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."
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.
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 additional $10 million over three years based on the initiative's ability to create 1,500 chip-design jobs in the Pittsburgh region over the next three years.
Ridge announced details of the Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse inside a botanical greenhouse at the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh. "We've come to this beautiful greenhouse today to plant new kinds of seeds -- the 'digital' seeds of tomorrow,'' he said. ''That's why we're here. To create the 'greenhouse' of tomorrow to 'grow' the products we'll all use tomorrow -- and the high-tech jobs we need to ensure Pittsburgh's prosperity into the 21st century.''
County officials are calling the program a success in human terms, because it has reached into a segment of the population that might otherwise not have had the opportunity for such specialized training in a more traditional setting.
Nine of the 10 students joining
the program were single mothers, Lawrence said. Some were on welfare; others were facing welfare due to underemployment.
"These are not typical students who go away to college and come back to mom and dad," Black said. "Many are raising a family already, and they're able to continue those things and still get that education. It's not very difficult to arrange."
Moreover, Lawrence noted, the program has allowed the county to establish a technical infrastructure and build relationships with local educational institutions so that future skill shortages in other specific job areas can be addressed quickly with similar distance learning initiatives. Work is under way to establish a distance learning partnership with the Northwest Pennsylvania Technical Institute, as well as to help the region's powdered-metals industry fill its workforce shortages. There's talk of bringing the court-reporting program back for an encore in two years as court caseloads grow.
"We've demonstrated that we can apply this type of distance learning effort to any skill set," Lawrence said. "In the future, we're most likely going to be doing lifelong training for people who are on the shop floor or in an office environment, people who are working and learning at the same time."
The key to a successful program, distance learning experts agree, is to make the instruction as well-developed as an on-campus environment. Students participating in distance learning programs must be given the same academic-enhancement opportunities available to on-campus students. Participants in the Pennsylvania program were given names of local contacts to call for guidance or tutoring. An in-class proctor, or "gatekeeper," was on hand to assist with instruction and operate the audio and video equipment needed for the distance learning link. The group also took two field trips to Pittsburgh to observe and interact with working court reporters.
According to officials, the cost of the inaugural program, on a per-student basis, was competitive with tuition charged for traditional two-year, on-campus associate-degree programs. Most students took advantage of federal Welfare to Work grants and other student-loan programs to pay the roughly $5,500 tuition. The commission's costs included $24,000 for the lease of classroom space at DuBois Business College, a $15 monthly rental for a PictureTel compressed video coder/decoder and a $4,000-per-year service contract to handle its repairs, $1,000 per month for the ISDN line to Pittsburgh and staff time for the on-site proctor.
"Education costs money, " Black said. "But the important thing is that, indeed, it is more available to rural America today than it has ever been, and it eliminates many of the problems the people you're trying to train may have."
The program has also shown that being rural is not a handicap in the establishment of quality distance learning programs. There are a number of resources in rural areas that can be called on for help. Professional and trade organizations can provide curriculum recommendations, standards and materials. And, surprisingly, the traditional education system, which some might view as a competitor, is a valuable source for educators, facilities and equipment.
"Traditional education is about a $350 million-per-year business over 27 school districts in our six-county region," Lawrence said. "There is a lot of talent there. Frankly, our challenge as public-policy people is to find a way to connect that [talent] in a way that is fast and efficient, not in a way that is cumbersome."