Community College to the Rescue

How savvy administrators serve and retain their commuting students by using technology to meet the special challenges those students face.

COMMUNITY COLLEGES—and there are over 1,200 of them nationwide, serving 11 million students annually—face special challenges in meeting the needs of their diverse student populations.

IT Directions

York Tech is using technology to help students
cut back on commuting-and save on gas.

But successfully serving community college students can be challenging, partly because the student bodies are often far less homogeneous than those attending four-year institutions. Many community college students are part-timers who are also working, perhaps even supporting families. Some represent the first generation in their families to attend college, or are overcoming limited English skills. Others, especially in today’s job market, are older, dislocated workers returning to retool with new skills and knowledge. Rising university tuition costs are also pushing more and more traditional four-year college students to begin their higher education at a community college. And finally, community college students often face greater financial limitations than traditional students. For example, the recent jump in gas prices affected students everywhere, but for many non-traditional students attending community colleges, it had added impact.

York Tech: A Quick Response to Challenges

As fuel prices began to rise last year, administrators at York Technical College (SC) immediately recognized that they had to make changes to accommodate the financial blow to their students. The college opened its doors in 1964 and has since become a technology leader among the 16 associate-degree-granting colleges in South Carolina. It has contributed to a statewide technical college network that has only grown more powerful and useful with the advent of the Internet—and with the introduction of technologies like streaming audio and video. In fact, York Tech’s technical prowess was publicly recognized last year when the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) ranked it the most “digitally savvy” community college in the country (sharing first place with St. Petersburg College, on Florida’s Gulf Coast).

It was not so surprising, then, that when the price of fuel headed skyward, York Tech administrators quickly assessed how they could use technology to curtail driving. “We immediately began to plan how to lessen the number of times students have to come to campus,” recalls Dennis Merrill, the college’s president. “For many of our students, [the escalating cost of gas] represents a significant hardship.” Accordingly, the school began brainstorming about using its already extensive technology infrastructure to allow students to cut back on commuting.

By using two-way videoconferencing over the Internet, York Tech can share courses with 15 colleges in its system.
Enter, Technology

York Tech’s move to rely more on distance-learning technologies illustrates how recent leaps in technology, along with price drops in broadband access and other Internet technologies, can help community colleges serve their students effectively in new and innovative ways. The relatively low price of broadband Internet access allows the school to offer its courses through two-way videoconferencing technology to other technical colleges in South Carolina, as well as to students at high schools throughout the region. York Tech also offers courses over the Internet to college students who have a broadband connection at home. Dropping costs of hardware, software, and connectivity all help make the videoconferencing system possible.

“[Technology] costs are coming down, and that’s big,” Merrill says. “Before Internet protocol [IP], fiber optic cost $1,000 a month. [Now,] IP is more like $100 a month. That alone allows us to offer this technology.” By using two-way videoconferencing over the Internet (York Tech’s setup has a Tandberg videoconferencing system at its heart), the school is able to share courses with the other 15 colleges in its system, each of which has a similar videoconferencing system in place. That saves costs when one or a few students need or want a particular class that isn’t offered that semester at York Tech, but is available elsewhere in the state. The ability to share courses remotely through videoconferencing is a tremendous cost-saver, Merrill says. “If we were to run [a specific course] for a small number of students, it would eat us alive; it would cost thousands of dollars.”

York Tech also uses its videoconferencing system to offer college-level courses to rural high school students in the area via special video rooms set up at local high schools. Besides offering college-level courses to high school students who wouldn’t be able to access them otherwise because of distance, the system serves to introduce top high schoolers to the area’s technical colleges. “I suppose you could say that it serves as a sort of feeder system” for high school students, says Merrill, who estimates that some 20 percent of York Tech’s students first experience the technical college system by taking a course remotely as a high school student. The video classrooms are set up through a local systems integrator.

Looking at the Setup

York Tech’s Tandberg setup allows an instructor to connect up to four remote classrooms in a session. Each remote classroom consists of a special video room with the Tandberg system to send and receive video and audio content, along with a computer, projector and screen, large-screen plasma display, ceiling-mounted video camera, microphones, and speakers, all from various makers. The cameras in each location are voice-activated, so that remote students who ask questions of the instructor appear on the screen.

“With the punch of a few buttons on the control panel,” says IT Director Alan Broyles, “the instructor can control the output from a computer, DVD player, or whatever, to the projector or plasma display.” Students don’t have to bring computers to the remote classrooms, but those who do can also use the Internet connection to submit items such as a paper or quiz during the class.

A key to the college’s success, Merrill emphasizes, is an extensive technical infrastructure that has taken more than 20 years to build out. The school’s connected, interactive system allows not only remote learning, but makes use of Datatel enterprise business intelligence software with an add-on component—Web Advisor, also from Datatel—to allow remote activities including online registration, fee payment, and grade posting. In addition, the school uses the WebCT course management system to deliver courses remotely to individual students with broadband connections in their homes. And York Tech uses an add-on portal to its Datatel setup—Campus Cruiser from Time Cruiser — to allow instructors to create specific e-mail distribution lists for particular classes, among other things.

Merrill says it’s critical to standardize on specific technologies— both hardware and software—as early as possible. For instance, the institution chose to standardize on Microsoft Windows in the mid 1980s, before standardizing on Windows became a widespread practice; this enabled York Tech support techs to master just one platform early on. “Don’t just let everyone choose what they want, or you’ll have a heck of a hodgepodge,” Merrill advises.

Using technologies like videoconferencing, the institution saves money by coordinating with the other technical colleges in the state to maximize the range of course offerings. It also effectively reaches potential students while they’re still in high school, introducing them to the technical college system early. York Tech makes its use of remote technologies an effective way to both serve existing students, and reach new ones.

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