An innovative distance learning program based in Spokane, Wash., is going urban. Since 1986 the Educational Service District (ESD) 101 has been offering satellite-- based education to students in the outback of Washington, Alaska, Oregon and other states. Students in these out-of-the-way schools have been able to learn Russian, peer behind the scenes of a CNN news room and even meet astronauts.
What sets ESD 101 apart from other televised learning systems is that all of its courses are interactive --students can call teacher assistants for help and get tests back the day after they take them.
A Star Schools Grant
When ESD 101 was first launched, all of its courses were broadcast via satellite to hundreds of rural schoolhouses. But students would have to wait two weeks just to get their tests back because they were sent by standard U.S. mail.
All this changed after ESD 101 received its first Star Schools grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 1990. With this, ESD 101 developed a much faster way of communicating using network technology from Engage Communication, Inc., of Aptos, Calff.
Engage provided the communications hardware and software needed to send data along with the video transmissions. ESD also provided students with an 800-number help line, through which students can get help with homework from their homes.
Data and Video Sent at Once
Now while students are busy learning from the teacher, their tests, homework assignments and graded papers are broadcast to them over the same satellite signal.
When a class begins, the teacher uses Engage's SyncSatellite Publishing software to put outgoing material into an electronic "out basket." These are then broadcast to all of the participating schools at 64 kbps. Each school has a Macintosh equipped with a SyncSatellite receiver, which filters out the specific information addressed to a given classroom.
When a lesson is finished, tests and assignments are already printed in the classroom, waiting to be used by students. After a test is taken, it is scanned into a Mac, then sent back to Spokane, via CE Software Inc.'s QuickMail, for grading that evening. Finally, tests are shipped back via satellite to students the next day.
Bringing Education Downtown
Until recently, ESD 101 has appealed largely to rural areas. However, Engage recently released SyncCATV a system designed to expand the bounds of SyncSatellite into the world of cable television. According to Steve Witter, spokesperson for ESD 101, "Before SyncCATV, the only sites that could receive downlinks were those that could afford rural systems." Now, he notes, "more and more you are seeing urban areas come on board."
Previously, schools would have to buy a complete satellite receiver system, which includes a satellite dish and a tuner to pick up the signal. At least one technically competent person is required to keep it all up and running.
But SyncCATV now enables urban school districts to take advantage of ESD 101's classes without having to put a satellite receiver at each school. …