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Fax and TV team up in remote classroom learning program.

As Midwestern farm towns have lost population, declining enrollments--and budgets--have forced many rural school district to drop specialized courses such as foreign languages.

But in Sibley County, Minnesota, public school officials have found an innovative way to provide rural students with the courses they need--a pioneering interactive instruction system using television and a specialized facsimile machine from Ricoh Corp. that communicates over data and cable lines as well as the public telephone network.

The system opens up new courses taught at one location to students from as many as four county schools. It provides for simultaneous instruction and exchange of hard copy, and it is the only operational teaching system using cable lines for both television and fax transmissions.

The system is very successful, according to David Czech, director of the Sibley County Co-op Center, which coordinates sharing of educational resources among the county's five school districts. Some 325 of the district's 2500 students in kindergarten through 12th grade have taken interactive courses in the system's first two years.

Each of the four schools has dedicated television classrooms that are used for nearly every period of the school day, and in the evenings for college-level classes as well. What's more, the system is sometimes used for early morning sessions and faculty and administration meetings are conducted during many free segments. School administrators use the fax machines to communicate between schools.

"The people in our communities can't believe it's happening here," Czech says. "It's very futuristic."

The interactive system wasn't the first solution Sibley County officials used in adjusting to declining enrollments, which began in Sibley County schools about 10 years ago.

"Our initial response was to keep the courses available by bussing students to the school that taught the courses they needed," Czech says.

That solution was expensive for the schools and grueling for the students, who spent as much as an additional hour and a half on a bus each day, he noted.

By the early 1980s, four of the county schools were hooked to a common cable television line--Triax Cablevision--and the Sibley County Cable Commission began investigating the feasibility and cost of installing an interactive television learning system. By using the existing cable system for delivery, the commission learned that costs could be kept to a minimum.

Eventually the commission applied for and received a $150,000 grant for the State of Minnesota to cover the system's initial equipment and installation costs.

Each of the four schools now has one classroom outfitted as a television broadcasting studio, so that classes can originate at any of the schools. Each room is equipped with a Ricoh fax, three television cameras, two microphones, and eight television monitors. The teacher operates from a podium surrounded by four ceiling-mounted monitors and a variety of controls for marking such selections as which of three camera signals to transmit. (The cameras can be pointed at the students, the teacher, or the teacher's writing pad.) The other four monitors are for the students. Views are provided of each of the three remote classrooms. The fourth set is turned either to the teacher, the teacher's writing pad, or the students in the room.

Because television cables are designed for one-way communication--from the studio to the viewer--Sibley achieved interactive television by assigning a different cable channel for each school's broadcasts. The channels can be viewed by any cable subscribers. Consequently, a number of local residents are now learning a foreign language in their spare time, and parents and grandparents can tune in to watch their relatives in the classroom.

Once the system was in operation, a new need was discovered. Tests, test results, and other class materials were being delivered by a courier system, actually a network of student and teachers who traveled regularly between the schools.

While the courier system was cost effective, it was slow, taking two to three days for each delivery. The delay meant that test results were rarely delivered while the questions were still fresh in the students' minds. Furthermore, teachers were locked into their plans a few days before the class met, affording no opportunity for a pop quiz or changes in plans due to student absences.

Because fax is easy to use and delivers documents in a matter of seconds, it is the ideal hard copy delivery system, Czech noted. But a cost study showed that regular fax machines communicating over the phone lines could be very expensive for the co-op. In addition, line use charges were projected to be high, as some of the calls would incur long distance charges.

As an alternative Ricoh suggested hooking up a network of its R2100 units, which can communicate asynchronously over a variety of nontraditional fax delivery systems, such as fixed-cost private data networks.

Such a delivery system has a number of advantages over standard fax. The R2100 is less expensive to operate, as telephone line charges can be totally eliminated. In addition, fax travels at twice the speed on cable as over phone lines.

While the R2100 had never before been used over cable lines, Ricoh and the Triax cable company gave assurances that it could be done, and the co-op gave them a go-ahead.

Connecting the R2100 to the cable system proved to be straightforward--commercially available modems can connect to the terminal through its RS-232C interface, converting the R2100's asynchronous data signals for transmission over the cable as simulated TV signals.

Once on the cable, however, technicians had several major challenges in routing it. For instance, like the television, the fax required bidirectional communications on the one-way cable system. Again the solution was to put each fax on two channels--actually in the "guard bands" between channels--one for outgoing messages, another for incoming.

Developing the pioneering fax delivery system required the expertise and cooperation of three groups: the fax manufacturer, the cable company, and the co-op. According to Czech: "Bob Kendall, Ricoh engineer, Eugene Johengen, Sibley County Co-op Center technician, and David Schilling, Triax Cablevision technician, worked extremely well together in perfecting the use of the fax on cable."

Some classes use fax more extensively than others. Agri-business classes, for example, rely on it heavily for various business reports used in the curriculum.

Sibley is considering expanding the system next fall to include several computers in each television room for instruction in computer aided design drafting. The computers would serve as work stations, and also be connected through the cable network.

"This shows what can be done in a rural setting with television and the transmission of hard copy," Czech says. "It's having a very positive impact on education in Minnesota.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Facsimile
Publication:Communications News
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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