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Videoconferencing offers college dream for many rural Utahns

Published: Monday, Oct. 15 2012 11:50 p.m. MDT

Megan Olmedo listens as USU math professor Camille Fairbourn helps students with their assignments, both in the classroom at the campus in Brigham City, but also remotely in classrooms in other locations, by way of a remote camera system Monday, Sep. 17, 2012

Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Brent Denney attended college briefly at Snow College in Ephraim, but that was a couple of decades ago. After becoming a father during his freshman year, he retraced a 350-mile journey back to the Navajo Nation in southern Utah to start paying the bills. The famed red-rock landscape around Monument Valley welcomed him home, but life on the reservation offered few career opportunities.

Denney is 41 now, and he's tired of bouncing from one low-paying job to another. He's done all kinds of construction work — when he could get it — and worked in schools as a teaching assistant, substitute teacher and lunchroom helper.

His two sons are away at college now, and Denney wants to show them that their dad can finish the college degree he started. Cultural ties, and his part-time job at a federal reservation school, bind Denney to the dusty town of Aneth. The empty vistas and rugged canyons he loves don't stand in the way of his chance for a college education, though.

Denney is working toward becoming a school counselor through the Utah State University Eastern satellite campus in Blanding. He attends his classes at learning centers in Monument Valley and Montezuma Creek, two of the tiny towns dotting the Navajo Nation's vast lands. Thanks to videoconferencing technology, Denney can see, hear and interact with professors and classmates in Blanding, Price, Logan and other towns scattered across rural Utah.

"It's just like being in the classroom," Denney said. "The professor can see and hear you — and call on you. You'd better be on point, and answer the question right, or you're going to look goofy in front of the whole state, essentially."

Virtual learning

Online learning is a major trend in education, exemplified by self-directed courses through websites like Kahn Academy's, university correspondence classes adapted for Internet delivery, all-online colleges such as Western Governors University and a host of for-profit online career schools.

Traditional colleges in several states are connecting their satellite campuses through videoconferencing equipment, and USU is a leader in the distance learning field. USU's Logan campus is connected to 25 remote campuses and education centers across about 3 million square miles. About 12,000 USU students across Utah videoconference to see and hear their professors in real time.

Earlier this month, USU held a ribbon-cutting for a 40,000-quare-foot Regional Campus and Distance Education Building on its Logan campus designed as a nerve center for its distance learning system, which offers a choice of 48 degrees to students across Utah.

On the same day, a new administration building was dedicated on USU Eastern's Blanding campus. The building includes two, 40-person conference rooms linked to professors and students across the state.

Distance vs. online

Synchronous (real-time) distance learning classes have advantages over traditional online courses, which are much more common. In the familiar model for online learning, students access written materials, and perhaps audio and video lectures, on their own schedules. They might have opportunities to chat online with teachers and other students, but not within a real-time classroom setting.

In synchronous distance learning classes, videoconferencing equipment links classrooms at multiple remote locations, allowing real-time visual and audio interaction between a teacher and students at remote locations. Distance learning extends the reach of higher education institutions, saves money for students and schools, and can bolster rural economies. And, it comes closer to a true classroom experience than other online learning models do.

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