IN THE MID-1950s, a group of Indiana school systems hired an airplane to fly a figure-eight pattern overhead, beaming down instructional TV programs. Teachers at one end of the loop complained that the signal faded when the plane reached the other end of the loop, and eventually the flights were cancelled.
This pedagogical plane was just one of many expensive attempts to wed telecommunications technology to America's classrooms. Even though the wedding never took place, television took up permanent residence, a semi-somnolent suitor who cost hundreds of millions of dollars and did little. Less than one-third of the nation's K-12 students, for example, now receive regular TV instruction.
But the suitor is making passionate promises once again, this time under guise of cable.
All across the country, virtually every municipality granting a franchise is demanding that the $1 billion-a-year cable construction industry wire all local schools for free.
"We'll probably be asking for the same thing," says Harry Burke, superintendent of the Educational Media Center of the District's public schools.
Program availability will increase dramatically because cable can offer over 100 channels, any number of which may be disignated for classroom use. At present, most classrooms are limited to regular broadcasts on public TV stations.
It is still too soon to know what, if anything, this plenitude will mean. "Use of television will not change significantly just because cable has arrived," warns Ray Vanderbilt, TV specialist for the Arlington County public schools, where local cable operators have provided free cable connections.
But cable, undeniably, has many possibilities some of which are already being explored in schools around the country. In Spokane, Washington, local public schools have access to five channels. Teachers can tape programs for later use, or they can schedule their own special cable casts via a computer. The programs available cover the entire curriculum, with emphasis on basic skills.
The nonprofit Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-Span), headquartered in Northern Virginia and run by a consortium of cable operators, provides live civic lessons -- i.e. coverage of U.S. House of Representatives proceedings and committee hearings. C-Span also lets high school students interview legislators on programs specially designed for classroom use.
The Irvine, California, public schools have two-way television that permits elementary school children to communicate with the broadcast studio. High school students in Reading, Pennsylvania, use two-way to talk directly with local politicians. In San Diego, Cox Cable has linked two-way cable via computer to a daba base of electronically written information. "Students at all levels can read the screen like a book," says a Cox spokesman.
School systems may eventually be able to use cable's two-way communications capability for counseling services, special classes, in-service programs for teachers, pupil and personnel data banks, and financial record-keeping. "It'll also help with meetings and various affairs among our regional offices," says Harry Burke.
By coincidence, cable is emerging along with the first generation of educators who have themselves grown up on television. Many of today's teachers read Media and Methods magazine, attend conferences put on by organizations such as the Audio-Visual Institute for Effective Communication, and are likely to see TV as an ally. For example, some schools have had success using scripts from prime-time programs to teach reading. "What irony," notes Bernard Solomon, an assistant to the Philadelphia school superintendent, "this technical marvel of banality is turning non-readers into readers, non-achievers into students, and drop outs into attendees."
Instructional television (designed to teach specific school lessons, as opposed to educational programs, designed to reach a more general at-home audience) is becoming more sophisticated with flashy, fast-paced production techniques replacing the "talking head" approach where the camera simply focused on a teacher behind a desk. And instructional programs augment, rather than replace, the live teacher. "There has to be a partnership between the teacher in the classroom and the teacher on television," says educational telecommunications consultant Harold E. Wigren. "A teacher has to be there to explain, repeat, and answer questions."
Also many instructional programs come equipped with student workbooks and other printed material. One typical "telecourse," entitled "Think About," put out by the Indiana based Agency for Instructional Television, a non-profit producer, is designed to teach critical thinking, and has in addition to the telecasts, a 96-page teacher manual which provides discussion points, suggested activities, and background material. As a measure of how instructional television has become interwined with the printed word, such program productin is called "video publishing."
While cable receives most of the attention, another TV-related technological innovation, videodiscs (which resemble phonograph records but play pictures and sound), are also touted as a valuable educational tool.
"Videodiscs are attractive because they're not wed to broadcast or cablecast schedules," says Karen Klass Jaffe, telecommunications specialist for the National Educational Association. "Also a teacher may stop, start or freeze on any particular frame."
NEA and ABC have developed 20 one-hour videodiscs to be available in the 1981-82 school year. Each disc has six, 10-minute program segments, and subject matter includes news, language skills, sciences, arts and social issues.
NEA and ABC tested the videodiscs in 10 states last year and found price to be a prime problem. Discs can be used only after the school system has invested in television sets and videodisc playback equipment. A disc player and 20 new discs will usually cost a school system approximately $1,300. On top of that the school must invest in color television sets to use the equipment. According to industry estimates, less than one-third of the nation's classrooms are properly equipped.
Whether cable or videodisc wins the minds and money of America's classrooms, parents should not expect much educational programming on home cable channels. Experts rank Calliope, Nickelodeum and other childrenhs cable services far above standard network fare, but they are designed, says a cable official, as an "electronic sandbox."
"We didn't try to be educational with any of this in the sense of being curricular like 'Sesame Street,'" Dr. Vivian Horner, who helped develop Nickelodeum, has told reporters. "We're trying to do childrenhs entertainment that's enlightening, but we don't set specific teaching goals."
Some locally produced programs, such as Concord, New Hampshire's "I Like Kids Creating," offer children opportunities to produce programs for and about themselves. Also many cable systems will provide special services for home-bound children. With so many cable channels available, such programming becomes economically feasible even if it has relatively few views.
As more schools get wired for cable, important questions remain to be answered.
Will cable operators pass the costs of programming for schools on to cable subscribers? No one knows. But one major school system, Dallas, has been promised $3.6 million worth of broadcast equipment and production funds over the 15-year-life of the total cable franchise. Someone will wind up paying for such extras.
What new costs in terms of equipment, programs, maintenance and additional wiring will cable demand of schools? "Every time you turn around there are dollars attracted to everything," says an official of the Cincinnati public system, which just received four free cable channels. D.C. school official Burke estimates that only "20-25 percent" of the city's classrooms have access to a television set, and that taking full advantage of cable could cost "millions of dollars."
"Very few school administrators know or want to admit that television always involves recurring expenses," says a former Spokane school official. Recent figures contained in the Hope Report, an education industry newsletter, indicate that TV now costs U.S. schools over $70 million annually. School systems hard-pressed simply to maintain basic services are not likely to spend more.
Who will produce progrms for all the newly-available channels? Local, state and federal tax dollars now finance virtually every program designed for school use. Malcolm Davis, director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education, estimates that the total cost last year was around $10 million. "Expense is the biggest problem in further program availability," he says.
Most importantly, will cable improve the quality of education, or will it become another airplane droning overhead?
After three decades of experience, educators have changed their expectations. "Television is just another teaching tool," says Jaffe.