The University of Alaska is placing 40 videoconferencing stations in remote locations around the state.
The stations, bought with part of a $1.5 million federal grant, are intended for use by Head Start teachers who are studying for mandated associate degrees. But many of the stations are located at public schools, which are free to use the equipment.
The distance classes in the university's associate degree program in early childhood education have been offered by audioconference. The students sit in their homes and dial in on a telephone. A class typically is composed of one or two students each from a number of villages. The instructors are in Juneau, Dillingham, Fairbanks and Bethel.
"It seems to be OK but impersonal," said Mary Donaldson, a Head Start teacher in Kodiak who is in the degree program.
She's seen a demonstration of the videoconferencing equipment. It's basically a two-way TV, said Mark Thompson of Juneau, who coordinated the technical elements of the grant. The equipment, made by Tandberg, has a camera, screen, microphone and speakers.
The screen allows the instructor and students to all see each other. The instructor can write on a whiteboard, or hook up a DVD or video to appear on the screen.
The experience is as much like a true classroom as it can be, Thompson said.
"I can see where you can get more out of your instructor," Donaldson said of videoconferencing.
The degree program is a collaboration between the University of Alaska Southeast and the College of Rural Alaska, which is part of UA Fairbanks. About 120 are enrolled now, said Cindy Harrington, a coordinator based in Kodiak.
The students work fulltime, many at Head Start but some as private child care providers. They often are mothers and grandmothers, as well. The average age is in the mid-40s. For many, it's their first college experience.
"Introducing the videoconferencing is really exciting because it's difficult to communicate without those visual cues," Harrington said. "It's hard to create a community of learners with only audioconferencing."
The videoconferencing installations coincided with a change in federal rules that will allow school districts to use a federal subsidy called e-rate to pay for the necessary Internet connection.
Formerly, school districts could use the e-rate for Internet connections that served only to teach students from kindergarten to grade 12, said Della Matthis, the state's e-rate coordinator. The new rules from the Federal Communications Commission allow its use for any educationally related activity, including staff training.
The subsidy ranges generally from 60 percent to 90 percent in rural Alaska, Matthis said.
In Kodiak, the videoconferencing equipment has been set up at the 750-student high school.
Betty Walters, school superintendent for the Kodiak Borough, said the district may use the equipment to bring distance courses to its staff members so they can meet new federal requirements that teachers and aides be "highly qualified."
The district also might ask Kodiak High School teachers to use videoconferencing to teach courses to small, remote schools in the borough.
The equipment also will allow special needs students and their parents and teachers in remote villages to talk to specialists in Kodiak, Walters said.
"There's just all sorts of things we can do once it is in place. It will be fantastic," she said.
The Kodiak district will use some of its own grant funds to place videoconferencing stations in the remote villages of Old Harbor and Ouzinkie.
The university hopes to get more funds through the Head Start Federal Bureau to place equipment in more sites, Thompson said. The goal is to have the first 40 sites installed by the end of September.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.