Field Trips on Information Highway

November 21, 1994

There's a children's show on public television, the "Magic School Bus," about a nutty teacher, her class and their school bus, which can transform into everything from a diving bell to a time machine to take the students on field trips to places they otherwise couldn't visit.

Magic school buses are make-believe, but we have the next best thing: a magic school bus route.

Welcome to the information superhighway and the Maryland Teleplex. The futuristically named project is a venture of Maryland Public Television, the State Department of Education and Bell Atlantic. Through the use of interactive technology, students can communicate via television with scientists or fellow students halfway around the world. At a press conference that unveiled the project Friday, students at two locations in Baltimore County posed questions to a biologist in Antarctica, with penguins toddling all around her. Over the next two months, students from a half-dozen Maryland schools will hold similar interactive classes with the lab in Antarctica as well as with students in Virginia, Texas, Hawaii and Alaska.

The vision of MPT and the state Information Technology Board set up by Gov. William Donald Schaefer is to establish a statewide fiber-optic network linking high schools, colleges, libraries and other institutions.

Francis J. Knott, a telecommunications consultant who heads the technology board, believes this advance will prove particularly valuable in whetting children's interests in science and technology.

Mr. Knott -- like MPT President Raymond Ho -- is evangelical about this initiative. He compares it to the change early in this century from an agrarian economy that employed 70 percent of Americans to an industrial age that made farming as productive with only 3 percent of the population involved. Although some other states are farther ahead in developing telecommunications networks, Mr. Knott contends Maryland's role in developing the clipper ship, the railroad and the telegraph presages an influential role in the information age.

A first impression of the Teleplex is that it has limitations -- as well as enormous potential. A "virtual" field trip will never replicate the experience of seeing something in person. Technological tools are only going to be as effective as the teacher employing them. That said, the Teleplex holds promise for taking young minds places where they otherwise couldn't go -- regardless of where they attend school in this state.

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