Distance Learning Bridges the Rural (and Digital) Divide
When a series of state funding cuts in 2012 led Western Nevada College to begin shuttering all of its storefront satellite campuses that had been set up for rural students across a vast, 18,000-square-mile service area, the college's distance education program also appeared to be in jeopardy, alongside its large investment in a point-to-point interactive video solution.
"Those satellite sites housed the video reception rooms where our rural students could go to watch lectures for their courses," Distance Education Coordinator Clarence Maise says, noting that the initial idea of building brand-new video viewing rooms at small community centers and other sites, and updating the old technology, could cost the college more than a half-million dollars. "It became obvious that we had to find a new way to do this, and fast," Maise says.
Fortunately, he had learned about another new technology solution that could provide even better access at less cost — lecture capture. The solution, implemented this year and managed in the cloud by Mediasite, allows the college to record and broadcast both live and archived lectures online.
As a result, Western Nevada, which serves more than 5,000 students, needed to invest in only a few "broadcast rooms," equipped with Vaddio ClearView HD-USB cameras and Vaddio microphones and mixers, in addition to interactive touch screen technologies, at each of its three remaining campus sites. The live broadcasts and archived lectures can now be accessed anytime, anywhere, by students via their personal computing devices and smartphones and within community computer labs at libraries, high schools and other designated sites. The college is offering its first "high-flex" classes — as the lecture capture courses are known — this fall and plans to expand in the spring. To increase the number of these types of courses over time, distance education officials only have to retrofit and equip another broadcast room, which can be completed in less than a month and is relatively inexpensive, Maise says.
"This is so much better for our rural students who, even when we had the rural sites, still might have had to drive an hour or more to get to a video site," Maise says. "It's so much more convenient and easy to attend class with this solution."
Providing Better Options for Rural Areas
Many colleges and universities are navigating harsh budget environments to successfully develop better and more cost-effective ways to provide far-flung students with equal educational opportunities.
Percentage of academic leaders who rate the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face classes
SOURCE:"2012 Survey of Online Learning" (Babson Survey Research Group, Jan. 2013)
Officials recognize that students living in rural areas remain the least likely to enroll or complete postsecondary education and training, says John White, deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach for the U.S. Department of Education. Institutions are becoming very aggressive and innovative in their outreach to rural students out of necessity, White says, but "the current lack of high-speed Internet and adequate bandwidth in many rural areas remain significant barriers to accessing higher education and the broader economy."
The future looks brighter, White says, thanks to increasing public and private infrastructure investments. It's already happening to some extent for South Arkansas Community College (SouthArk), a public two-year institution in the small town of El Dorado that currently has more than 1,650 commuter students enrolled.
Though the college provides commodity Internet connectivity between its campus sites over leased T1 lines, its students largely live in four sparsely populated, underdeveloped rural counties that still suffer from a pronounced digital divide, CIO Tim Kirk says.
"You get 15 minutes away from my campus, and you may be back on dial-up," he says.
Until recently, SouthArk offered only a few basic distance programs for its rural students, including online courses that used basic, low-bandwidth web-based tools. Students also had the option to travel to a remote campus site about 65 miles away to sit in on courses taught by adjunct professors.
The state is the recipient of a major federal broadband initiative expected to improve colleges' ability to provide better distance education.
Scheduled to be completed this fall, the Arkansas e-Link initiative will expand and improve the capabilities of two existing high-speed fiber optic community networks, the Arkansas Telehealth Network and the Arkansas Research and Education Optical Network, and connect community institutions throughout the state, including universities, hospitals and other research facilities.
While the changes won't extend classes directly out to rural students' homes, they will enable broadcast of compressed interactive video from traditional courses to a remote campus (and eventually other sites) and allow students to enjoy more options to access education in more convenient locations. The new infrastructure will provide speeds and capacity of nearly10 times the previous leased lines, while also cutting the college's annual telecommunications outlays by more than half.
"We'll be able to do all kinds of commodity Internet connections across the state that previously were limited to our campus sites," Kirk says. "We'll be able to get our coursework content out to those areas that are very rural and extremely underserved without having to lease lines."
Maise says he sees still other benefits for Western Nevada College: "We expect to see not just more enrollment but better retention and greater success for our rural students."