Jim Gilroy

Changing the shape of education

By Bill Knief

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Former New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace’s famous comment that, “Every calculation based on experience elsewhere fails in New Mexico” often seems eerily prescient and annoyingly accurate, particularly in Taos, more than a hundred years after he penned it. But an important exception to that rule is coming together right now in the shape of an interactive television facility at the UNM-Taos med campus across from the hospital.

When it is completed it will likely change the shape of education in northern New Mexico for years to come. For once, it looks like cutting edge technology spawned in the big world outside our rural oasis is going to have a profoundly positive impact on our lives, and the story of how this unlikely turn of events took place is worth telling.

According to Jim Gilroy, UNM-Taos Dean of Instruction, it has taken several years, several hundred thousand dollars and quite a few major players to get to this point:

“Back in 1999-2000 we received our tech prep grant and began working with the major players in the area to integrate our distance learning program with area high schools. One of our dual credit teachers, Joe Giglia, had put together probably one of the best distance learning setups for high schools in the state down in Cimarron because they just didn’t have the faculty to deliver the upper level languages, math and sciences. So they were doing it with distance learning courses, and it was costing them a lot of money to purchase 30 or 40 online courses a year.

“We felt that as a group we had all the faculty we needed, however, so why not share our resources among ourselves? The Tech prep grant got us equipment for Questa, Cimarron, Taos High and Penasco as well as UNM-Taos. Then last year Juan Montes got us some Title V monies and we combined that with workforce development funds that Senator Carlos Cisneros obtained from the legislature in order to complete our system in two classrooms at the med center. This system would allow us to receive and deliver classes as well as store those classes on a server so they can be used later. It takes quite a bit of technology to do all this.”

To receive classes is relatively simple. But to record and deliver course content in a fully interactive classroom is another matter. Teachers have students in the room with them along with monitors that show students taking the course at the same time in distant locations. A television camera mounted in the ceiling follows the teacher’s every move, putting the distance learners into the classroom experience. A student can raise their hand in Questa, say, and the teacher at the med center can see them and answer their question in real time. For starters, it takes servers, cameras, projectors, monitors, computers and a huge bandwidth. This is the new world of ITV, or interactive television, and it’s here in Taos.

Rick Bull, IT coordinator for UNM-Taos, worked with John Batis of Taosnet to provide the enormous bandwidth needed by the system. It is in place now, but Batis has generously chosen to charge only for the small portion that is currently in use.

During the planning and initial implementation of the two new ITV classrooms, Giglia introduced Gilroy and Dr. Martinez Hewlett, UNM-Taos science academy head, to Frank Vigil, President and CEO of Harmonix Technologies, a national firm based in Albuquerque with clients from Nevada to North Dakota that, according to their website

www.harmonixtechnologies.com, helps “plan, deploy, optimize, manage and run your network infrastructure.” Dr. Hewlett picks up the story from here.

“My vision has always been that we ought to be the source, the origin of courses for the area high schools, the other community colleges around us, and even back to UNM, because we have people here in Taos whose expertise needs to be shared with main campus. Jack Vigil was in the process of helping us do that when Jim asked what it would take to convert all five of our classrooms, instead of two, to interactive instructional classrooms. Jack said he’d have to re-cost it.

“A week went by and I called him, said I thought he was going to give us a bid, and Jack said he was writing a grant proposal to the companies that make the equipment asking them to give us the rate for K-12 facilities, due to our collaboration with other school districts. A few days ago he called to say that we would be getting all five classrooms done for both broadcast and receiving of programming for the cost of two. He saved us $27,000.00.

“Jack is an amazing guy. He’s a ball of fire. A Penasco kid who graduated from Penasco High, went to UNM, worked for high tech corporations including Hewlett Packard, started Harmonix Technologies and recently won the Business Weekly “Young New Mexico Entrepreneur” award. He started getting clients from all over the country, but in the back of his mind is this commitment to Northern New Mexico. He wants us to have state of the art technology for education because he’s from here, and he knows that technology will be the life blood of the Northern New Mexico communities he calls home.”

“Jack has a real commitment to students in the area,” Gilroy went on, “as well as a commitment to UNM-Taos as an institution that serves his home community. The students here are his people, and he wants them to have the same access as students sitting in downtown Boston, or anywhere else. Jack credits Mr. Gurule, one of the most renowned math teachers in the north, with helping him on the road to success.”

Hewlett says the complex will be in the testing phase in a month, and operational by fall, when Barri Sanders presents her peace and justice course. But word is already getting around:

“David Sanchez, UNM manager of ITV facilities for media and technical services, announced that UNM-Taos is leading the way. We will be the first branch college in the UNM pantheon to actually deliver courses back to main campus. We are pushing the edge.”

Anyone who has wondered whether the quality of faculty at our community college is up to or ahead of state standards might want to watch for this latest, groundbreaking contribution—providing courses both to the students of northern New Mexico and to New Mexico’s flagship university as well.

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