Distance learning has come a long way since the advent of correspondence courses first offered through the U.S. mail in the late 1890s. Today's interactive distance learning programs, benefiting from continual advances in compressed-video technology, are helping human-resource specialists in the American hinterlands build and maintain a workforce tailored to the needs of local businesses and industry.

"Technology is allowing us to compete with more urban areas," said Jefferson County, Pa., Commissioner David Black, speaking at the annual conference of the National Association of Counties last summer. "Rural America, for once, is positioned for tremendous economic vitality."

Courting Technology

Faced with a shortage of court reporters, and with the nearest training program more than 100 miles away, county officials in rural north-central Pennsylvania decided to put distance learning technology to the test in a two-year court-reporter certification program offered entirely by wire.

The project was spearheaded by the North Central Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission, an economic-development body that covers a rural six-county area that is home to just 2 percent of the state's population. The region, nevertheless, produces 75 percent of the world's powdered-metal products. It is a high-tech industry, requiring specialized skills not always available within the regional boundaries.

"We've found that the greatest hurdle in our region is the availability of an appropriately trained workforce," said Mike Lawrence, deputy director of the North Central Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission. "Jefferson County, for example, has many technical jobs to which they can't match local skills."

Distance learning technology is helping fill gaps in the court-reporting workforce. Commission officials coordinated a unique collaboration between the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) and DuBois Business College, a local, private post-secondary school. The former institution, located in the greater Pittsburgh area, serves as the source for the transmission of its two-year court-reporting curriculum to a satellite classroom at DuBois Business College, some 100 miles away. Classes are held four days a week, with students splitting time between the satellite classroom and traditional general-education classes held elsewhere on the DuBois campus.

An active recruiting campaign, assisted by the CCAC, generated 40 inquiries. Ten students who emerged from the initial screening began attending classes in August 1997. Of those, one has successfully completed the program, two are set to finish this month and four are continuing classes to bring their reporting speeds up to required levels. Three students left the program for other jobs, a 30 percent attrition that is half the average dropout rate for court-reporting schools nationwide.

Greenhouse Effect

Had the distance learning come about two years later, it could be called a success of the Pittsburgh-based Digital Greenhouse that Gov. Tom Ridge unveiled earlier this year. But the Digital Greenhouse can certainly stand on its own merit. The project is a partnership between international corporations, state universities and the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance to make southwestern Pennsylvania a global leader in technological development.

In the works for nearly a year and a half under the name ''Project Renaissance,'' the deal for the Digital Greenhouse was sealed during Ridge's trade mission to Asia in May.

Sony and Oki Electric Industry, along with Cadence Design Systems, will work with the Digital Greenhouse to help develop next-generation digital video and digital networking.

IBM will help to design and operate an e-business network for the Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse. Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania State University will provide undergraduate and advanced programs in system-on-a-chip design. Graduates of those degree programs will help make the next-generation chips.

Through the Department of Community and Economic Development, the commonwealth has provided $3.2 million for local economic-development agencies in southwestern Pennsylvania and the universities to design the Greenhouse initiative. The Ridge administration says it is prepared to commit an