By Michael Tidemann
In the 1980s, Iowa Lakes Community College pioneered distance education with a state-of-the-art television system that let instructors reach students at remote sites. It worked great, and in its time, served as a national model for other colleges and schools.
Fast forward to 2012. Just as technology changed, so did the needs of students who wanted an educational experience as close to reality as possible. On Wednesday, the college held a five-campus ribbon cutting to dedicate a new system that met those needs.
Through a $498,695 USDA grant, the college completed the $1,095,000 system in time for classes this fall. Students at all five campuses - Algona, Emmetsburg, Estherville, Spencer and Spirit Lake - are now connected as they have never been before. In addition, several area high schools benefitted from the program and are able to share Iowa Lakes classes - Algona, Armstrong-Ringsted, Clay Central-Everly, Emmetsburg, Graettinger-Terril, Harris-Lake Park, North Sentral Kossuth, Ruthven-Ayrshire and West Bend-Mallard. Armstrong-Ringsted and North Sentral Kossuth have since entered into a whole-grade sharing agreement as North Union.
The new system ties in well with the college's new STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiative.
"This will help build our workforce's educational abilities through both short- and long-term education solutions, thus decreasing our unemployment percentages while increasing our per capita income," said Val Newhouse, college president.
The new system features voice-activated cameras that switch to the speakers at each site. The previous system required that students press buttons in microphones before talking.
The new system features twin 80-inch screens, one for each site and the other with smaller split screens showing each remote site below and a larger image above of the site which is broadcasting.
"We are having a virtual ribbon cutting as we link our locations together," Newhouse said before Wednesday's ribbon cutting.
Jan Lund, college board of trustees president, said one of the trustees' major responsibilities is that students are well served and that the new system fulfills that purpose.
Mark Gruwell, executive dean of instruction and development, lauded staff for their work in obtaining the USDA grant and for coordinating with high high-school campuses. He added that he hoped the system would benefit students pursuing lifelong learning.
Bill Menner, state director of USDA Rural Development which awarded the grant, joined in congratulating the college on completing the new distance learning system.
"I want to congratulate you in this exciting and innovative venture," Menner said.
Menner told how the agency dated back to the New Deal when the Rural Electrification Administration was founded. He said the agency continues with its mission of helping with rural development.
"What I see here and what I see in every one of these classrooms bodes well for the future of Iowa rural communities," Menner said. Without community colleges like Iowa Lakes, said Menner, "Rural Iowa would suffer tremendously."
Taylor Anderson, Iowa Lakes student ambassador, said of the new system, "It's really beneficial to the students. I think Iowa Lakes did a good job picking that.