Prior to BlendFlex, the only option for students in these areas was to drive to a main campus—a journey that could take a couple of hours—or take the course online. Neither option is conducive to success, according to Lee. “We know that a lot of rural students are not suited to online classes,” she said. “They need to sit face to face with the teacher.”
The Tech You See on Cable News
That all changed with the addition of Cisco’s TelePresence system as a third instructional option. Telepresence is essentially video-conferencing on steroids, allowing faculty to teach students who are present in the same classroom as well as students who join remotely from satellite rural centers. “It’s very similar technology to what you see on cable news roundtables,” said Gardner Long, vice president for technology services. “Each of the parties is visible. The person who’s speaking becomes larger on the screen, while everyone else shows as thumbnails. ”
Now, students can go to any one of CGTC’s county centers to take classes that are taught from the main campuses. Anywhere from three to six separate classes can be broadcast over the network during a single period.
“The video-conferencing technology allowed us to have all these small, rural campuses connected back to our main campus,” said Lee. “The classes in the rural centers no longer get cancelled because the students are now part of a collective BlendFlex class.”
Students can even attend live classes from home if they wish, although bandwidth issues in rural areas often force students to head to their local CGTC center or, in some cases, hunker down at the local MacDonald’s or Starbucks with a set of headphones. In one case, a student checked into class from Okinawa, where her husband had recently been deployed from the local Robins Air Force Base. “It’s a two-way communication with class, just as if they were sitting in class,” said Long. “Students in class are talking to them.”
The addition of the telepresence option at CGTC’s rural centers has transformed the educational landscape for students in these areas. According to CGTC, 1,166 students have taken telepresence classes since the fall of 2014. Under the old system, where classes were automatically canceled if fewer than 10 students enrolled, 593 of those students would have been unable to take the courses they wanted.
“Because of the telepresence technology, the number of credit-hour students at our rural centers is going up,” said Lee. “We can also offer more classes because we don’t have the physical or financial burden of sending a teacher out there. It’s hard to have teachers when you have low enrollment.”
(Next page: Addressing the rural teacher shortage; proven success)