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Learning on the Information Highway

by Carl Hoffman

It's 5:00 P.M. on a Monday evening, and Associate Professor Melanie Greene's Appalachian State University (ASU) graduate class Connecting Learners and Subject Matter is in full swing. Three different groups of students have just given short presentations to their classmates, summarizing their thoughts on the different curriculum philosophies they've been studying. "Thanks for sharing that with us, Sandra," Greene says to Sandra Busic, a teacher of gifted elementary and middle school students in Sparta, North Carolina, who has just finished speaking. "Any questions?" Hearing no response, Greene says, "Sandra, do you see any puzzled faces?"

The question may seem odd, but there's a good reason for it: Greene is standing in a classroom in Boone, North Carolina, while Busic is in Sparta, 50 miles and several mountain ranges away. Even though Greene can see and hear all of her students, live, and they can see and hear her, this is distance learning and Greene wants to ensure that all her far-flung students are following along.

Welcome to the 21st century, where the idea of a "classroom" in the traditional sense has been thrown right out the window. With computers, high-speed telephone lines, and video cameras, the walls, mountains, and miles vanish; suddenly a small mountain town is as centrally located as Charlotte or New York City.

At the Alleghany Cyber Campus at Alleghany High School, one of seven "cyber campuses" throughout the state of North Carolina linked via the North Carolina Information Highway, high school students can take enhanced math, science, and language courses and advanced college classes unavailable at their small high school, teachers can get advanced degrees in the latest instructional technologies, and virtually anyone in the area can bone up on the latest developments in their field, all without leaving their own community.

Sandra Busic, who wanted to pursue a master's degree in educational media, is a perfect example. As the crow flies, it's a short hop from the little town of Sparta to the ASU campus in Boone. But navigating the mountain roads between the two can take a daunting hour and a half or more, especially in the winter, with its twin hazards of icy roads and early nightfall. With a full-time teaching job and two children, ages 10 and 12, at home, there's no way Busic could make the twice-weekly drive to ASU.

"ASU is a long way, and right now in my life it would be really tough to get there," says Busic. "But the cyber campus is five minutes from my house, and it enables me to get a master's degree that fits perfectly with what I do."

"It's a huge opportunity," agrees Busic's classmate Pamela Braley, a teacher at Glade Creek Elementary School in Ennice. "It enhances my professional credibility and my classroom—I take what I learn in class here right back to my students—and I probably wouldn't be getting my degree if it wasn't for this."

Reaching a Remote Area

The seven cyber campuses were the brainchild of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, which envisioned building an interactive campus in each of North Carolina's most economically distressed counties. If there was a logical location for a cyber campus, it was Alleghany County. Located in the northwest corner of the state, it has no interstate highway access, a 20 percent poverty level and an 8 percent unemployment rate (according to the most recent Census figures), and the lowest high school completion rate in North Carolina. But there was a catch. The technology for a cyber campus—such as computers and video equipment—is expensive, and to secure a campus, a community had to compete for it, demonstrating its commitment by kicking in substantial amounts of money.

Sparta rose to the task under the leadership of Arthur Anderson Huber, a former Atlanta banker who had retired to Alleghany County and was then director of the local chamber of commerce. "I was helping the school system to raise money for something totally unrelated when I heard about the cyber campus," says Huber, "and I told the school superintendent that if I were she, I'd drop everything to win that competition. I thought it would set Alleghany County in the center of things and begin to instill a measure of pride here. And even more important, I thought it would create an infrastructure and provide career opportunities for our young people above the typical six-dollar-an-hour wage."

Within months, the local hospital, banks, Lions Club, and industries together raised $180,000 in matching grant funds, "which for this community is a lot of money," says Sally Chitwood, general supervisor for Alleghany County Schools.

George Matuck, a retired 30-year employee of IBM who manages the Alleghany Cyber Campus, believes that initial deep and broad community participation was key. "The cyber campus requires a fundamental change in the way people think, and it takes a lot of effort to convince people that this works and they can really use it," says Matuck. Too often, technology just shows up, he says. "But those up-front partnerships meant that the community had a piece of it from the beginning."

Governor Jim Hunt helped the local partners meet their goals by directing part of North Carolina's allocation of Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) funds to close the gap in the financing for the cyber campus. (The governor also directed ARC funds to a cyber campus in Cherokee County.)

"Through the Alleghany Cyber Campus, the people of Alleghany County have an opportunity to pursue a commitment to education that includes making sure children start school ready to learn, getting and keeping good teachers, developing safe and orderly schools, and setting high standards and helping students achieve them," Governor Hunt says. "They already have shown they can come together and secure the involvement and support of parents, businesses, and the community to make their schools the best they can be. We want counties all over North Carolina to follow their example so we can meet our goal of making our public schools first in America by 2010."

With the help of the ARC funding, the Alleghany Cyber Campus opened in 1997. To date, 4,400 students have received over 17,700 hours of instruction at the Sparta facility. "Our students," says Sally Chitwood, "now have opportunities that are as great as for any students anywhere."

Indeed, behind a nondescript door off a school hallway lies a whole new world: a wired classroom where students can see and hear—and be seen and heard by—a teacher at another location, in real time; a conference room-cum-second classroom with the same interactive facilities; and a computer laboratory where students and anyone from the community can use the cyber campus's powerful computers, loaded with the latest in multimedia and graphics software and capable of creating everything from banners and brochures to digitized video productions. All of this is presided over by a professional staff and student interns. "It's a facility that I never would have dreamed of," says Chitwood, and for the first time it wipes away the educational disadvantages of being tucked high on a lovely mountain.

A World of Opportunities

On a typical day at the Alleghany Cyber Campus, high school students take enhanced math, science, and language classes, as well as accredited college courses from Wilkes Community College in subjects that range from technology in society to Eastern religions; struggling students have access to remedial pre-algebra and English classes. College students take classes from Wilkes in accounting and child development. And community members like Busic and Braley pursue master's degrees from ASU.

Every Friday, the high school's students create and broadcast a half-hour news show for the school. Other projects in development include an MBA program and a five-year high school program, at the completion of which students would graduate with both a high school diploma and a two-year associate's degree.

"It has been a tremendous boost to our program," says James Halsey, principal of Alleghany High School. Assistant Principal Barbara Lyon agrees: "We're a small system, and our students get some of the opportunities that students in a larger system get every day," she says. "And it's all right here, without leaving home; ultimately maybe some of our better students won't have to leave the county for good education and jobs."

"I thought that if I could take some college courses, it might give me an edge when I get to college next year," says Amber Widener, 17. A top student in her senior year who has completed all the necessary high school credits, Widener is taking a full load of 15 college credits through the cyber campus.

At the cyber campus, it sometimes seems that the whole mountain community is suddenly dipping into new educational opportunities. Recent changes in North Carolina law set up a system of ratings for day-care providers, and in order for a center to receive the highest rating, a majority of caregivers must have at least an associate's degree. In the past, meeting this standard might have seemed impossible to people like Marlene Williams and Jennifer Billings, who work full-time and wouldn't have the time to make the long trek from Sparta to the closest community college. The cyber campus has made it possible for them to take the classes they need (from Wilkes Community College) without leaving Sparta.

"I couldn't take day classes and work, too," says Williams, "and there's no way I could drive 45 minutes or an hour at night after work. Doing it all on television," she adds, "is a little intimidating at first, though. And there's a certain comfort level that just isn't the same as being in a room with a real teacher."

Indeed, it's clear that the technology isn't perfect. There are momentary freezes on the television, and it takes an extra effort on the part of the distant teacher to reach out and engage the students. But it seems a small price to pay, and most seem to be adapting well.

Cyber campus manager Matuck is enthusiastic about the opportunities online education can provide to citizens in small towns like Sparta. "It could have a significant impact. In places like Sparta people have traditionally lived off the land or by elbow grease. But by allowing them this access to college, people are going to do new things they've never done before."

Arthur Huber agrees: "From my vantage point, this is a big economic development tool to go after small computer hardware and software companies. I had a very smart young man working for me, and his aspiration was to be an automobile mechanic. I begged him to take one class on the cyber campus. He did, and now he's totally into computers; he's going to community college on the cyber campus, and if he does well enough, he says he's going to go after a four-year degree at ASU. There's a whole world out there, and now this whole town is fired up about learning."

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