A Distance Learning System That Pays All Its Own Costs

Article excerpt

Distance learning generally relies on one or more telecommunications technologies to deliver course instruction from a central location to students at remote locations. One thing that most distance learning systems have in common is that they are course delivery methods, not interactive teaching environments. Educators in the Keene, New Hampshire, area have taken this a step further, creating an interactive, distance-learning system by combining video and microwave technologies.

The system is producing significant results, yielding intrinsic as well as intangible benefits such as development of interpersonal skills for students and educators. The program is also economically justifiable and potentially self-sustaining-vital statistics if the program is to succeed.

Keene is a town of 25,000 located in southwestern New Hampshire. While essentially a rural community, the educational atmosphere in Keene is decidedly contemporary. For example, all the classrooms at Keene Junior High School are connected via a four-channel video-distribution system. The bidirectional network allows any classroom in the school to broadcast to any other classroom. Every morning the students are greeted by a newscast from WCAN (for Cardinal Area News), which is operated by the students and broadcast throughout the school.

Born From a Need for Equity

The geographical variation in the area served by School Administrative Unit (SAU) 29 presents challenges in providing equality of course material. It was this need that brought Keene's administrators to the distance-learning concept in December 1987. Elliot Washor, a reading and computer literacy teacher at Keene Junior High School, was selected as distance-learning project coordinator. The goal was to equalize course offerings between schools in Westmoreland, Marlborough and Chesterfield. Most of these towns are rural and scattered throughout mountainous southwestern New Hampshire. However, all their students eventually converge on Keene High School.

Course offerings of each outlying school differ and are generally limited compared to those offered at Keene. For example, students from outlying schools entering at the ninth-grade level will not have taken the same computer courses, had the same opportunity for foreign-language study or the opportunity to take algebra. Traditionally, these students have been at a considerable disadvantage compared with their peers at Keene. In addition, they are also strangers to the Keene students, whom they will first meet upon entering the high school.

The members of SAU 29 agreed that distance learning might be a unique way to solve the curriculum inequities in the area, while opening the door to other activities such as community education and staff development. By televising courses emanating from Keene Junior High and transmitting them to the other outlying schools, the inequity in curriculum could be reduced and students from each school could build relationships before entering the high school.

Linked by Microwave

One of the major questions was which method of delivery to choose-telephone or microwave. Telephone, the most obvious choice, was ruled out. First, because of cost considerations, and second, because T1 lines could not accommodate the bandwidth of the program material, thus eliminating the possibility of using full-motion video.

Microwave transmission had neither of these drawbacks. A proposal submitted by Motorola C&E, of Schaumburg, Ill., was significantly less expensive, required no outside control or reliance on a third-party carrier, and promised to deliver broadcast-quality audio and video. Microwave transmission was selected as the medium choice.

A classroom at Keene Junior High was configured for broadcast by Video Labs of Hudson, N.H., and cabling was installed by Macro Media Systems of Merrimack, N.H. The microwave equipment was designed and installed by Motorola's office in Keene. …