Sic transit media

Small schools howl as newly wired big districts pull the plug on the region's pioneering media library.

THE WEB GIVETH, and the Web taketh away. What it's taking this time is an esteemed and long-established educational resource that, ironically, first brought many types of information technology into local classrooms.

The resource in question is the Multi-Media Co-op of the Puget Sound Educational Service District, the regional service arm of the state education office, which has been declared obsolete in the new post- media age. But for all the wonders, both actual and imagined, of the Internet, not all schools and teachers who use the co-op are ready to see it go.

The MultiMedia Co-op was founded 50 years ago as a film library, back when Coronet Films was the state of the art in didactic media. The co-op has fewer films today—but it does have a rich collection of some 20,000 videotapes, compact discs, laser discs, and less conventional media (puppets, for example) worth some $4.5 million. It boasts of being the first of nine such regional centers around the state to introduce computerized scheduling, collection bar-coding, satellite downlinks, Web access for remote users, and online access to large databases. Its librarians would assemble teacher multimedia kits to suit particular instructional units, according to the needs of member schools. William Larrimore, technology manager of Seattle's Meridian School, salutes these "wonderful media kits [that] have provided all of our teachers with a wealth of enrichment materials which allowed our classes to take 'field trips within the classroom.' . . . Closing the co-op will be a tragic loss of an extremely valuable resource."

That particularly seems the case for solitary—i.e., private—schools like Larrimore's, which cannot afford the libraries and online database subscriptions that public districts maintain. Terry Hippenhammer, the co-op's executive director, says that while its collection continues to be used, the school memberships that support it "are on a downward spiral"; already membership fees had declined from about $500,000 to $300,000 a year. Some larger districts—most recently Federal Way—had withdrawn from the co-op. And it needed to find new quarters after June.

Nevertheless, two districts—one of them technology-forward Bellevue, which with its own 5,000-item media library scarcely needs the co-op—had expressed interest in housing it. With such an arrangement, it looked as though enough districts would sign on to keep the operation solvent, for the time being at least.

Nevertheless, the co-op's advisory council voted in February to shut down rather than fight the "spiral." It announced it would parcel out its collection to members at the end of this month. For Hippenhammer, this is the way of all media: He talks about all that new video-streaming technologies can offer the schools, and points to the Kent Public School District as a pioneer in developing its own intranet, with every computer in the school connected.

As with all hype about the Internet, though, those who hype video streaming tend to view the ideal as the actual, the future as the present. "Downstream, we're looking at streaming video," says John Newsom, the Bellevue district's technology director, who tried to arrange to save the co-op by housing it. "But we're not there yet. We still bicycle videotapes around to the schools. It's a huge transition in the whole structure of licensing and delivering media."

And a whole new information divide, with the smaller private schools finding themselves on the have-not side. "It's like losing a whole library," laments the Meridian School's Larrimore. "We want to know why we are losing this media window on the world."

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