Schools are being connected to cable television. Tony Currie reports from Edinburgh on the multi-channel classroom. Cable is at last beginning to spread rapidly across the country. This year alone cable television will be made available to 2.5 million homes, with 3 million more to be added in 1996, more than doubling the 4 million already in reach of the network. And as the local end of the information superhighway gets closer, many schools are now being connected.
Collectively, the cable industry, through its trade body the Cable Communications Association, has developed a "Cable in the Classroom" policy whereby all operators are offering schools a free standard connection and subscription to cable channels, and will liaise with local communities, education authorities and programmers alike "to ensure quality educational programmes in schools around the country".
One city in the throes of being cabled is Edinburgh, where 10 schools have already been connected. So far local cable operator, United Artists, has responded to schools who have actively requested the facility, but the company's education co-ordinator, Emma Mumford, says she will now canvass other schools to try to persuade them to get on-line.
But, once connected, what advantage is there in having access to multi-channel television in the classroom?
Staff at Craigmount High School in Edinburgh have had four months to judge, and are enthusiastic about having access to this new resource. Between one and two hours a day of cable programmes are being used by teachers, drawn from the 45 channels on offer, with an audio-visual technician recording the material on videotape. Highlighting classroom-friendly material is a magazine from United Artists, Cable in the Classroom.
This month, for example, schools are being pointed to programmes tied to the anniversary of VE Day, such as the Discovery Channel's Victory season of documentaries dealing with the downfall of Nazi Germany and NBC Super Channel's series of documentaries on Jewish culture and the Holocaust.
Martin Bryden, principal teacher of history at Craigmount, uses a lot of material from Discovery Channel, which shows documentaries with a broadly educational slant, although he edits it before presenting it to classes. "Some of it is too long, and in some cases we just want a part of what's been screened."
Already he's made use of history series on the American Indians, the Romans, the Wars of the Roses, and has even shown pupils vintage Top of the Pops from the oldie channel, UK Gold, as part of a first year topic "The Year of my Birth", when pupils are encouraged to find contemporary material from that year.
Geography departments are also clearly keen to access Discovery Channel, together with the Travel Channel and Sky Travel, among others.
Muriel Smith, principal teacher of geography at Forrester High School, Edinburgh is one of several staff who already had cable at home, and was familiar with what it had to offer before it came into the school.
"It was the children telling me about Discovery's programmes that made us want to use cable. Now they come and say 'have you taped so-and-so?' They demand stuff," she says.
Kenny Kinnear, head of geography at Craigmount, painted a similar picture. "At least 50 per cent of pupils already have cable at home. They would record material at home and bring it into the school to let us see what we were missing."
Lorna Baird, drama teacher at Forrester, quizzed a second-year class on their general impressions of cable, and was left in no doubt that the perception of children, rightly or wrongly, was that cable programmes were more modern and up-to-date than those on BBC or ITV. "Cable is the modern thing compared to BBC2 with the guys in beards and woolly jumpers."
Baird is a fan of cable programmes and uses the connection in her drama studio frequently, although she still relies on the children to tell her how to tune in to the various channels. "They're very knowledgeable. They yell 'Channel 44' at me all the time to try and get me to tune in to the pop videos on VH-1!" But she believes that there's a long way to go. "We're still not making enough use of cable in the school overall. What's needed is for someone to go through the cable guide each week and give me a precis of what's happening."
With dozens of channels on offer in Edinburgh, it can be difficult to keep tabs on what's available. Although most teachers seemed familiar with the programme schedules for the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel (showing education-based programmes) and the Parliamentary Channel (showing live coverage of the proceedings of the Houses of Parliament), they also use others when appropriate.
Language teachers undoubtedly benefit from a range of continental television stations, and the prospect of having Neighbours in German or Yogi Bear in French can enthuse students bored by conventional textbooks. United Artists is currently offering Arabic, German, French, Italian, Dutch and Spanish channels to schools.
Geography teachers, among the most enthusiastic users of television in schools according to recent research, taped CNN's voluminous news coverage of the Californian earthquake, providing a real-life and topical geographical case-study.
Although heralded as a key element of cable television, interactivity has made little headway so far. In most parts of the country, interactivity is minimal, except for parts of London and the south of England, where Videotron offers a degree of interactive programming and computer games.
But United Artist's public relations manager in Edinburgh says that the company has just appointed a "multi-media project manager" to develop interactivity.
Although receiving dozens of free television channels has been popular in these schools, in the longer term the telephone services offered by the cable companies could be of equal significance. The reduced rates and in some cases free local calls can help schools to plug into the expanding world of the information superhighway, offering them a reduced-rate link into the Internet or other phone-line based services.
In Edinburgh some schools have taken as many as nine cable telephone lines. This provides them with the same range of services available to BT subscribers and savings on the costs of some calls and line rental charges. But United Artists are not offering free connection for schools to their telephone services.
As yet it's too early to say how much use will eventually be made of the range of extra programming cable provides. Much of the material the Edinburgh schools tape is used as a library resource rather than shown to entire classes, but the teachers interviewed were unanimous about the usefulness of the cable material.
Lothian Regional Council is equally enthusiastic about the prospects offered by cable they're making a video to explain to teachers how best to use it.