expresses concern that the lack of qualified teachers is a definite limit on the growth of the medium. “Recruiting is very tough,” Otterman says. “There really isn't any teacher-training institute that is preparing people for this kind of a role.”

And, for all the emphasis placed on the academic credentials of its instructors, TI-IN officials admit the screen test generally is a determining factor in hiring. “It's not a beauty contest,” notes Sheila Nicholls, director of telecommunications for Region 20. “But on-air image is important. We feel it is important enough to pay attention to.”

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 that kids relate to is the image on that screen.”

He also looks for a willingness to try a new, and often alien, method of teaching. “I ask myself, `How teachable is this person?” he says. “Nobody comes in here knowing exactly how to do this.”

That challenge was a major factor behind David Marshall's decision to try his hand at “teleteaching.” After 13 years, “I was pretty well ready for something a little different,” he says.

In addition to teaching a conventional classroom in the mornings for Region 20, he now teaches one physical science course in the afternoons to between 50 and 60 students in small rural schools in Mississippi, Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Texas. He says he considers his course load “fairly manageable.”

Network officials point out that experienced teachers are required to teach no more than two courses a day. Because courses are capped at 200 students, the paperwork load could otherwise be overwhelming.

Teachers also are required to spend part of their day in “office hours” should students call in with questions on a special toll-free line. They typically earn an average annual salary of $25,000, Otterman says.

Marshall says he generally has enjoyed his first semester on the air, although he misses the physical interaction with his students. TI-IN officials agree that placing a camera in each classroom to allow the teachers to see their students—and the students to see each other—would make the system more interactive and make it easier for teachers to pick up on nonverbal clues from students who may be having learning difficulties.

But they point out that the cost of installing a satellite “uplink,” or ground station, at every school would be prohibitive from both technological and regulatory standpoints.

One element of TI-IN's approach that Marshall particularly appreciates is the policy of requiring an adult “facilitator” at every school to enforce discipline, handle classroom minutiae, and act as the “eyes and ears” of the TI-IN teacher.

The facilitators “free you up a little more so that you actually do the teaching part of it,” Marshall says. “They've been real good. They're helping the kids because they see them on a day-to-day basis.”

Marshall also is pleased that he has been allowed to experiment with a videodisc curriculum developed by the Texas School Boards Association; he is one of only a handful of instructors in the nation to employ the sophisticated device.

Developed by the research arm of the association, the series of disc and computer programs contains simulations of chemical reactions, laboratory exercises, and “real life” applications of physical sciences. A lesson in the physics of motion, for example, was filmed on the various rides and attractions at a Texas amusement park.

The disc technology, similar to the videodiscs used to record movies, allows teachers and students to freeze frames and skip at random from lesson to lesson. And the ability to retrieve information almost instantaneously from anywhere on the disc makes it easy to tailor individual lessons in any sequence.

Although it can be configured into a series of workstations for small group instruction, the version that Marshall uses is similar to a conventional blackboard in which lessons are demonstrated by the teacher to the students.

“That's really a jewel,” he says. “It adds so much more to your instruction.”

Marshall is unsure whether he will remain with TI-IN for the balance of his career. He notes, however, that interest among colleagues and friends in the relatively new medium have lent his work a new cachet.

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

Vol. 01, Issue 04, Pages 42-44

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