Arizona College Serves Remote Students with Rich Multimedia

By Linda L. Briggs

Serving quality educational experiences to remote students is a challenge for many colleges in the U.S. Advances in multimedia equipment, video conferencing solutions, and high-speed delivery are making that task easier, but still not without challenges.

Just ask Rich King, director of multimedia at Central Arizona College (CAC) in Pinal County, Arizona, just outside Ph'enix. The college faced the considerable challenge of delivering top-notch educational opportunities to its students in the very rural communities that populate the large county in central Arizona.

CAC has three campuses and four smaller “centers,” which together serve the school’s roughly 4,000 full-time students. All three campuses have rich, well-conceived multimedia setups, as d'es one of the centers. According to King, multimedia configurations for the other centers are in the works.

In an unusual setup, partly because of distance issues over the 5,500-square-mile area the college covers, the three campuses are connected via licensed microwave rather than a more traditional T-1 line, DSL, or cable modem. A central mountain at a rough midpoint among the three campuses provides the line-of-sight needed for microwave. Each campus is within 40 to 60 miles from that central peak. “We have a lot of Indian reservations and mountains here,” King says, “so just getting around, infrastructure-wise…you have to do some pretty innovative things.”

The college also serves content to locations at a number of high schools and even grade schools, all of which are connected to the main campus as part of an IT consortium that CAC founded. The total number of multimedia setups the college supports, whether a classroom on a campus, a center, or another location, is 36. All of the endpoints connect back to a Polycom bridge on the central campus of CAC.

In another move to reduce maintenance and increase the ability to manage its multimedia setups remotely, the college is moving toward using control systems from Crestron Electronics, Inc. This system gives instructors and other users of the classroom a single touch panel that can simply and easily control all the equipment in the room. It also gives IT personnel the ability to remotely manage and troubleshoot the classrooms.

King admits that the distance between locations and the sheer number and variety of setups has become a challenge over time, as CAC and the multimedia endpoints have grown. By implementing video and audio conferencing solutions from Polycom, including Polycom network bridges, CAC has been able to more effectively allocate scarce faculty resources to deliver remote classes. The multimedia solution has also enabled the college to provide a richer educational environment to students through a “blended” experience that can include face-to-face time in class, along with delivery of classes over the Internet.

The cost to set up a full multimedia classroom with projector, computer, ELMO document camera, a laptop computer, furniture, and links to the existing system, is about $14,000, King says. Helping defray the cost is the fact that CAC has also used the technology to assist in teacher training and to provide an additional outlet for administrative meetings, saving the college thousands of dollars annually in travel and meeting costs.

King says he selected Polycom for the network bridges for reasons that included quality, price, and the appeal of using a single vendor. The system is also highly extendable, which will come in useful as CAC continues to grow. The educational consortium the college has formed, unique in Arizona, is now adding new endpoints that extend into the next county. “Our tentacles are out there,” King says, “and we don’t want to put a cap on how much we can grow” with the current system.

“The crux of this,” King says, “is that you no longer have to think in terms of barriers. The Internet has changed things, and the right equipment has a lot to do with it.”

Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif.

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