By offering a flexible blend of face-to-face, online, and telepresence instruction, a Georgia school is making its programs available to rural students on their terms.

With an emphasis on flexibility and convenience, an innovative Georgia program is giving rural students—often working adults—new opportunities to pursue the jobs skills needed in today’s economy. The initiative, known as BlendFlex, is the brainchild of Central Georgia Technical College, which received a four-year government grant in 2013 to test blended-learning techniques in its healthcare program across an 11-county swath of rural Georgia.

BlendFlex gives rural students the option to switch at any time among three instructional delivery methods: face-to-face, live telepresence, and online. This approach is especially attractive to adult learners who must often juggle work and family responsibilities, too. “In the past, students had to sign up for face-to-face, hybrid, or online classes—they had to make a choice,” said Carol Lee, educational technology director at CGTC. “We had a lot of students who would sign up for a face-to-face class, but then lifestyle changes, sickness, or family issues would force them to drop out, and we would lose those students.”

Lee can relate countless stories of students whose educational dreams were derailed by unexpected life events. “Maybe their car broke down, or their child lost their daycare and they were forced to stay at home,” she said. “Now, when they come across family issues or personal problems, they can just slide into the online component of their BlendFlex class. When things smooth down, they can move back into the classroom if they want.”

Specific to Rural Students

Adult learners everywhere confront similar life challenges, but rural students face another, equally significant obstacle: The physical geography of where they live. In the case of CGTC, the school serves a sparsely populated area larger than the state of Delaware. While the school operates campuses or satellite centers in all 11 counties it serves, small population numbers make it impossible for CGTC to offer a wide range of on-site courses at the smaller outposts.

“If we offer a class like Anatomy and Physiology at a small campus like the one in Putnam County, only two or three students may sign up,” said Lee. “We can’t make a class unless there are at least 10 students.” Without the necessary 10 students, a course offering is automatically canceled.

(Next page: A “video conferencing on steroids” solution takes hold)

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)

Addressing the Teacher Shortage

It’s also hard to attract teachers to rural areas. “If we wanted to offer Anatomy and Physiology at eight physical campuses, we would have to hire eight teachers,” explained Lee. “Trying to find well-qualified teachers in a rural community is a challenge in and of itself. Now we can have one very qualified teacher at one of our main campuses teaching students across our various sites.”

Even for qualified faculty, teaching with telepresence technology requires some adjustment, so each BlendFlex instructor takes a 15-hour development course before the first class. “One of the biggest challenges for faculty member is how to engage the students,” see Lee. “It is a complete paradigm shift in the way they teach and their roles in the classroom. There may be no students sitting in front of them, but there may be half a dozen attending from home.”

To ensure that faculty can focus on their teaching rather than the technology, CGTC has automated the system as much as possible. “To the teachers, it’s very transparent,” said Long. “They walk into their class just as they would for a plain face-to-face class. The technology comes on automatically through Cisco’s TelePresence Management Suite software.”

The entire lecture and any interaction with students are recorded automatically and loaded into Blackboard, CGTC’s LMS, so absent students can review what happened in class. A six-person technical hotline provides backup for teachers if any glitches do occur.

Proven Success

As part of the initial $2.6 million TAACCCT grant from the U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration, the BlendFlex program focused on CGTC’s health program, with the hope that other programs might adopt BlendFlex once proven. That time appears to have arrived: Recent statistics show that BlendFlex classes have only a 12 percent dropout rate compared with a 21 percent rate among CGTC’s other classes.

Student evaluations performed at the end of each class also indicate that BlendFlex is an approach that resonates among rural learners. Ninety-nine percent of students like the ability to switch methods of delivery, 93 percent would recommend BlendFlex classes to other students, and 91 percent would definitely take another BlendFlex class.

 

Not surprisingly, Lee reports a lot of interest in the BlendFlex approach from other CGTC programs, and the college plans to make it available to all of them in the near future. “We have to change the way we deliver instruction,” she said. “The biggest challenge is getting teachers to [rethink their role] in classrooms that are now student centered. But that’s what it’s going to take to be a successful college these days.”

About the Author:

Andrew Barbour is a contributing editor with eCampus News.

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