Classrooms Hope To Provide Long-Distance Learning Despite Budget Cuts

Mar 31, 2015

Among the many programs facing budget cuts this year is a high-tech conference system. Vermont Interactive Technologies operates 13 interactive video classrooms around the state and the students who depend on it are using the technology to fight for its survival.

The typical student in a VIT classroom is an aspiring nurse, or perhaps an electrician or a plumber. They’re mostly people who work all day and are taking classes to move up the career ladder. The system is also used by non-profit organizations and state government for video conferencing. And the viewers are not just crowding around a grainy TV screen any more, as they did when system got started in 1988. These days, they can see not just their teacher, but each other, as well as assignments on the screen.

“I didn’t get a chance to read through all of them yet, but the ones I did, you all have done a really nice job picking out the information that’s been on the exam,” Sarah Billings-Berg tells her students in a recent pharmacology class. An Assistant Professor at Vermont Technical College, she’s starting  with a lecture, and then showing samples of student papers on the screen as fodder for discussion.

Some students see her in person at the Newport VIT studio, but most are watching her on TV from either White River Junction, Springfield or Lyndonville.

Amanda Boyd is the class representative for the nine students at the VIT studio at Lyndon State College. She’s terrified that VIT might go away.

"We all have families, we all have children or jobs ... so being able to travel somewhere closer instead of having to drive two hours away - or three hours for some of us - is really critical and important for us. I don't think that nursing school would have been in a lot of our cards without this." - Amanda Boyd, student

“We all have families, we all have children or jobs, you know, we’re not the average high school graduate who’s just fresh out of high school with no commitments. So being able to travel somewhere closer instead of having to drive two hours away – or three hours for some of us – is really critical and important for us. I don’t think that nursing school would have been in a lot of our cards without this,” Boyd says.

Amy Swarr, speaking over the VIT system from White River Junction, chimes in. “And there are nursing jobs that are open and nurses are needed so desperately in this region that if more seats are closed in schools we are not even meeting the need that we have in the region for nursing,” Swarr says.

So why not just shift courses like this to a cheaper, online site? Katlynne Marois, in Lyndonville, says taking the class in real time with a group, seeing their teacher and talking with student at other sites about classwork posted on the screen is much better than just staring at a computer at home.

The students say taking the class in real time with a group, seeing their teacher and talking with student at other sites about classwork posted on the screen is much better than just staring at a computer at home.
Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR

“We as a class have all gotten to know each other and have become friends and have helped each other through this program, whereas if we were home on a computer I feel like I would be downstream in a boat with holes and no paddle," says Marois.

Tara Lidstone, VIT’s Executive Director, has that sinking feeling already, because the last she checked,  the budget moving through the legislature appropriates about $360,000 — not the $800,000 the program got last time around.

She’s happy for some funding, but says it won’t be easy to make up the rest by charging schools and other non-profit users more for the interactive conference time. That may be why teachers and students are using VIT itself to drum up political support with a YouTube video and a petition drive.

“And the more comments you read on the online petition the more you realize it’s an absolute necessity for so many Vermonters, so our goal is to be able to fund the service and keep it available,” Lidstone says.

In 2013, according to VIT records, over 250 organizations and 21,000 Vermonters used the service.