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Congress to candy bars on the tube

Jon Marcus on the implications of the classroom TV boom. Westfield High School is in rural New England, a two-hour drive from the state capital and nine hours north of Washington DC. Yet pupils routinely talk to legislators, members of Congress and senators. They see laws being made in Parliament and Congress and recently chatted to participants in VE Day commemorations in Moscow.

Westfield looks like an ordinary school on the outside. Only the satellite dish on the roof and the bluish glow from the windows serve as signs that it is in the vanguard of an electronic revolution charging through American education: television in the classroom.

Westfield students scrutinise French and German news programmes to practise language skills. History classes looked on as the VE Day anniversary was observed, and instantaneously posed questions to the veterans and government officials taking part. Civics teachers show their students C-Span's coverage of congressional committee hearings and debates. Legislators, senators and congressmen take questions over closed-circuit hookups.

This school is only one of more than 70,000 now wired for cable television, up from barely 6,000 five years ago. Channel One, a five-year-old independent satellite network aimed specifically at schools now serves more than 12, 000. And Cable Northwest, an affiliate of the American cable television company Cox Communications, has begun connecting schools in north-west England to its cable service.

Some supporters of using television in the classroom say that it's the only way to reach a generation raised on visual images and instantaneous communication.

"The generation we have in schools now simply doesn't respond to overhead projectors," said Megan Hookey, associate director of Cable in the Classroom, a cable television industry association. "Teachers need to find compelling alternatives, whether that means bringing in a spider in a glass jar or providing television programming in the classroom."

But the escalating interconnection of TV and education is creating some unease. Channel One has given 350,000 TV sets to schools which have signed three-year agreements to show its 12-minute broadcast in class - including two minutes of commercials, selling everything from trainers to candy bars.

Channel One delivers a captive audience of eight million teenagers - twice the number who watch the top teen-orientated prime-time shows - an $81 billion-a-year (Pounds 60bn) market. Advertisers pay $160,000 a minute, twice the network rate.

The National Education Association is Channel One's most outspoken adversary. "We object to telling students what kinds of jeans to buy when they're sitting in a classroom," said Charles Erickson, spokesman for the teachers' union. "You shouldn't have to cut a deal with anybody to provide your students with resources material." Many teachers seem to disagree. Channel One says its renewal rate is 99.6 per cent, and 200 schools are on a waiting list.

"If the kids are getting hooked on the type of cable programming we're showing them, then that's a plus," said Richard Shepherdson, a Westfield High School civics teacher who uses television in three of his courses. "We're not showing The Simpsons."

Jim Pelletier, 17, admitted that watching television in class has changed his after-school viewing: he has practically given up MTV for C-Span's live government coverage. "It's kind of scary," he said. "I've started recognising senators."

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