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Learning on the Education Express

by Carl Hoffman

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Schuyler Hospital had a challenge. The small Schuyler County, New York, hospital wanted to leap into the Information Age. Its administrative and clerical departments had long been computerized, but taking the next step meant putting computers in the hands of its nursing staff. Patient reports, medication charts, care plans—there was a dizzying amount of information that would be easier to gather, interpret, and share if the nurses were using a keyboard and mouse rather than a pen. But for nurses at a busy place like Schuyler Hospital, finding the time for computer training was nearly impossible.

That is, until the Education Express rolled into town. A 40-foot-long RV packed with 12 state-of-the-art laptop computers and an instructor station, the Express brings computer training out into the rural countryside of the Southern Tier of New York. Funded in part by a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission and operated by the Schuyler-Chemung-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services (SCT BOCES), the Express has helped boost business employees, senior citizens, high school students, and continuing education students into the Digital Age.

"We're a rural community with seven component school districts," says Tim Driscoll, administrator of adult services for the SCT BOCES Adult Education and Training Services division, "and a lot of people can't access computers and technology training unless we bring it to them." In its first year and a half, the Education Express trained over 1,500 people in some 360 hours of classes, in everything from spreadsheet applications to GED preparation.

The Education Express was the brainchild of Francis Mitchell, SCT BOCES' former adult services administrator, who saw an old school bus filled with computers during a vacation out West. "He got hold of the idea and wouldn't let go," says Driscoll, "but he wanted to do it right." Right in this case meant a custom-designed and -built RV, its bright walls lined with computer stations facing a large projected computer screen and topped with laptops that can be easily removed from the bus for safekeeping and repair. When the RV arrived in August 2001, SCT BOCES advertised it by distributing flyers around the counties it serves, then displaying it at job fairs, farmers markets, and businesses—anything to get the word out. Training on the Education Express costs $100 an hour for up to 12 students.

Bringing Training to the Students

The price and convenience of the training were important to Kennedy Valve, a manufacturer of valves and fire hydrants in Elmira. Four years ago Kennedy upgraded its computer system and sent some 80 personnel to training at SCT BOCES' main campus in Elmira. But when a handful of employees, mostly shop foremen, later needed training in spreadsheets, Claire Stuart, Kennedy's IT manager, brought in the bus. "It was much cheaper for the bus to come to us than to train people individually, and it was much more convenient. It's very difficult for shop foremen to leave the plant, and sometimes they say they can't make training. This way, on breaks they could run in and check on the plant, and then jump right back into the class. It was perfect."

Another Education Express client is the New York State Office for the Aging, which contracted with SCT BOCES for computer training for seniors. "This is a really rural part of the state," says Linda Pierce, project director of AARP's senior employment program in Chemung and Schuyler Counties, "and there is no public transportation in Schuyler County. A lot of seniors simply can't get to services, so to have a training facility that can go to them is really, really important." And, she adds, "Every one of the people we asked said they wanted to take part." Including 84-year-old John Govus, who not only completed the training and bought a computer but also secured a data processing job soon after.

Traditionally, decentralizing job training and adult education means teaching classes at remote sites. But outfitting a lot of remote sites with state-of-the-art computers is expensive. Kathy Lippincott, who teaches GED preparation classes at an SCT BOCES site in the small Tioga County town of Waverly, works in a classroom that has no phone and no computers. Problem solved, now that the Education Express rolls into Waverly. "Half of my students are very low income," Lippincott says. "Many don't have a car. There's no public transportation in Tioga County, and they can't get to the BOCES [main] campus." You don't need a computer to study for the GED exam, of course, but Lippincott finds her students are learning more and are more motivated since they began using the Education Express.

Boosting Self-Confidence

"We think there's a computer in every home, but many of my students don't have them," says Lippincott. "They've been intimidated by computers, and it's amazing to watch them on the bus; they don't even realize they're learning. I've got them writing essays in Word, and when they're filling out job applications and responding to want ads, it really boosts their self-confidence."

The nurses at Schuyler Hospital don't need their self-confidence boosted; they just need time. It's 11:00 on a Thursday morning, and the hospital, a 30-minute drive from the SCT BOCES campus, is hopping with patients. The Education Express is parked out back, its generator humming. Inside, eight nurses are following as instructor Jo Kish leads them through a workshop on spreadsheets, one of the keys, the hospital hopes, to improved productivity and patient care. One of the nurses is Vikki Watson, the hospital's director of education. "We're trying to move this little hospital into the technology age," she says, looking up from her laptop as she learns how to sort data and import it from a word-processing document, "but only a few of our nurses had real computer training." One of the things Watson wants to do is gather data on patient care and see how effective that care is. And since every nursing assistant must receive 12 hours of training a year to stay certified, she wants to track that training. "This is by far the best training we've had," she says. "It comes to us, and it's cost effective because we don't have to send half of our staff away for half the day or more."

Suddenly a nursing assistant pokes her head into the Education Express and taps Melissa Allmaier, the director of nursing for the hospital's nursing home, on the shoulder, and the two run out. A few minutes later, Allmaier returns. "This is wonderful," she says. "I don't have to take a whole day off, and if I'm needed, like I just was, I can run into the hospital and take care of things and then come back."

Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington D.C.