"USU is teaching 350 distance learning classes a week in 29 different counties," she said. They are able to increase access to learning for students who would not have it because they live in remote areas."
UEN contracts with telecommunications companies to use their buried cables, creating a system of high-bandwidth lines for videoconferencing. The system is funded through legislative appropriations and the federal government's eRate program, which supports connectivity for U.S. schools and libraries through service fees charged by telecommunications services.
Cooperation between higher education, public education and library institutions — groups that don't always work smoothly together in many states — made UEN's network possible, said Ray Timothy, UEN's CEO.
Patton said other states are working on implementing distance learning infrastructure, including Indiana, Tennessee, Florida, Idaho and California.
"When we talk to other states, they marvel that we can work collaboratively together without duplicating each other's services," Timothy said. "It makes us more able to utilize the scarce resources we have, and maximize them."
Making it pay
The initial cost for connectivity infrastructure and distance learning equipment is steep, but the investment can pay off handsomely. The system saves money in several ways, Timothy said. The savings to students who can avoid long commutes or campus living are easily recognized. Administrative cost savings in higher education are less obvious, but just as real.
Videoconferencing replaces meetings that once required college administrators from across the state to drive to Salt Lake City, stay in hotels and eat in restaurants — meanwhile giving up days of productivity on their own campuses. And professors who once flew to satellite campuses to teach classes now stay where they are and teach more students.
For USU, investment in faculty salaries is leveraged and student access to learning is increased by distance learning, said Robert Wagner, executive director of regional campuses and distance education at USU.
As Patton pointed out, distance learning increases enrollment and tuition revenue for universities without requiring them to service more students on campus. In Denney's part of Utah, economic benefits to communities are becoming evident, too, said associate vice chancellor Garth Wilson, of USU Eastern's Blanding campus.
Sixty-five percent of the Blanding campus' 600 students are Native American, and 300 of the students take most of their classes at remote sites outside of Blanding. Education is making a difference to the struggling rural economy.
In the 35 years since the campus was organized (originally as an extension of College of Eastern Utah), it has awarded more than 2,000 associate degrees, 500 certificates in heavy equipment and trucking, and 500 LPN and RN nursing degrees. Twenty-six alumni have become doctors or dentists.
"A lot of those are jobs that are here," Wilson said. People can get good-paying jobs that impact the economic security of our communities and families."
For Denney, that matters. He's been standing up in front of classrooms as a substitute teacher, telling kids they should get an education, and he sees the irony.
"I've been feeling like a hypocrite," he said. "When I can stand up with a diploma, I can show them I did it, too. I want to help my community. Anglo teachers come down here and teach for three years, then they take off. They are great teachers, but their hearts aren't in this area. They're not from here."
Denney is thinking about his two college-age sons, too:
"We have a bet on who can bring home the highest GPA."
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