Distance learning without distance charges

New Jersey recently unveiled a statewide interactive distance-learning

system that enables students and teachers to take classes or interact with

peers without having to pay long-distance telephone rates.

Through a videoconference broadcast called a video portal, elementary

and high school students will be able to take classes not offered in their

schools, including language, science and math courses, said Julia Stapleton,

director of educational technology for New Jersey's Department of Education.

Students also will be able to tour museums or meet with experts, she said,

adding that teachers could use the network for professional development

and training.

Although schools have had videoconferencing capabilities since the late

1980s, they have been limited to communicating with others in their local

calling area.

Stapleton said that New Jersey is the first state to partner with a

private company, in this case Verizon Communications, to deliver broadband

video services across long-distance boundaries under a provision of the

Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Verizon is providing about $80 million to create a dedicated Asynchronous

Transfer Mode network — which supports high-speed, real-time voice, video

and data transmission — with equipment and service discounts of as much

as 72 percent. The company serves about 97 percent of the population in

New Jersey, but access will be provided to the remaining 3 percent who use

other carriers, Stapleton said.

Also, the state has provided $50 million to schools annually for the

past three years to advance distance learning.

For now, Stapleton said the system supports up to 20 connections at

one time. She said that would increase to 40 connections soon. More than

200 schools have all the equipment necessary to participate, including transportable

cameras and monitors, while another 700 schools or so have access either

through ATM networks or ISDN.

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