Distance education at our local college

By Bill Knief

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In her spring budget address, Executive Director Dr. Kate O’Neill cautioned faculty and staff that drastic cuts in state funding and the drying up of major grant monies would force UNM-Taos to not only reduce course offerings, increase class size and limit essential developmental studies and dual credit programs, but that we would soon be facing major layoffs of personnel as well. Last Friday yet another valuable and respected colleague fell victim to the politics of transforming state budget deficits into education shortfalls.

During her talk Dr. O’Neill also reminded attendees that despite these difficult times, in order to continue to provide quality, affordable education to our service area “we must fulfill our commitment to the community to model best practices.” One important way we do this is by employing the latest in cutting edge technology, and an impressive example was recently unveiled in the form of equipment provided in the federal Gateway grant that allows us access to the supercomputer at Los Alamos.

Along with 26 other Gateway sites throughout the state, UNM-Taos now has the ability to tap into 3D rendering, graphics processing, simulation, virtual displays, modeling, interactive conferencing and complex research made possible through the supercomputer. Not surprisingly, this access is available to all stakeholders in UNM-Taos, not just active students and faculty. As part of the contractual agreement, the college must make the equipment available a minimum of ten hours per week for K-12 education and four hours per week to “the community”—business owners, government, researchers, individual citizens.

This is not our first foray into the heady world of electronic communications, of course. Over the years classrooms have gone through a series of upgrades both at Klauer and the Med Center so that distance education—the ability to conduct classes and receive course work in an interactive environment—can take place. Dr. Martinez Hewlett, coordinator of our science program, explained that much of this was done with the help of Representative Ben Ray Lujan, and that “The infrastructure is in. What we want to do now is use it.

“In collaboration with all the other community colleges in the state we have recently applied for a 20 million dollar grant through the Department of Labor. The idea of the consortium is to link all of the community campuses together in order to share resources, faculty and courses. Our piece of the grant, $750,000 over three years, calls for us to train the majority of our faculty to be able to use the distance equipment and be presenting courses with it.”

Martinez explained that under the grant each community college would be tasked with one aspect of the distance education project, and then every college would benefit from the collective effort.

“The use of learning tools over a distance is clearly the future of education, especially in a rural service area where students don’t necessarily have easy access to a campus. Especially in a time of economic downturn it is crucial that people be able to access educational materials that are going to upgrade their chances for work. In the end, this is all about job creation.”

Hewlett sees a certain irony in the situation: “There’s a lot going on in terms of the central importance of our campus to the region that flies in the face of some elected officials wanting to close it.

“Distance Education gives us the ability to better serve our area of responsibility and assist in job creation. We are getting people the skills they need to work in the new economy. Because the jobs in the new economy are not the jobs we are used to. They are going to require much more technical education, and that’s our goal. It’s dead serious. It’s imperative that we have portals, access, internet capability—all those things we need to deliver the training. And the people who are saying that distance education is just a fad, the latest technological toy, are saying it to one another over their cell phones.

Think about that!”

About The Bill Knief