Learning the long way 

Video-conference classes create opportunity, concern

Teachers at several far-flung Montana campuses may soon need to acquire digital “smart board” skills to augment their blackboard savvy. Courtesy of a $350,000 Rural Utilities Service (RUS) grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), rural schools are taking a technological leap by connecting to one another via interactive video conferencing systems that will enable students to link up to remote classes through a video feed. So far, project sites include Flathead Valley Community College’s (FVCC) Kalispell and Lincoln County campuses, public school districts in Libby and St. Regis, and the Lustre Christian High School in Frazier, Mont. All together, the grouping is known as the Missouri River Distance Learning Consortium.

An open-house demonstration of the technology was held at Flathead Valley Community College on Thurs., July 22. The remote schools connected up to one video network, as did Sen. Conrad Burns in Washington, D.C. The top of the screen focused on whichever location held the floor, while the other locations remained visible, though much smaller, on the bottom portion of the screen.

All those involved thanked Sen. Burns for seeing the grant through.

Via the TV screen, Burns called the advent of the technology “a historical event,” and said that students in rural areas should not be counted out of educational opportunities due to their location. This technology helps ensure that opportunity, according to Burns.

The hook-up works like an Internet connection and is run through a T-1 line operated by a private company, the Great Falls-based Vision Net, which provides all Internet services for Montana state government.

The company was originally formed by five Montana telephone cooperatives, and now those cooperatives will help pay for the new technology, says Vision Net General Manager Ron Warnick.

“We generally charge the schools $8,000 a year,” Warnick says. “The network costs more than $8,000 to support, but the telephone cooperatives pick up the difference because they feel that the schools are the community and, of course, for the future of their business it helps to have robust communities.”

Ruth Ackroyd, director of college relations at FVCC, wrote the grant proposal that Sen. Burns ultimately helped push through. She says that teleconferenced classes between Libby and Eureka will be held in the upcoming fall semester.

“From there, our next step is to develop partnerships in scheduling with the other schools,” Ackroyd says, so that, for instance, a math class in Kalispell can fit in with the schedules of a significant number of students who want to take the same course via video in other areas.

In order to make this a reality, teachers will have to gain some degree of technological savvy, which is where FVCC’s Alexandria “Zandy” Startin comes in.

“We do have instructors who consider themselves not very techno-literate,” Startin says. But after a brief lesson, she says, teachers find the technology easy to use.

At FVCC’s Vision Net classroom, the equipment includes two microphones per multi-student desk and several cameras throughout the room. Teachers can use television screens to display, zoom and focus on notes, and a “smart board” allows teachers to interact with computer documents, including a touchscreen feature whereby a teacher can circle an important section just by tracing a circle around the screen with his or her hand.

“With this grant, we can deliver wider programming of college-level courses to places like Eureka,” Ackroyd says. “For a lot of folks, it’s a much better way to learn. But there are issues with that.”

Pointing out those issues is Eric Feaver, president of the Montana Education Association/Montana Federation of Teachers (MEA-MFT), who says that he and many of the state’s teachers are troubled by the proposition that distance learning can serve students better than traditional methods.

While Feaver acknowledges that distance-learning initiatives such as this one will indeed be beneficial to students in rural communities who may gain access to courses that they otherwise couldn’t take, Feaver wonders if the new technology will cut teachers out of the educational loop by replacing them with cameras and televisions. Ackroyd responds that the technology may actually create more teaching jobs, since student demand for new courses could be counted in aggregate between several locations, whereas one particular campus may not have enough interested students to make certain courses viable.

But Feaver also questions the fundamentals of distance learning.

“How dull and boring that would be to teach grammar over the Internet,” Feaver says. “You need people actually there to urge you on, because not everybody is self-motivated enough to deal with that impersonal technology. A lot of people need to feel that they’re part of the whole. The biggest danger with our new technologies is that we become six billion individuals instead of a community.”

“We’re making assessments of which courses are best distance-delivered, as opposed to say, a lab course,” Ackroyd replies. “But labs could also be conducted with the kits that are available.”

Another concern with distance learning involves intellectual property rights, Feaver says. He wonders who owns the material a teacher teaches, and if a school could simply rebroadcast past classed for new students; if so, would the original teacher receive royalties?

In the midst of government struggles over school budgeting, Feaver says that for years his union has expressed anxiety that school districts may disproportionately turn to distance learning because computers and T-1 cables, while requiring some maintenance, don’t require costly salaries and health benefits.

Ultimately, Feaver says, he’s not against the technology, but believes it should be viewed as a back-up option to traditional teaching methods.

“I’m not trying to denigrate the technology, because there are good opportunities out there,” Feaver says. “Frazier picking up an FVCC course? I don’t know that Frazier could get that class another way, so that’s good. But it’s best as a supplement, and shouldn’t be a model.”

mike@missoulanews.com

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