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Distance Learning: Lessons from Alaska

As Alaskans are experiencing the annual thaw, it may be worthwhile for those of us in the lower 48 to think about some lessons we might be able to learn from the distance learning planners there.
Two years ago, I began to work with Mike Sfraga and Steve Smith of the University of Alaska as they tried to sort out the first steps in responding to a challenge. Their task was to devise a statewide network that could serve all of the distance learning needs of the public school system, local governments, the National Guard, public libraries, community colleges, technical colleges, and the state's public and private universities. At least they did not have to try to weave in public health care needs; there was another project dealing this those issues on a parallel track.
They began their planning process by including all of the players and focusing on the actual distance learning needs of each of the constituent groups. Mike and Steve pushed all of the groups to articulate their plans in sufficient detail so that they could understand one another's needs.
The school planners wanted to ensure that students throughout the state could have access to the courses they would need to be able to stay and work in their own communities or that they might need to attend college. The National Guard needed regular training for members located throughout the state. The public libraries needed to share documents at every local branch, regardless of the their size or location. The tribal college wanted to reach young people in their communities to enable them to complete some of their college work close to home.
There was no talk of technology until the needs were defined. During the next stage of the process, the university technocrats played a supportive and facilitative role. They helped each group understand what type of electronic tools could be used with different levels of bandwidth. They showed the other groups how tools such as Web video or chat groups could be used in well-designed learning environments.
Even though the university planners knew their own bandwidth requirements, they never dictated what others might want to do. Each group was set loose to define the type of learning tools it would need to achieve its goals.
To design a system that would balance costs and bandwidth requirements throughout the state, the university planners called in representatives from private industry and local phone companies. Those negotiations are still going on, but at least all those involved have figured out what they want to do and how those diverse groups—with constituents from the Arctic Circle to the Bering Sea to the border of British Columbia—can work together for the benefit of all.
Throughout this statewide planning process, the University of Alaska campuses in Fairbanks, Juneau, and Anchorage began some of their own planning. Through system-wide purchases, all parts of the university now have a common student information system. This has enabled campus officials to begin developing a fully integrated system to support students. Their eventual goal is to upgrade all of the services for students.
The lessons I hope all of us can learn from our northern colleagues are to include all critical parties in the planning process and, most importantly, to define needs before planning the network. It may not be as much fun as evaluating the new technological toys, but it d'es increase the chances that the tools that are ultimately selected will actually be used.

As founding director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, Sally M. Johnstone serves as a resource on higher education technology issues. She also serves on the board of the American Association for Higher Education, the U.S. Open University's Board of Governors, and the Advisory Panel for the Consortium for the Advancement of Private Higher Education. [email protected]

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