Oct 31 2006

How Technology Can Link Colleges with Multiple Campuses

Palo Verde College links two campuses with a tech infusion.

Outreach to traditional and nontraditional students, a wider array of courses, improved small business economic development services and a tech-savvy educational experience are among the goals Palo Verde College hopes to achieve through a tech infusion at its remote campus in Needles, Calif. But to reach these worthy goals, Palo Verde College first needs to get its two disparate campuses – which are separated by 100 miles of rural roads – connected.

The Needles campus opened its doors six years ago. However, until a tech infusion slated for this year, Palo Verde College hasn't been able to provide the same courses to Needles students that it offers to students in its main Blythe, Calif., campus, which opened in 1947. With a new point-to-point network and a major technology upgrade in the works, Palo Verde plans to expand its offerings to students and the community in Needles as part of a larger renovation effort.

“As an institution of higher education, we have no choice but to heavily invest in technology,” says James Hottois, president of Palo Verde College. “In today's world, providing students with Web access and the ability to use computers in an educational program is the same as giving them a desk and pencil.”

Palo Verde College teaches about 1,500 students on its Blythe and Needles campuses each year, in addition to non-traditional students who may earn associate degrees through distance education course from Ironwood State Prison in Blythe. Yet, until recently, the Needles campus acted as an independent extension, rather than an integrated part of the larger community college.

“Often at institutions we think in terms of big growth and huge numbers of people and students,” says Hottois. “It is really easy to forget about little towns like Needles, or like Blythe for that matter. But if you want to create and attract jobs, you need an educated workforce, and you have to make it possible for the workforce to get an education.”

Funded through part of a $6 million municipal bond, Palo Verde College plans to renovate the Needles campus with a portion earmarked for technology and to renovate a former retail establishment. The Art Deco building was recently donated to the college and will serve as the main hub for the Needles campus.

As renovations continue over the next 12 months, the school will offer two-way networked television courses from trailers at the Needles site and from traditional classrooms in Blythe. This will accomplish two key goals: Extend the breadth of courses offered on both campuses and enable the college to function during the renovation.

“We would still be in the dream stage of operating a local facility without CDW•G involved,” says Eric Egan, assistant IT director at Palo Verde. “Our team was already overloaded far into the future. On top of that, there is a lot of expertise that goes into building a network, and we were able to hand that over to CDW•G.”

Networking Campuses

One of the biggest drivers in developing the telecommunications network between Blythe and Needles was the need to increase the number of classes offered by the college. The state requires a minimum of 10 enrolled students to justify the expense of offering a course. In the past, the college has been forced to drop courses when the minimum enrollment requirement wasn't met. With the television network, however, the college can count students in both Blythe and Needles to reach the required enrollment.

For example, in the spring semester ending in June 2006, Linda Martin, a professor of Business and Computer Science, taught computer information systems to 15 students, eight of whom took the class from Needles, while the remaining seven enrolled from the Blythe campus. Without the television network, Palo Verde would not have had enough students to offer the course.

“I'm enjoying starting up a new college,” Martin says. “This is allowing us to reach a broader range of students who want to learn how to use computers.”

The next nearest education facility is nearly 100 miles away, making Palo Verde's Needles campus critical for continuing education in the area. “People in a small, rural and isolated part of California deserve education as much as everyone else,” says Hottois. “If we could not deliver education to all the students in our district, we would have failed miserably. This [project] is permitting us to overcome some of the isolation.”

Though Martin's first choice is teaching face to face in a live environment, she would rather teach via videoconference than conduct courses online. “This is better than online, because I can show them what's on my computer screen and flip between my face and the computer screen, and demonstrate what I'm working on,” she explains. “I can look students in the face and use the remote control to move the camera. When students ask questions, they're full-faced on the screen. It feels like a regular classroom.”

In addition, the college uses the networked television to conduct meetings with its board of directors. The school alternates between meeting in Blythe and Needles, which lessens the need for participants to travel the long distance between the two campuses.

Designing a Tech-Centric Campus

The design and installation of the new campus in Needles required the involvement of several vendors. There were some immediate challenges.

The first challenge was determining how to connect two campuses located 100 miles apart. The second involved building a network that would be housed in a temporary facility consisting of three portable classrooms, which would be transported to the new facility after the renovation is completed 18 months later.

“Our IT department figured out that they needed the help of an outside vendor to tackle these new projects,” says Hottois. “You would go outside to build a new building; the physical plant wouldn't do that. IT is similar.”

The three temporary trailers in place in Needles are wired for administrative support and teaching. The trailers include 40 personal computers, which were preconfigured, a fully redundant rack power system, a Cisco Voice over Internet Protocol telephone system and a domain controller, which supports remote management, recovery services and antivirus software.

“The system includes power control and remote services, so that we can get into a machine that is locked and either shut it down or restart it,” says Egan. “We don't want to drive to Needles unless we have to. But if the machine is functioning properly, we can use the remote desktop sharing to configure or access the server and to transfer files from here.”

The remote services are critical to managing technology services at the remote campus, Egan says. In terms of upping the investment return for this project, he anticipates a reduction in costs by eliminating the travel time and hotel expenses associated with trips to Needles. “It's a 90-mile drive down a two-lane desert road each way, and we've been able to eliminate that drive for the most part,” he says.

CDW•G devised a voice and data network for Palo Verde utilizing a Cisco 2811 Router with Voice Bundle to provide connectivity to the Blythe campus. Cisco 3560 PoE (Power over Ethernet) Switches were used to reduce costs by powering the phones and avoiding the cost of running expensive electric lines. The Cisco Unity Express and Call Manager Express provide voice mail and management capabilities. On the back end, Palo Verde is utilizing Hewlett-Packard Compaq servers with Super Digital Linear Tape (SDLT) drives for backup, as well as rack-mounted universal power systems.

When complete, the main building of the Needles campus will be housed in the former Art Deco retail establishment that was donated to the college. The tech-infused building will boast raised flooring to accommodate the air conditioning for the building and its networking and power equipment.

“In terms of technology in the modern world, if you are educating people, you'd better make sure that they are exposed to a huge amount of technology for whatever problem they are being asked to solve,” says Hottois.

Remote Teaching Tips

Teaching from afar isn't easy. If your school adds remote teaching to its curriculum, keep these three tips top of mind:


Unlike a traditional lecture, teaching via video or television conferencing places a greater burden on the instructor to keep the students engaged during the lesson, says Linda Martin, professor of Business and Computer Science at Palo Verde College. She suggests peppering the day's lesson with dialogue between the students and the instructor and asking interactive questions that the students respond to by raising their hands. “If you're strictly in lecture mode, the students can essentially do anything they want, and paying attention is probably the last thing they'll want to do,” Martin says. “If you do it right, it can be a wonderful learning experience.”


The students on the opposite side of the computer monitor or television are bound to feel left out, which is why Palo Verde's president, James Hottois, suggests creating formal support groups among students in both locations. “Students will form into mutual support groups on their own,” he says. “Often, our students in the remote location are more successful than those in the home location because of mutual support.”


Another tip from Martin is to start the course off right by having someone welcome the remote classroom students on the first day. When students arrive, they want to know that they're in the right classroom, she says, and suggests enlisting a faculty member or teaching assistant to greet the new students, explain how the conferencing system works and provide course materials, such as the syllabus.