An alliance of corporate leaders promoting the use of school technology is sending K-12 distance education into orbit with the announcement of a satellite dedicated specifically to educational projects.

In a ceremony at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, the SchoolTone Alliance announced the launch of Project LearningBird, a distance learning initiative in collaboration with the Ohio Consortium for Advanced Communications Technology (OCACT) and Ohio University.

Project LearningBird will use NASA’s Advanced Communications Technology Satellite (ACTS) to transmit education information. With all of the satellite’s original research objectives completed, NASA is transferring operation of the spacecraft’s communications payload to OCACT for educational uses.

“This is the first time NASA has turned over a satellite that is no longer good for their purposes to an educational consortium,” said Irene Spero, director of the SchoolTone Alliance. “The technology is very advanced—it allows for faster transmission of data with a higher degree of clarity than we’ve had previously.”

Launched in 1993, ACTS was the first satellite with the ability to carry digital communications at standard fiber-optic data rates with the same quality of transmission. Project LearningBird will use ACTS to transmit data at high speed over great distances and to the most remote locations.

“The consortium has the impressive potential to advance education and commercial technology development across the state of Ohio and beyond,” said Donald J. Campbell, director of the Glenn Center.

John Graham, founder and co-chairman of Broadware Technologies and a SchoolTone Alliance board member, will head Project LearningBird over the next four years. According to Graham, the technology underlying the ACTS makes it particularly useful for educational purposes.

Unlike typical commercial satellites, which use the Ku-band spectrum (10.7 GHz to 14.5 GHz), ACTS operates on the high-frequency 17.3 GHz to 31.0 GHz Ka-band spectrum.

“The Ka-band is the highest frequency spectrum the [Federal Communications Commission] has attempted to use so far. Ka-band satellite technology is so much better than cable or DSL [digital subscriber line] technology, or even the typical Ku-band, because it can be symmetrical,” said Graham.

“Most [satellite connections] are asymmetrical, meaning that users receive signals, but they can’t send signals out,” he continued. “The key to using satellite technology to collaborate over long distances is having symmetrical access. The Ka technology is well within [that ability].”

By joining OCACT, SchoolTone Alliance members will be able to use the satellite for demonstration projects over the next four years. That’s the amount of time NASA has guaranteed for the life of the satellite, explained Spero.

“This satellite would have been blown up had it not been transferred to an educational organization,” she said. “It’s really incredible. How great—to take a technology investment and leverage it for other experiments.”

LearningBird will allow schools and other educational institutions to deliver broadband courses online, interact with experts in remote locations, promote professional development for teachers, and access high-quality, real-time content from leading educators and content providers.

The LearningBird program is still under development, and project directors are in the process of defining how it will operate.

Spero said project directors would encourage collaborative projects in which K-12 institutions partner with businesses or higher-education institutions that are part of OCACT. Educators who would like to participate in the project should join the consortium or contact a potential SchoolTone Alliance partner and submit a proposal.

SchoolTone Alliance member companies include bigchalk.com, Blackboard Inc., HighWired.com, Lucent Technologies, National Semiconductor, ACTV HyperTVNetworks, AOL@School, Simplexis.com, and Sun Microsystems.

“If we can schedule it in and everyone agrees it is a worthwhile project, we’ll make it happen,” said Graham. “I’m ready to start building up the schedule immediately. Right now, the satellite is severely underused.”

Graham said the alliance’s first intended use of LearningBird, pending approval, will be an interactive distance-learning project connecting public schools in Oakland, Calif., with United Nations Environment Program Goodwill Ambassador Dr. John Francis on his “Planetwalk” across Cuba.

As part of the inaugural project, students in both countries will be able to track the progress of Francis’s walk. The research mission of the walk is to study organic agriculture in Cuba, as well as to conduct a general survey of environmental and conservation efforts on the island.

The project will use ACTS to create portable, interactive links from remote locations that will allow students to communicate with Francis and each other.

The Cuba Planetwalk will cover 1,000 kilometers from Havana to Santiago, the sister city of Oakland, from November 2001 through January 2002. Francis, who is on a lifetime goodwill walk around the world, already has crossed the United States and South America on foot.

LearningBird projects most likely will be short-term projects—like the Cuba Planetwalk—rather than year-long or ongoing projects. That’s because the satellite dish that enables LearningBird downloads costs about $100,000, a figure that prohibits most educational institutions from getting their own.

That being the case, school participating in Project LearningBird must make use of a portable dish that travels from site to site.

“We received terminals through NASA, too, so I’m going to mount a VSAT [Very Small Aperture Terminal] to a trailer so we can haul it around and install it at different places,” said Graham. “That’s why right now this is an event-based program.”

Links:

SchoolTone Alliance
http://www.schooltone.com

Ohio Consortium for Advanced Communications Technology
http://www.csm.ohiou.edu/ocacts

NASA Glenn Research Center
http://www.grc.nasa.gov

Advanced Communications Technology Satellite (ACTS)
http://acts.grc.nasa.gov