DEBI SUE EDMUND
Satellite TV connects rural classrooms nationwide
High school senior Christine Gordon listens attentively while Mrs. Riley, her psychology teacher, poses a question about the reliability of testing methods. Christine thinks for a moment, then ventures an answer. Mrs. Riley encourages her to elaborate. A typical American high school scene, right? Hardly. Christine is sitting in a classroom at lllini Central High School in Mason City. Besides the six juniors and seniors in the room with her, Christine's classmates include students from as far away as Happy Camp, Calif. Mrs. Riley is in San Antonio, Texas; she is also on television.
The lllini Central High School students are participants in the Illinois STAR School Program, Illinois' first statewide satellite education network. The program, now serving about 300 students around the state, went on-line last April. It is a joint venture of the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and Western Illinois University in Macomb. The project in Illinois is part of the TI-IN United STAR Network, a federal grant program which required that partnerships be formed between local elementary and secondary schools, institutions of higher education and private business. STAR stands for Satellite Transmitted Academic Resources.
The STAR Schools Program enables students and faculty to receive courses and enrichment programs not otherwise available to them, according to Richard Haney, assistant superintendent for rural education at ISBE. Courses offered via satellite this fall included advanced math and science, several foreign languages and other courses that would attract only a small number of students in one school.
The live classes use an interactive two-way audio, one-way video satellite-transmitted system, which allows students to talk directly with teachers by phone. Students take tests and do homework assignments, sending them to the teachers by mail. An electronic writing tablet that comes with the satellite package even makes it possible for students to "step up to the blackboard." Whatever the student writes on the graphics tablet can be transmitted to the teacher, who can show other students what was written. Teachers certified in other subjects are present in the classroom to administer tests and provide support to the televised teacher.
Students also have access to enrichment programs. Programs being produced by WIU in their studios include a career and guidance program focusing on math and science, a live concert series featuring Illinois high school bands and a program on French culture filmed on location and presented entirely in French.
WIU and ISBE's partners in the STAR Schools Program include the University of Alabama, California State University at Chico, Mississippi State University, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, TI-IN Network of Texas, Educational Service Center Region 20 in San Antonio and the Texas Education Agency. Participating schools in Illinois have access to supplemental courses offered by each of these institutions as well as those broadcast by WIU and the TI-IN Network in Texas (a private corporation). WIU can also produce programming that is Illinois-specific, such as a course on the state's history, if schools request it. "We have Illinois money producing Illinois programming for Illinois schools," says Michael Dickson, executive director of the WIU-ISBE Satellite Education Network, which coordinates the STAR Schools Program in Illinois.
The U.S. Department of Education awarded a $918,326 grant for the 1988-89 school year to ISBE and WIU to establish 52 satellite receiving sites at rural schools and educational service centers. Second-year federal funding of $526,710 allowed 23 additional sites in Illinois to join the network for the 1989-90 school year. Most of the money was used for purchase of the satellite equipment installed at these sites. Last October, the Board of Governors authorized WIU to reallocate $840,000 from its existing budget over a five-year period to cover construction and installation of its satellite uplink facility.
The Illinois General Assembly provided additional help last spring. Besides approving H.B. 1227, sponsored by Rep. Bill Edley (D-95, Macomb), to change the school code to allow ISBE to offer credit for classes taken via the interactive satellite sys-
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tem, WIU received a half million dollars for the TI-IN project ($150,000 in general revenue funds via S.B. 281 for programming and $350,000 via the Madigan/Rock temporary income tax increase for updating studio and broadcasting equipment). But Gov. James R. Thompson vetoed a line item in another bill (H.B. 592) that would have provided $216,000 in grants to bring new districts into the network. Edley, who plans to introduce a similar bill this year, says, "I think some of the reticence was due to those waiting to see how well the system works."
The original 52 sites selected for the grant program were chosen from more than 100 applicants. Those 52 qualified as rural, remote school districts with fewer than 700 students and a relatively high concentration of Chapter 1 (educationally disadvantaged) students from low-income families. Federal grants cover only one year for qualifying districts.
Haney says TI-IN offers a cost-effective way to bring advanced courses to rural high school students. "Our prime goal is to offer courses that we could not provide any other way. We think this is an excellent opportunity for rural schools to be competitive with their larger neighbors."
Another important question:
Districts that did not meet the guidelines for federal funding may also buy into the network by purchasing the satellite equipment and paid programming themselves. Currently, nine have done so, Haney says. "Our network will handle as many schools as would like to belong. The more schools we have, the better the programming we can give." School districts wanting to join the network can spread the cost over a seven-year period through a loan program offered by the Illinois Development Finance Authority.
Dickson and Haney both acknowledge that the program has its problems and its critics. The two biggest problems have involved scheduling and the academic preparation of some of the students, Dickson says. Since class periods do not start and end at the same times around the state, schools have had to be flexible. Because of the limited curriculum in a lot of these schools, some students, for instance, may not have taken the math courses they would need before taking calculus.
Some critics have expressed concern that the system would replace local teachers with television sets, but Haney denies this. "There is not, nor will there ever be, a teacher replaced by this program," he says. "These are courses that small rural schools cannot offer in their curriculum because of the number of students involved." Others have feared that the technology involved would prove intimidating. "Frankly, we've had a bigger problem with the adults than the students," Dickson says. "Their training with things like Nintendo, PAC-Man and computer games lends itself to this sort of thing. Rather than being intimidated, we find that the students are really turned on by it."
The program had to overcome traditional competitiveness in Illinois' education hierarchy. "Western Illinois University and the State Board of Education started as competitors," Haney says. "But we quickly determined that the best chance we had to put together a comprehensive program was to unite — not only Western and the Illinois State Board of Education — but with other partners around the country." The STAR School Program also competed with other technologies, according to Rep. Ediey. Other options were investigated, including a fiber optic cable program backed by the Illinois Farm Bureau an a two-way audio, two-way video sytem, but the TI-IN system was found to be the most flexible and cost-effective, he says.
Another important question: Will the small school district be able to afford the continuing cost? After the federal grants expire, each district's costs will include an annual $3,650 fee, which covers the maintenance agreement for the equipment, tape back-up, access to enrichment courses and staff development programs, and an 800 number to call the teachers about special problems. An additional basic programming fee of roughly $250 per participating student per semester is assessed as tuition and paid by the district.
In Mason City, students and staff are enthusiastic about the program. "The one negative aspect so far is the cost involved," high school principal David Russell says. "But it's a trade-off. It's going to cost you some bucks, but we are offering five courses this year that we could not have offered otherwise." In the fall, 24 of the high school's 265 students were enrolled in the televised courses, and 25 are signed up for spring. These courses include astronomy, French, art history and appreciation, psychology and marine science.
Amy Hakman, a science and chemistry teacher who serve as facilitator for the psychology class in Mason City, likes the program. "If a student is absent for a day, we can tape the class for him. And the teachers are very charismatic. They present their material well." Matt Trabue, a junior taking the psychology course, says the class has captured his interest so much that he plans to pursue psychology in college. "At first it [the call-in function] was weird. Nobody wanted to ask a questions," he says. "But now, we use it all the time."
"We are very encouraged," Haney says. "The program is much farther along than we expected it to be at this time. Out of our 75 sites, we may have one or two that we will want to move at the end of the year because of [under]utilization. Two out of 75 is outstanding."
Not simply for students, the interactive television offers teacher training. The Illinois teachers interact live with nationally known consultants and other teachers in about 30 states. Dickson says, "We've had very heavy use of teacher inservice training .... used extensively for staff development in the areas of math, science and foreign languages. I think the biggest thing the teachers like about the system is that it provides them with educational opportunities themselves.
Debi Sue Edmund is a Springfield freelance writer and editor.
20/January 1990/Illinois Issues