Interactive communication technologies in common use today include two-way text-based (e.g., computer networks), two-way audio (e.g., telephone, cellular telephone), two-way video/two-way audio (e.g., fiber optic), and one-way video/two-way audio (hybrid) systems. Two-way video/two-way audio systems are still rare, but on the increase.
Various networks for children or for education have been established (e.g., Kids Network and FrEdMail). Networks are being used for "learning circles" or for innovative writing applications. Benefits of networks include collaborative learning and greater exposure to national or global perspectives. The National Geographic Society in association with the National Science Foundation sponsors the Kids Network (developed by the Technical Education Research Center, or TERC), on which students can electronically send data they have collected to other schools around the United States. Scientists produce a national report utilizing the students data, and they make themselves available, via electronic mail, to answer students questions (Heller 1991). (Interactions on this network are described in greater detail in Chapter III.) Along similar lines, NASA's SpaceLink program connects students with astronauts and scientists.
Another model of collaborative learning uses networks to allow students at diverse sites to share activities and ideas and learn from each other. AT&T's Long Distance Learning Network has been used to promote "learning circles", electronic communities composed of about eight classrooms each whose students and teachers collaborate on relevant educational projects (Riel 1990c). These projects come from within the classrooms curricula and allow students actively to research, locate, and share knowledge with students and teachers at the other sites. Riel (1990b) noted that the "learning circle" requires collaborative work among the students, with students taking on the role of teacher and participating actively in the learning process. The circles benefit teachers as well by reducing their isolation from colleagues, as will be discussed in Chapter IV.
Similar network-based educational experiences have been reported for the FrEdMail network (Levin, Waugh, Kim & Miyake 1990). Electronic communication can start when someone proposes an idea on the network. Others respond favorably to the idea, or the idea dies away. If there is favorable response, the interested individuals exchange electronic mail, and the idea's proponent sets up a conference. Levin, Kim & Riel (1990) found that successful networks exhibited at least four of the following five features:
Not all networking experiences need be as elaborate as those reported above. Students can use networks merely to communicate with other students or with adults, and these simpler communications may hold educational benefits. Griffin and Cole (1987) described innovative applications of communications technology in their research with minority students. An international exchange in real time between students in San Diego, California, and students in Pistoia, Italy, resulted in the American students identifying some similarities between the Italian and Spanish languages (some of the students were bilingual) and learning concretely about the notion of time zones. Another group of students used the network to write rap to university researchers in real time. Thinking and composition skills that were not apparent in much of their school work became evident when students were engaged in a task that was meaningful to them. Barriers created by differences in age and cultural group were lessened when communicating over a network.
Two-Way Video/Two-Way Audio-- Systems that provide both visual and auditory communication allow the maximum amount of interactivity between teachers and students. These two-way video/two-way audio systems provide monitors, cameras, and microphones at the teacher's and multiple students sites. The teacher can see and hear the students; students can see and hear the teacher and can see and hear each other. Communication between teacher and students takes place in real time. A variety of technologies can provide this type of communication. These include fiber-optic lines (thin glass rods that transmit laser light impulses and are laid underground), microwave technology (where data are transmitted by a series of towers established across the terrain), and satellite.
Historically, two-way video/two-way audio has been stymied by the high cost of the broad bandwidth needed to transmit full-motion video. Past attempts to compress video resulted in poor-quality images. However, video compression techniques have improved dramatically. Video signals, when transmitted through fiber-optic lines, show virtually no loss of image quality (West 1991b). Currently, video images transmitted via microwave are not compressed. The compression of video images for delivery via satellite still presents some problems (e.g., "jerkiness' in the picture). However, a great deal of development work is being done in this area, and improvements and breakthroughs are measured by months rather than years.
At present, these systems are expensive by school standards. For example, the codecs (encoders/decoders) to convert (at the sender's site) the sender's analog signals to digital signals and (at the receiver's site) the digital signals back to analog currently cost about $20,000 to $30,000. Cameras and monitors, too, are expensive. There is a strong interest in making this technology more affordable, however. The Communications Competitiveness and Infrastructure Modernization Act, originally sponsored by Senators Al Gore and Conrad Burns, would set as a national goal the establishment of an "advanced, interactive. . .broad band communications system" to serve homes, schools, and other users, and to provide a "broad range of new educational opportunities for students of all ages". Many states are also investing a considerable amount of money in planning and establishing networks capable of providing two-way video/two-way audio. In Oregon, for example, Network 2 of the state's EdNet has been used by higher education institutions and became available to K-12 users in the fall of 1992.
One-Way Video/Two-Way Audio-- Satellite technology can deliver relatively affordable instruction. Direct broadcast satellite (DBS) technology consists of high-powered satellite transmissions received by small, low-power receivers. These receivers are low in cost ($300 to $400) and easy to operate and install, making them good choices for the needs of individual schools (Douglas & Bransford 1991). In an attempt to reduce the costs of satellite communication (and thereby increase utilization), the EDSAT Institute, a not-for-profit organization, is actively working to bring to fruition a satellite dedicated to education (West 1991).
Audio/video signals can be broadcast via satellite to an unlimited number of sites and over large geographic areas. It should be noted, however, that limits must be placed on the number of receive sites to enable the teacher to handle effectively the load of students in multiple classrooms. The Los Angeles County School District recently launched a satellite education project beaming mathematics and science lessons (in English and in Spanish) to at-risk students. In this program, classroom teachers team up with the on-camera teachers in a new kind of team-teaching approach ("Technology-aided teaching," 1991).
When coupled with a telephone, satellite systems can provide live, one- way, full-motion video with two-way audio interactivity. This hybridizing of discrete technologies is a significant development in communication and can provide economical, customized systems to meet the needs of individuals, classrooms, schools, and districts (Douglas & Bransford 1991). Live-broadcast teachers can communicate in real time with the students in their audience, fine- tuning their instruction to meet student needs. Students may regard these one- way video/two-way audio, satellite-based systems as being similar to television; accordingly, production values must be high, and the teacher must be able to "perform" during the broadcast.
Other, newer hybrid systems are exemplified by the network emanating from Spokane, Washington's Educational School District (ESD) 101. This satellite- based network uses one video channel, one audio channel, and one data channel. The teacher interacts with students through the audio channel as he/she delivers instruction through video. At the same time, information (text and graphics) can be delivered from the teacher's site to the students site, where it is captured on a computer. Students also use the channel to respond to the teacher after class hours, deliver homework assignments, and so on. A scanner is available at each school site, so students can input text and other data.
Telephone and Voicemail-- Telephone companies are exploring a variety of educationally relevant services that they may begin offering over regular telephone lines. These include linking school or home computers to database services, voicemail services to keep parents informed of homework assignments and school activities, cellular telephones, and audiographic communication, including today's slow-scan visual images and future, faster imaging (Douglas & Bransford 1991).
Star Schools Program-- The Star Schools program provides U.S. Department of Education funds for telecommunications projects offering instruction to students and training for teachers ("Educators Ask Not for the Moon", 1991). Star Schools programs bring together colleges, universities, and businesses to help schools acquire equipment (usually satellite or microwave, but also computers, modems, monitors, etc.) and instructional programming to improve science, mathematics, foreign language, and other subject instruction especially for students in Chapter 1 schools or students who lack access to instruction in those fields (FCCSET Committee on Education and Human Resources 1991). In 1988, the first year of the program, four demonstration projects were funded: three of the projects used video satellite broadcasts in conjunction with telephones and modems to achieve one-way video/two-way audio communication; one program used an electronic mail (e-mail) system. Four additional projects were funded in 1990. The Department of Education estimates that 6,000 schools are now participating with over 20,000 elementary and 20,000 high school students enrolled in Star Schools courses. New courses are being offered in advanced placement as well as those emphasizing higher-order thinking skills (Sheekey & Douglas 1991).
State and Regional Distance Learning Initiatives-- The past decade has brought a dramatic increase in distance-learning in K-12 education, reflecting the rapid development of cost-effective, powerful communications technologies (Office of Technology Assessment 1989). Given the nature of the technology, systems are usually developed at the state or regional, rather than the local, level. Virtually all states are interested in using distance-learning technologies for K-12 education (Office of Technology Assessment 1989). States vary in the level at which they are currently implementing distance education projects: some have projects in place while others are in planning stages; some have postsecondary programs only but are looking to expand into elementary/secondary education (Office of Technology Assessment 1989).
Most state distance-learning projects involve hybrid systems (e.g., some combination of satellite, cable, computer network, and fiber-optic technologies). Many states are very active in distance-learning, including Alaska, Texas, Utah, Kansas, Kentucky, Washington, Oregon, and Iowa.
The Alaskan Teleconferencing Network and the University of Alaska Computer Network are used by school districts not only for electronic mail and teleconferencing, but also for the delivery of some instructional resources (Office of Technology Assessment 1989). Video programming is used extensively in Alaska, where, often in small villages in isolated communities, many of the students fall into at-risk categories of one type or another. Video can be used to reduce the mental distance between communities there, provide more global views of the world, and increase students' motivation and involvement in education (Agency for Instructional Technology 1987).
The Texas Education Network (TENET), started in 1991, provides electronic mail, bulletin board, conferencing, and database capabilities to more than 4,300 public school users statewide. A commercial program started in Texas, TI- IN, provides live instructional broadcasts to more than 700 sites in 32 states.
Utah has a microwave communication system, EDNET, which is used for two-way audio and video presentation of high school instruction around the state. Other projects in Utah include using audiographic communications to deliver advanced placement courses and a distance-learning project using two-way cable/microwave technologies to link an elementary, a junior, and two senior high schools with the College of Eastern Utah (Office of Technology Assessment 1989).
Southwestern Bell Telephone Company is installing 168 miles of fiber optic cable for an interactive video network that will enable schools throughout Kansas to share teachers, with students at remote sites participating in class discussions via two-way video (Sheekey & Douglas 1991).
Kentucky is developing a statewide instructional satellite network, transmitting centrally to downlinks for each of the state's 1,300 elementary and secondary schools. Kentucky's plan calls for programming to be live and interactive (Office of Technology Assessment 1989).
Washington has a variety of distance-learning systems in place, including the one emanating from Spokane described above and the Washington Higher Education Telecommunications System (WHETS). WHETS is a microwave-based, two-way video/two-way audio system that connects multiple campuses.
In Oregon, EdNet provides one-way video, two-way audio capability to more than 100 schools and school districts and has also established a two-way video/two-way audio system network currently used by 40 institutions of higher education, state government agencies, and industry.
In Iowa a one-way video/two-way audio network has been initiated and is in the process of deployment.
Two-way video/two-way audio and one-way video/two-way audio are providing larger groups of students with access to instruction in advanced courses and to exemplary teachers. If used merely to present lectures to groups of students, however, these technologies do not fulfill their potential to support active student-centered learning. States have exerted leadership in developing the infrastructure for interactive distance-learning. What we need now are models for effective instruction using the full capabilities of the technology in ways that support collaborative learning with complex, authentic tasks. Just as it took some time for educators to develop effective ways to use computer networks (e.g., early efforts to set up one-on-one computerpals were less effective than subsequent group projects with a content focus; see Riel & Levin 1990), it will probably be some time before the best practices with interactive video technologies are discovered and disseminated.
This page was last updated December 18, 2001 (jca)