Rural schools get linked up for college courses
It's nice, according to Fourth District U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, to know that for once the federal government has spent nearly a half a million dollars "on something worthwhile."
That "something worthwhile" is right here in Southwest Oklahoma thanks to a partnership among Great Plains Technology Center, Cameron University and Western Oklahoma State College, and over a dozen rural schools.
During a trip to Lawton last week, Cole visited Great Plains to experience a demonstration of the newly installed GPNet distance learning system. Kevin Chambers, the tech center's director of information technology, initiated a conference call using a touchscreen panel on the wall, and within minutes the auditorium of the Worley Seminar Cetner was transformed into a digital classroom.
Distance learning professionals at Cameron, teachers at Elgin High School and a Great Plains Technology instructor at the Frederick campus were all broadcast on a large screen behind the podium, showing each participant the happenings at the other locations. Everyone could see and hear each another with exceptional clarity, asking questions and discussing the potential for the system that has the potential to impact the lives of over 20,000 students, teachers and residents in the area.
Great Plains was awarded nearly a half a million dollars this year in federal funds as part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Services Grant, which provides telemedicine equipment to rural schools and organizations. With those funds, Chambers and multimedia specialist Jeff Bridges implemented the live curriculum-sharing network and distributed screens and camera equipment to Southwest Oklahoma schools, including tech center campuses in Lawton and Frederick, and public schools in Big Pasture, Cache, Chattanooga, Davidson, Elgin, Fletcher, Frederick, Geronimo, Grandfield, Indiahoma, Snyder, Sterling and Tipton.
Within the past few weeks, all the technology has been distributed and the systems are coming online.
So how does it work?
Any school on the network, like Cameron University, Great Plains, or Western Oklahoma State College, can host a class at its respective campus. Students at the high schools can watch the classroom and hear the teacher's live lecture, while the instructor can see and hear the remote students live as well.
The video conferencing equipment at most of the sites is attached to mobile carts, allowing students at the schools to "phone in" to the class from libraries, gymnasiums or empty classrooms.
Chambers said the tech center will help maintain and facilitate the network, but each site is virtually free to use it as it pleases.
According to Cameron and Great Plains Superintendent Tom Thomas, the colleges and tech center are first offering general education classes that require few pre-requisites for network enrollment. As they learn more about scheduling and student needs, additional courses will be offered.
Previously, concurrent enrollment was an option for students at rural schools, but students were limited to taking online-only courses. Now Cameron can transform more classes into televised courses, expanding students' options.
Thomas said Great Plains will offer curriculum for students preparing to enter the health and engineering fields in addition to offering distance training for EMTs, volunteer firefighters and community residents during emergencies.
"Certainly, what's good for our partner schools is good for us," Thomas said. "The more we can do to ensure our students are college and career ready, the better off we are."
The partners are looking at schedules in order to determine the ideal times to offer courses, but some are already seeing the benefits of the system. Three students at Snyder High School, which received its equipment in August, are already attending classes at Western Oklahoma State College through the distance learning program, Chambers said, meaning students are obtaining college credits, saving thousands in college tuition without having to commute to Altus or Lawton each day.
The primary benefit is that students living too far from the college and career tech campuses can still participate in concurrent enrollment, earning credits prior to graduation, but there are several other applications for GPNet. Lessons can be archived and stored for viewing later; teachers can use the technology for professional development, sharing lesson plans and developing integrated units; and the system can eventually be accessed by mobile users and instructors to facilitate parent-teacher conferences or other meetings.