How colleges reach remote students

Using video to connect to students in rural America

Imagine coaching a student intern who is teaching in a school that’s so remote, there are no roads leading into town. Or trying to observe a social work major who has a field placement hundreds of miles from campus.

For colleges and universities that serve rural areas, interacting with students who do not have access to campus—either by car or the internet—can be a challenge.

Online exclusive: Tech providers on expanding access to rural students

But higher ed institutions are finding ways to expand their reach into rural communities through video-based distance learning.

In the tribal reservations of Arizona, hamlets in northern Alaska and other remote communities, colleges are also training a future cadre of professionals who can relieve severe shortages of teachers, social workers and child welfare workers.

Sidebar: Case study: Using a mobile app to engage rural students

“Rural areas have a lot of things working against them,” says Jessica Retrum, associate professor of the Department of Social Work at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “On top of not having the resources, they don’t have the workforce to meet the needs of those living there. That’s the crux of why we want to reach rural communities.”

Sidebar: Technology training takeaways 

Here’s how four institutions are bridging the gap between their campuses and students based in rural areas. 

Northland Pioneer College: Increasing college access to Native Americans

One way to help rural students access postsecondary education is to meet them where they are—at high school.

That is what Northland Pioneer College, a community college in Holbrook, Arizona, did when administrators launched Project TALON (Technology to Advance Learning Outcomes at Northland) in 2016 to offer general education college courses to students in 10 high schools in two sprawling counties in the state’s northeastern corner.

Powered by a Cisco-developed platform, the project involves engaging a large number of Native Americans in the region to encourage them to attend college, says Phil Way, associate vice president and chief information officer for Northland Pioneer College.

“The students who have the talents, the gifts and the desire to pursue higher education may have challenges with their families to pursue college because they know when these students graduate from college, they may leave home and never come back,” he adds.

Project TALON also addresses the severe teacher shortage in the two counties, which as of early summer 2018 stood at 500 openings. Because of the lack of teachers, high school students have been unable to take some of the courses required for graduation, so the college has stepped in to provide those classes, Way says.

Videoconferencing provides access to the classes as they’re taught in real time at Northland, with the technology enabling interaction with the professor or students on campus and at another high school.

“The students don’t just get lectured to,” Way says. “They can engage with the material in a common room on a common video board.”

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In the first three years of the program, 422 students have taken a college class in math, English, Spanish or American government. Because of the program’s success, Way says a group of high school administrators is creating a consortium to sustain the program after its $1.5 million federal grant expires in 2020.

University of Alaska Fairbanks: Reaching student teaching interns in remote schools

Teacher shortages are a critical problem in northern Alaska, as well. Many towns have no roads connecting them and are accessible only by small planes. Yet teacher education faculty at the University of Alaska Fairbanks have to provide frequent and timely feedback to student teachers in the field.

Two years ago, the university tackled the problem by adopting a video observation platform from Edthena, which allows student interns to record and share their instruction with professors and peers.

“It’s really increased the amount of usable feedback that they’re getting on their teaching without being with the instructor in the classroom,” says Amy Vinlove, associate professor in the School of Education.

Because of the importance of observing interns in the classroom, faculty will still travel to watch the students teach twice per year. But a single trip to a remote school district can cost the university up to $1,200—and an average of 12 students intern in rural schools each year.

Those visits are now supplemented with the videos, which interns can record on any device and upload to the website or app. As faculty and other students watch, they can record their own comments or questions within the system.

Vinlove, who teaches a social studies methods class, explains that the platform allows her to see education students executing the lesson plans developed in her course.

“I never got to see them teach it because I couldn’t visit 12 different communities in Alaska,” she says. “Now it’s a requirement that they actually capture a component of that unit in their classroom.”

The platform also allows students to observe and comment on one another’s teaching, or to watch themselves on screen. “It opens up multiple new levels of interaction and feedback when you’re not limited to face-to-face, real-time observations,” Vinlove says.

Metropolitan State University of Denver: Interacting with social work students

As with teacher education, social work programs require regular observation of students in the field. At the Metropolitan State University of Denver, faculty have turned to videoconferencing to interact with rural students who are enrolled in the online bachelor or master of social work programs.

Students in Colorado, where 73 percent of the counties are designated as rural or frontier, are served by the program. Social work majors live anywhere between two to six hours away from campus, and in the winter those times can double.

To complete their degree, students need to learn various communication skills that demonstrate their ability to work with clients.

“Because this is an applied clinical practice degree, it’s very relational,” says Retrum, who chairs the social work department. “We’re training people to work with other human beings, so that can be tricky when they’re trying to do things online.”

Students can participate in role-play exercises—which are normally done in a classroom on campus—from an offsite field agency, using platforms developed by Zoom and YuJa. The students can record the simulated activity at the field office, upload it and have their professors and peers provide feedback.

The videoconferencing tools are central to the university’s aim of helping to overcome the shortage of behavioral health professionals in rural Colorado, which has 52 percent fewer mental health providers per capita than urban areas in the state.

“Our hope is that if we educate them and help them stay in place in rural areas, then they’ll work in those areas,” Retrum says.

The University of North Carolina at Pembroke: Overcoming lack of internet access

Students living in impoverished rural areas may lack a key resource for taking an online course: broadband access to the internet. The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, nestled among farmland in the state’s poorest county, has lobbied to expand broadband access across the state.

But that is a long-term strategy; a more immediate goal is to help students who don’t have internet access connect to online courses, says Nancy Crouch, associate vice chancellor for technology resources and chief information officer.

The university now provides all students with desktop conferencing via WebEx so that they can access online lectures for their courses.

If the students are in a location with low bandwidth, the WebEx platform prioritizes voice over video, which means it will automatically turn off the video but still allow the listener to hear the lecture, Crouch explains.

Another component of the university’s goal to expand access is a focus on the adoption of technology by students who were not exposed to tools such as videoconferencing in high school.

To show new students how to use WebEx and other software, the university enlisted a group of undergraduates it calls “adoption ambassadors” to plan, market and lead a series of celebratory education events throughout the year.

With music blaring in the background, the events are held after business hours in the student center or the quad, and the adoption ambassadors use their own devices to patch in passersby via WebEx.

“The students are out there at those events showing their future peers how to use it,” Crouch says. “It’s a much better message than us trying to tell them—and it works.” 

Sherrie Negrea is an Ithaca, New York-based writer and frequent contributor to UB.

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