"Hello, Secaucus? Can you hear us?" the voice boomed over one of the three television monitors situated in a Secaucus High School classroom. It was March 1995. Secaucus, North Bergen, Kearny, Hoboken, West New York and numerous other Hudson County schools embarked what was then called a noble experiment, seeking to push the limits of cutting edge educational technology to establish a new way of learning - one that officials at the time called "the wave of the future." With a crackle and a pop of communications equipment being hooked up, and microphones being installed, high school classrooms in various towns and cities around the county had suddenly erased the walls and distance that separated them. The old brick and mortar concept of education evaporated as the TVs flickered to life with images of faces sitting in classrooms located beyond the boundaries of their towns. Within moments, each student was staring at faces of students he or she had never seen before and heard teachers who's names would take time to learn. Often the subjects were those with only a handful of students in each district, so that each school did not wish to expend the money necessary to hire their own teacher: Latin, aerospace and others. It was a concept that educators in each town claimed would revolutionize the educational process, and politicians on local and county level said it would become a routine around the county. Now, as the new millennium emerges - barely five years after Interactive Television's unveiling, the system is obsolete, ready to take its place among historic curiosities such as eight track recording tapes and vinyl record albums. This leaves school officials around the county scrambling for funds to update their sites to the new, Internet-based technology. The original project was funded by a $1.5 million county bond, employing fiber-optic cable to cable link, and was designed to allow every municipality in the county to connect, with a pivotal classroom constructed at the Liberty Science Center. The cost to each school system to participate was $1,000 a month, with each location providing a classroom. Now, the cost to upgrade to a new system could exceed $20,000 per school, leaving several schools in the district wondering if the program is worth the price. Dinosaur technology
The central location for most of the county's Interactive Television these days is the Hudson County Schools of Technology in North Bergen. There, in a room about the size of three normal classrooms end to end, students sit and conduct their long-distance classes with as many as three other schools at one time. Instead of desks, students sit at long tables, set up something like a corporate boardroom. A huge screen dominates one of the walls - projecting the teacher in the room with them. Three smaller television sets set into the wall beside this screen show images of the other schools. Cameras set at intervals around the room show various activities. This is perhaps the largest ITV classroom in the county, part of the concept that was first designed over eight years ago and introduced in 1995. It is a closed circuit television network that has grown to incorporate 42 other locations around the county, with one ITV classroom in every public high school, almost all the colleges, the Liberty Science Center and the New Jersey School of Dentistry and Medicine in Newark. "Transmission is generally good," says Al Trattner, Coordinator for the ITV program. "But it is technology that is no longer being supported." This is through no fault of the Schools or Technology or the county or the high schools that leaped into the ITV concept enthusiastically five years ago. In that time, technology has changed in ways no one ever predicted. "When Hudson County initiated its ITV program, this technology didn't exist. There was no way to predict its development," Trattner said. "The video switches that control this network are no longer being manufactured, and though Bell Atlantic said it would support the network, it will not support it for long." The Internet and the World Wide Web have become the focus of distance learning and most school districts around the state have already begun to make the transition, using technology that will allow even more users than the limited number currently capable of using the system here in Hudson County. "With the Internet and its technology, people can now access ITV through the web," Trattner said. "The old idea was a great idea and it worked. The original program showed school districts how distance learning can be done. The new technology will allow us to do it better." Theoretically, broad band Internet technology would allow almost anyone anywhere to hook up to the system at any time, avoiding many of the scheduling problems that plague the existing system. Students in West New York, North Bergen, Kearny and Secaucus, for instance, have had to get up early and take their aerospace classes at 7:30 a.m. because each school has a different time schedule for its regular classes. "With the Internet-based technology, schools can hook up into the system any time they want," Trattner said. While some problems would remain for duplicate live sessions of these classes, by storing the recorded sessions, students could watch the class at any time. "If a schedule is different, then they can call it down later," Trattner said. "An individual student can even watch it at home." Towns balk at cost
While the state has been encouraging and supporting the transition to the new technology through a program called "Access New Jersey," Bell Atlantic has not been able to guarantee that the new technology will be up and running by September. "That's the problem," said Frank Costello, assistant principal of Secaucus High School. "Bell Atlantic wants us to pay for both systems, even though they can't promise to have the new system in place. We feel that it would be throwing money away." Under the proposed program, the state would help provide some of the new hardware to districts - hardware based on a technology that allows for voice, data and video transmission on the same network. Hook up costs to the school districts can be as high as $20,000. Those schools willing to pay the conversion costs are not willing to pay the extra $1,000 Bell Atlantic is charging for the new system. The state has asked school districts to make the change within the next two years. Trattner said the county and municipalities had initially agreed to maintain the old system for a year and then adopt the new system together. Kearny - upgrading its overall computer network - jumped the gun and converted this year. "But the system isn't running yet, and when it does, Kearny won't be able to send their classes to anyone because no one else has the system," Costello said. Bell Atlantic is scheduled to unveil the new system next week to show districts how well it will work. Costello and other educators throughout the county are pushing to have the technology ready by September. "If they don't have it ready, we may have to pull the plug on those classes," Costello said. Trattner expects that the system will amaze people once it is in place. "We're in the middle of a technology revolution that has not been seen before in our lifetime," he said. "In years past, teachers might have had to switch from one kind of film to another, and the new technology would last 25 years. Now it could change tomorrow, and it is up to us to keep up on the technology and continue to upgrade."