Gila County Needs A 21st Century Learning Community

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Editor's note: This column was originally printed on Tuesday, April 10. It was cut due to space constraints, but runs here in its entirety.

One of the most crucial recommendations that emerged from the Northern Gila County Higher Education Needs Assessment (HENA for short) is its call for establishment of "A 21st Century Learning Community."

What does that mean and why do we need it?

Gila County has a lot of shortcomings and problems when it comes to post-secondary (after high school) education, but one of the most daunting is our relatively small size.

How do you operate a cost-effective, academically-oriented college curriculum when the total adult population approximates 40,000 and those in the prime age groups needing those courses might be estimated at only 4,000 -- about the size of a large high school?

Add to this equation the fact that the population is spread over 4,800 square miles with larger towns at each end of the county.

However, adversity can be the catalyst for remarkable improvements, and I think we should seek to make that happen here.

Some years ago, a population profile like ours would have represented an insurmountable problem for higher education, and it remains a serious challenge for Gila Community College as it operates today. However, the solutions are now available to those who can link resources with available technology.

The preliminary report of HENA puts it this way, "The Payson campus should be conceptualized as a 21st Century Learning Community. This means that, instead of a campus with traditional classrooms and full-time faculty, the campus should become a high technology center with resources to reach out with all types of distance learning modes."

While the Payson campus was specified because the study was focused on Northern Gila County, the applicability certainly extends to Globe, San Carlos and other areas of the county.

The report provides this summary of what this 21st Century Learning Community should provide here:

  • Opportunities to receive courses broadcast from the best teachers, best community colleges and best universities in the country.
  • A studio on campus to broadcast classes to many remote sites.
  • Courses available on DVD for individuals who prefer to proceed at their own pace.
  • Representatives on-site from the Arizona Advisors who could assist students in finding the best online courses to meet their needs.
  • A record-keeping capacity that would track all the courses taken by students, so they could have a single transcript and not have to write to multiple institutions every time they enrolled at a new college or university.

The needs description concluded, by saying, "There are many other features that could be incorporated, but the overall mission would be to tailor a program of study to the individual's need, drawing on resources from across the state and across the country."

Blue sky? Definitely not. There are programs like this being developed or operated in various parts of the nation right now.

Some are joint ventures between technology companies and school districts. Others are being fostered by major public universities.

Still other prototypes can be found among the "for-profit" institutions, like University of Phoenix.

Indeed, Gila Community College itself has the embryonic pieces of the puzzle already, in the form of Interactive TV (ITV) delivery of courses among the campuses in Globe, Payson, San Carlos and Thatcher (the headquarters of Eastern Arizona College, our current contract provider) and communication links with Northern Arizona University.

A few months ago, I moderated a small meeting at the Payson Unified School District, attended by senior administrators from the Payson and Globe Unified School Districts, as well as the dean of the Payson campus of Gila Community College.

The objective of the meeting was to discuss providing dual enrollment and concurrent enrollment classes, allowing our high school students to accumulate college credits before they graduate.

One of the limitations was the shortage of master's-qualified instructors to teach core academic courses for college-level credit.

One obvious way to deal with that limitation is through high-tech delivery -- having qualified teachers in Payson, Globe or Thatcher reach students at various locations through interactive TV hookups.

Following up on that, Gila County Superintendent of Schools Linda O'Dell is currently working on a project to provide state-of-the-art ITV hookups at all the county's high schools. This is a very important step to leverage our educational resources.

At another level, Terry Morris, director of the Payson Public Library, was telling me how a number of students and adults are using the library's computers right now to take a variety of classes online.

For some years now, I've been a fan of the Teaching Company, which produces and distributes a wide range of college-level courses on DVDs, featuring what they view as the nation's best college professors in various subject areas.

The courses are generally comprised of 10 to 50 lectures by one or more professors on subjects ranging from history, archeology, religion and philosophy to astronomy, neurobiology, quantum mechanics and "string theory."

The concept of the 21st Century Learning Center expands greatly on these existing resources.

It can be viewed as "Education without Borders" -- an opportunity in many fields of study for the people in even small population centers like ours to have access to best educators available.

The resources are here, and the technology is available.

The two need to be harnessed together within an institutional framework to serve our needs.

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