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Videoconferencing offers college dream for many rural Utahns

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

A 2011 study in DIAS Technology Review, an international technology journal, said distance instruction at remote sites can achieve the same goals as face-to-face classroom instruction, and in some cases, even better ones, because the system focuses on interchange between teachers and students.

Extending reach

Other than USU Eastern's satellite campus in Blanding, there are no college campuses within 150 miles of southeastern Utah. Students from the area who want a college education at a traditional campus must pay for living expenses away from home in addition to tuition.

For the kids Denney knows, though, the stakes are even higher. Navajo students are often defeated by culture shock when transitioning to life at a college campus hundreds of miles away, Denney said. For them, distance learning can make the difference between success and dropping out.

"I've seen kids get so homesick when they go away to school that they can't concentrate on their schooling," he said. "They end up dropping out because they can't be away from home. And, some of the kids are needed at home to help their parents with chores and livestock. Now, kids can take actual college classes that used to be only online. That wasn't like the actual college experience that this distance learning is providing now."

Even for students within driving distance of major universities, distance learning offers convenience and cost benefits. USU mathematics professor Camille Fairbourn teaches a statistics class in Brigham City. The students who attend there are spared the expense and danger of a 25-mile drive to USU's Logan campus through mountainous Sardine Canyon, known for its harrowing winter storms.

Fairbourn's classroom is also linked to students in remote sites up and down Utah, including Tremonton, Roosevelt, Moab, Nephi and Richfield. Students in each of those rural towns save the cost of living away from home or commuting for long distances.

How it works

Fairbourn's students in their farflung classrooms can see her on a giant flat screen that also shows her presentation slides and whatever she writes on her interactive whiteboard. Using a video camera suspended near her desk, Fairbourn can broadcast zoomed-in images as she works problems on a worksheet or uses a graphing calculator. Students across the state and in her classroom can see all of the action bigger than life.

"Much of this technology would work in a traditional classroom to heighten learning and make things easier to explain and understand," she said. "The ability to see what is happening improves the experience for the students who are in the room with me and at the remote sites."

The students in Fairbourn's linked classrooms sit at long tables, with a microphone and screen in front of each chair. Ceiling speakers allow teacher and students to hear each other across the miles, and cameras broadcast images in both directions. A facilitator at the back of each room manages the necessary software, ensuring that Fairbourn can concentrate on teaching and that transmission glitches don't hamper student learning.

After she teaches a concept, Fairbourn directs students to work out problems in groups, linking a single student at one remote site with a small group at another. She checks on progress through a screen tiled with images from each of the remote sites.

"Tremonton, do you have an average for that list?" Fairbourn asks a cluster of students in the farm town of Tremonton, after checking her monitor. "Ah! You proved your conjecture."

Making it happen

Among U.S. states, Utah is "ahead of the curve" in the distance learning arena in two ways, said Renee Patton, director of education for CISCO, a company that provides videoconferencing tools to businesses, government agencies and schools.

Utah's investment in a statewide infrastructure that provides sufficient bandwidth for distance learning classes, through its Utah Education Network, increases educational choices in higher education and for K-12 students, Patton said. And, USU's immense network of remote classrooms is unique in the nation, she said.

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