Lounging in front of a TV screen is the favorite pastime of many teenagers but some parents in Russia and the C.I.S. no longer have cause to complain.
That's because more than 1,500 high school students are leading the way in a scheme where they can participate in their hobby and get an education at the same time through digital satellite broadcasting.
The project, called Teleschool and broadcast through NTV-plus, was unveiled in Moscow last week, when broadcasts began and a related Website was launched.
The effort is a nonprofit project from Russian public foundation Education in the Third Millenium, a noncommercial humanitarian organization that has been accredited as an educational institution by the Ministry of Education.
Education Minister Vladimir Filippov hailed the "distance-learning experience" and approved accreditation through 2005. He recommended that local authorities "not only control it, but take part in it."
The channel is expected to prove a hit with youngsters in remote regions, teenagers who live elsewhere in the C.I.S., but want to study in Russian, and disabled students. Everyone taking part in the scheme will study from home.
Funding for the program which will be based in Moscow, with offices in St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod and Samara will come from the Ministry of Education and NTV itself, although officials would not say how the costs would be split.
The broadcasts, transmitted via satellite and requiring decoders for reception, are available by subscription. Participating families will be required to pay for technical equipment, including a satellite dish. The maximum cost of installation with connection to the service is $368, NTV representatives said.
Some students will study the TV lessons for official high school credits and will take tests through the Internet, officials said. Other students are participating solely to help prepare for university entry exams or are using them in conjunction with regular school classes and will not take online tests.
The emphasis on TV is not accidental. While the Internet is an effective means of education for university-level students, television has been proven more effective for younger pupils, officials said, citing long-term studies in Europe and America.
Some lessons have already been developed, and all those eventually on offer will be prerecorded. Officials said they hope to eventually have more than 900 in the system. The channel broadcasts seven- to eight-hour blocks of lessons, repeated three times a day and adjusted to Russia's time zones.
Typical lessons for students are 25 or 45 minutes in length. As in normal schools, there are breaks and vacations. Students will take monthly tests through the Internet, and they are assigned PIN codes that let them and their parents access an electronic journal to monitor their progress. While there are no checks to prevent cheating on exams at this time, organizers said the issue is under consideration and will be addressed in the future.
Students will be able to e-mail or call a hotline with questions during a TV lesson. An office will be staffed with several consultants to deal with the queries, and any problematic questions will be referred to teachers specializing in the relevant field.
Teleschool's founders have come up with two types of program designed specifically for 10th- and 11th-grade students "Repetitor" and "Externat." "Repetitor" costs 460 rubles ($16) a month and allows a pupil to brush up knowledge on all subjects; while "Externat" ($499 a year) allows participants to get a high school diploma. All textbooks, tests and other additional literature are received free by mail.
Stanislav Arkhipov, general director of Teleschool, said the content of both formats is basically the same, but the presentation is different. "Our educational TV package is 100 percent a high school program. It comprises philology, mathematics, natural sciences, art and foreign languages. Currently, we only have English in the foreign-language section; next year, we will add German and French."
Arkhipov said that the program is targeting 10th- and 11th-grade pupils because of the shortage of teachers in Russia for that age group. "We have teachers for first grade, but for 10th and 11th, we don't; it's a disaster," he said.
Both programs are aimed at helping young people prepare for university entrance exams. Arkhipov said that the "latest technologies, qualified teachers and advanced methods" help students complete their programs as quickly as possible.
Teleschool organizers were assisted in planning their lessons by more than 100 leading universities, colleges and high schools. Some of the teachers used in the videos have had previous TV education experience; other instructors on the programs are authors of school textbooks, officials said. They would not reveal details of pay for teachers involved.
"We tried to get all the stars' such as Teacher of the Year award winners so we could produce high-quality lessons, whose value would increase in the future," said Marina Kondakova, Teleschool director. "We realize that our programs will set the standard for many teachers in Russia and the former Soviet republics. Up to now, we have 1,500 subscribers [out of 5 million children of high school age], but we definitely plan to expand."
A way out'
Nina Kosova, Teleschool vice rector, said, "There are so many new information technologies, but so far, they have not been used for [Russian] educational purposes. We don't have any Russian Websites specifically designed to educate; we do not have educational TV.
"At a time when teachers are quitting their jobs at schools because of low wages, when our schools do not have enough staff, TV lessons could be a way out."
Teleschool representatives said they hope to get government or private assistance to allow disabled students and those from impoverished remote regions to be involved even if they can't afford to pay. Officials also said they would like to reduce prices over time as more students subscribe to the program.
Eventually, Teleschool hopes to start lessons for additional grades and for specialized education.