EDUCATION

High-tech in the country classroom

ANNE GREGOR December 7 1987
EDUCATION

High-tech in the country classroom

ANNE GREGOR December 7 1987

High-tech in the country classroom

EDUCATION

At 8:05 a.m. on a recent Monday, Prof. Harry Wohlert greeted four senior students at Plevna high school in the village of Plevna, Mont., (population 200) with a cheerful “Guten Tag”— and began to teach a German class. Wohlert and his students discussed the weather and German-American relations, reviewed some fine points of German grammar and talked about the homework assignment. Although the class proceeded

along conventional lines, the teaching method was thoroughly modern. Wohlert was conducting the lesson from a TV studio on the campus of Oklahoma State University (OSU) in Stillwater, 1,500 km from Plevna. His Montana students were among more than 1,100 scattered throughout neighboring states who were watching Wohlert on color TV monitors. And Plevna was the host school that day, which meant that it was the Plevna students’ turn to communicate directly with Wohlert through a two-way audio system.

Modern technology is revolutionizing many U.S. country schools, enabling students even in remote areas to take college-entrance programs, which many small schools eliminated years ago because they could not afford the specialized personnel. Now, a school equipped with a satellite dish can pick up a variety of academic programs that are offered by both publicly funded and private educational TV

networks. Some of the programs also provide supplementary material for computers, tape recorders and video cassette recorders for use in laboratory work and homework assignments. But the costs to local school boards for such equipment and services are considerably less than the salary of a teaching specialist. In turn, the success of TV teaching has encouraged both public and private networks to provide a greater variety of programming.

Some Canadian educators have also expressed interest in experimenting with the use of satellites to reach remote areas. To that end, the Alberta department of education and Access Network, a Crown corporation that provides educational telecommunications services, will begin a trial program in February, in which a satellite computer network will allow correspondence students in rural Alberta to communicate with each other.

One of the major U.S. pioneers in the field is OSU, which three years ago started broadcasting German and physics classes through its nonprofit College of Arts and Science Teleconferencing Service. Initially, administrators had only modest ambitions for the program, which was intended to help raise academic standards among local rural schools. But when word of the program began to spread, rural schools in other states expressed interest. “Once we got started, it just mush-

roomed,” said OSU president Lawrence Boger. Now, OSU broadcasts Wohlert’s German classes to 1,100 students in 13 states and a physics class to 400 students. Administrators added calculus to the curriculum in August, expect to add trigonometry in January and are planning classes in chemistry, home economics and agriculture.

The new technology may provide the solution to a problem experienced by many rural schools in the United States and Canada: while colleges and universities are demanding better marks from applicants, and urban public schools have upgraded their standards accordingly, rural schools have not kept pace. In Plevna high school’s case, school superintendent George Bailey said that until the German lessons began this fall, it “had not offered a foreign language class in 15 years.” Bailey said that the district school, with classes from kindergarten to Grade 12, draws its 135 students from a ranching and farming area in eastern Montana. He said that it was not practical to pay the $12,000 yearly salary of a certified part-time foreignlanguage teacher for only four students—even if one could be attracted to such a remote area.

Instead, the school decided to invest $2,000 in a satellite receiver and pay a $1,750 annual fee to OSU for two hours a week of television programming and three hours a week of computerized laboratory work—which includes exercises in grammar and vocabulary. The fee also covers regular access to Wohlert, either directly by telephone or through messages by telephone or computer. One of the four Plevna students, Jay Shumaker, 17, said that he plans to study engineering at college. “We need foreign languages to go on to college,” he added.

Indeed, satellite schools may make more demands on the teachers than on the students. Said Wohlert: “Being on the air is much harder than being in the classroom. You cannot get away with being unprepared on television.” Meanwhile, for rural students participating in such programs, the future looks bright. Wohlert said that the marks recorded by a group of students from one of the poorest areas in Tennessee were so high that he doublechecked them to make sure that they were correct. They were.

ANNE GREGOR

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER