Speeding Up the Learning Curve

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For a growing number of cable operators, high-speed access has become the key to earning a reputation for good citizenship, particularly when it comes to improving educational resources. In the best case, an educational outreach effort can help to brand a product or boost sales.

This was the case in San Juan, Puerto Rico, last fall. The Adelphia Communications Corp. system there was introducing its Power Link high-speed Internet service, but it was having trouble interesting schools in a free connection. Then came its Web camera project.

At the first school to accept a modem, Adelphia donated a Web cam and found some teachers willing to experiment. The idea was that learning a second language — in this case English — would be a whole lot more interesting if students could use it to converse with other kids and learn a little about different cultures. Adelphia hooked the teachers up with a Spanish class in Bangor, Maine, sent that class a Web cam, and the kids in both cities started preparing oral presentations about their local culture and figuring out questions to ask once they were live online. The San Juan students had to do all their talking in English, while the Bangor class had to stick entirely to Spanish.

Adelphia notified the mayor and San Juan's secretary of education as well as the local press. On the big day, reporters watched for 90 minutes as students stood in front of the Web cam, delivering presentations. “We got a lot of publicity,” says Eva Vazquez, public affairs manager at the San Juan system.

Thirty-three schools have ordered modem installments since the event, Vazquez says, and after Adelphia completes each donation, it hangs a banner on the school denoting it an “A-Plus School.”

In Maine, Adelphia has a second Web cam project in the works. This time, a high-school language department will work with a class in Germany and possibly classes in Spain and France. “I'm quite sure this is the first time a project like this has been done with Europe,” says Kathy Hounsell, director of government and community affairs at the Bangor school system.

High-speed access has also risen to the forefront of the educational initiative at Cox Communications Inc., where for the past year, systems have been installing high-speed service at local Boys and Girls Clubs. The service fills a big need at the clubs, which in recent years have begun offering after-school tutoring and homework help programs.

“We're funding technology labs, where kids can get help with computers,” says Cox community relations director Mallard Holiday. “We're supplying a way for kids to have the same kind of tools that some of their more fortunate classmates have.”

Cox initially set a goal of having 10% of Boys and Girls Clubs in its service area wired by the end of 2003, and 35% hooked up by the end of this year. But “we're already at 60%,” Holiday says.

$11M FOR BOYS AND GIRLS

Cox employees have also raised money for Boys and Girls Clubs, and the company donates time to airing the organization's public service announcements. “Over the course of 12 months, we've donated $11 million in cash and in-kind support to the clubs,” Holiday says.

While Cox wires Boys and Girls Clubs, Comcast Corp. has been busy seeding one of Philadelphia's most distressed neighborhoods with technology. The company partnered with local groups in funding, designing and constructing a 38,000-square-foot technology center that is home to after-school programs for K-12 students as well as classes for adults. The center, located in North Philadelphia's Strawberry Mansion section, also provides computer access to schools in the area. “There are public high schools that bring classes in during the day to use the technology,” says Diane Tuppeny-Hess, vice president of the Comcast Foundation and senior director of public affairs for Comcast.

With 16 classrooms and 250 desktop and laptop computers, the building is networked, wired for high-speed access and contains Smart Boards, large white electronic screens that are used to teach kids how to use computers. Comcast installed the latest versions of its technology, so it will be easy to upgrade as newer generations become available.

Opened earlier this year, the technology center aims to help local kids become technology savvy while also working on the basic reading, writing and math skills needed to improve test scores. “Fewer than 40% of the kids in this area have any access to technology at home,” Tuppeny-Hess says. Comcast executives “see this as a model for what we could do in other urban markets,” she adds.

PROGRAMMMER EFFORTS

As operators put more emphasis on their technology's potential to further education, cable networks are following suit. Most shows adapted for classrooms now have online components, many featuring streaming video.

C-SPAN's newest education effort, dedicated to the U.S. elections, is entirely online, and features video clips, discussion questions, worksheets, interactive quizzes and links on topics such as national party conventions, candidates' messages on the issues, the role of vice presidential nominees, campaign ads and the Electoral College.

Meanwhile, Discovery Education, a new unit launched this year to control all of Discovery Communications Inc.'s classroom initiatives, is highlighting its streaming-video product this year. The division is offering a free annual subscription to its streaming-video service to one school in every school district in the country. The service, which includes 2,300 hours of classroom programming “chaptered down” into easily manageable segments, has proven to be effective at boosting learning. Studies conducted two years ago found test scores of students who used the service rose 12.6% in social studies and science and 5% in math.

VOD FOR TEACHERS

To further bolster its streaming-video product, Discovery Education recently acquired AIMS Multimedia, a producer, publisher and distributor of educational programs. Among its products is DigitalCurriculum, a video-on-demand service that makes it easy for teachers to quickly find clips on the subjects they are teaching.

“In the old days, teachers would pop in a tape and turn out the lights, and half the kids in the class would fall asleep,” says Discovery Education spokesman David Pendery. “Now, teachers can show a 5-, 10- or 15-minute clip on something they're talking about. It lets them capture those teachable moments, and it engages students and keeps them interested.”

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