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Videoconferencing offers college dream for many rural Utahns

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.

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.

"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."