JSC awarded distance learning grant


Gunter Kleist

Bobbi Jo Carter

Last month, Johnson State College (JSC) was awarded a grant by the USDA’s Rural Utility Services division for the expansion of its distance learning programs.

The approximately $389,000 will be used to purchase video and desktop conferencing equipment that will enable students to participate in real-time class sessions with instructors. This will enable students to enroll in classes on either campus after July 1, 2018, when JSC merges with Lyndon State College to become Northern Vermont University.

The Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) grant is awarded each year through a competitive process to help rural communities capitalize on the availability of modern telecommunications and internet technologies in the fields of education and health care.

Assistant Dean of Distance Education Programs Bobbi Jo Carter has been working since May to acquire the grant, and she says it’s a wonderful opportunity to help students and further workforce development in the healthcare field.

“It’s all technology. There’s a lot of wonderful, exciting pieces to this,” Carter said. “Basically the video conferencing is going to be used for . . . sharing courses between here [Johnson campus] and Lyndon. It’s also going to be used for sharing lower-level courses with high schools all over the state.”

Vermont’s Dual Enrollment program gives qualifying high school juniors and seniors vouchers for two college courses. The program is part of the Flexible Pathways Initiative, which aims to help students prepare for post-secondary education in the 21st century.

“We have 28 high schools throughout the state that we will be able to provide equipment to,” Carter said. “The problem is that a lot of them are not located in an area where they can easily get to and from a college campus during the school day. This will allow them to utilize their vouchers right there at their school.”

Vermont Technical College (VTC) also partnered with JSC on the project and will be using some of the funds to resume offering nursing courses in Lamoille County, something it hasn’t done since 2013 when its video conferencing provider, Vermont Interactive Technologies, was defunded.

VTC will have a room on the Johnson campus to be used exclusively by its faculty and students for the nursing program. The room will also allow VTC to host trainings for first responders and allow them to connect remotely should it not be able to afford to send groups to conferences.

The Wellness and Alternative Medicine program at Johnson will also be bolstered in the process through a partnership with Sinte Gleska University, a South Dakota university on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. The hope is that a larger population base will allow the schools to offer more courses that are historically low in enrollment, as well as providing experiential learning opportunities for students at both schools.

A main benefactor from the grant will be students in JSC’s External Degree Program (EDP). Currently, online classes are “asynchronous” and all content for the courses needs to be covered on the online portal Moodle each week. With technology purchased through the grant, the EDP will now offer live classes where students can interact with professors in real-time.

Carter isn’t sure which departments will be chosen to offer courses, but she said she has put together a survey, sent out to EDP students to get a feel for which classes may be better suited for a live session.

“Somebody may feel comfortable taking a history course or an English course online, but feel not as comfortable in math and want to actually have that real-time interaction with an instructor,” Carter said.

Carter said that there’s still everything to figure out, but the colleges are committed to having the equipment and programs ready for the fall 2018 semester at NVU and, even though the potential of being awarded the grant was exciting news for the school, Carter didn’t want to count her chickens before they hatched.

“While we were very hopeful and optimistic prior to the announcement, you don’t want to start working on something and not get the funding,” she said. “Everybody, even at the USDA regional office, was quite excited because apparently this is not a common grant awarded to people in this area, and especially for this amount.”