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LONG-DISTANCE TECHNOLOGY BRINGS HARDER-TO-FIND CLASSES TO AREA STUDENTS

"What is your name, how old are you, and where do you live?" Karen Boehm asked.

"My name is Franz, I am 14 years old, and I live in Berlin," the boy answered in halting German.

They could see and hear each other even though they were in different classrooms, 30 miles apart.

Ms. Boehm is a German teacher at Williamsville East High School. The boy is a student in Genesee County's Alexander Central School, though a Williamsville East student might as easily have responded since Ms. Boehm teaches both classes at the same time, five days a week.

Watching the interaction at the Erie Board of Cooperative Educational Services distance-learning classroom and control center at 355 Harlem Road in West Seneca was Barbara Cheskin.

Backed by skilled technician Ted Ertl, Mrs. Cheskin coordinates Project Connect, the two-year-old Erie I BOCES distance-learning network.

This system, which costs $350,000 a year, brings 22 selected subjects, ranging from advanced placement calculus to preveterinary care, to schools that do not offer them.

"Distance learning brings the subjects to the students instead of moving the students to schools," Mrs. Cheskin said.

"Our network has the capability of having one teacher simultaneously instructing and talking back and forth with students in four classrooms in separate schools while audiences at 15 other locations listen in," she explained.

Though still in its infancy, distance learning ultimately is expected to enable other public and private groups to engage in give-and-take communications.

Ms. Boehm's German class is part of Operation Connect, the Erie I BOCES network that has 11 sending and receiving classrooms.

The images and voices at the West Seneca control center appear on four 35-inch-square screens that provide clearer images than most home television sets.

The signals are carried over fiber optic transmission cables that Bell Atlantic, formerly Nynex, has been installing across the state.

The Junction is the Erie II, Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES distance learning network. Realnet is the network serving some Cattaraugus and Allegany County districts. Onet, the newest network, ties Niagara and Orleans County districts into the circuit.

By January, Citynet, with five school site and seven community sites, all in Buffalo, will be activated. Somewhat further ahead is a network for schools in Allegany and Steuben counties.

"Right now, we have 53 distance-learning classrooms," Mrs. Cheskin said. "With Citynet, we will have 65, and one day, the entire state will be networked for distance learning. Today, we are regarded as one of the premier distance-learning system in the country. Software designers from as far away as California regularly come here to see how we do it."

If distance learning is new for schools and students, it's also new for teachers. William Roussie of Franklinville has been teaching accounting for 30 years.

"Bill has just been trained in distance-learning teaching, a somewhat different technique," Mrs. Cheskin said.

Asked how writing assignments and tests are graded, Mrs. Cheskin said students' work is faxed to their teachers or delivered by courier. Biology laboratories are held periodically at Canisius College.

"We are working on getting a physics lab," Mrs. Cheskin added.

Advanced placement students in receiving schools do just as well or better on exams than students in the host schools, Mrs. Cheskin's recent survey shows.

The classes are arranged twice yearly according to student requests at their home schools. Consider some of the fall schedule:

Astronomy -- Taught from Clarence Senior High School and reaching Bennett High School in Buffalo.

Advanced-placement statistics -- Taught at Hutchinson-Central Technical in Buffalo and reaching Bennett and Clarence.

Advanced-placement European history -- Taught at Williamsville East and reaching Hutch Tech and Frontier Central High School.

Advanced-placement physics -- Taught at Williamsville North and reaching Williamsville East and South.

Advanced-placement biology -- Taught at Bennett and reaching Frontier.

Veterinary care -- Taught at Pioneer Central School and reaching Clarence, Fredonia Central High School and Hutch Tech.

Computer graphics -- Taught at Lancaster High School and reaching Frontier and Pioneer.

The Holocaust -- Taught at Maryvale Senior High School and reaching Lancaster and Pioneer.

Japanese -- Taught at Pioneer and reaching Clarence and Elba Central School.

Latin I -- Taught at Frontier and reaching Ellicottville Central School and Genesee Valley High School.

Advanced-placement calculus -- Taught at Bennett and reaching Elba Central School and Franklinville Central School.

The schedule calls for five, regular 40-minute classes at specific times. A component school pays BOCES $14,000 for up to seven courses.

Bell Atlantic charges each participating school $1,790 to $2,300 per month for the fiber optic service.

In a demonstration, Erie I BOCES hooked into the New York Institute of Technology, a private college with a campus in Central Islip, L.I.

A technician there displayed a much-enlarged electronic circuit board and a crystal magnified for teaching purposes to sizes students would never see.

"With distance learning, we can get all kinds of information from every part of the world," Mrs. Cheskin said. "Distance learning will be carrying more information to more people, bringing them closer to each other."

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