Wilderness outpost gives folk the chance to try on a new hat

September 1, 2000

The library may be a 250km hike, but if you want to take a degree in Cariboo county, go to 100 Mile House. Adrian Kershaw and Don Kinasewich explain.

What do you do when your university service area is almost twice the size of Portugal and has only 200,000 people living in it? This question bedevilled Canada's University College of the Cariboo for the first 25 years of its existence. But in the past five years, the conundrum has been solved through the use of distributed learning.

The main campus is located in the main town, Kamloops, south-central British Columbia. But nearly half the population live outside commuting distance in a dozen scattered communities ranging in size from 1,000 to 25,000. Demand from these communities is strong, but enrolments are small.

As a result, traditional face-to-face teaching is simply not cost effective. Therefore, the 7,000-student university turned to distributed learning to improve access to degrees, diplomas and certificates. The high cost of development and delivery, however, meant that UCC was still not coming close to meeting the full needs of the communities it serves.

Another solution was needed and the university college found one in 100 Mile House - a forest community with a population of 3,500. Here, UCC has set up a distance-learning study centre funded through a British Columbia government grant.

Students there receive face-to-face instruction and can use an interactive television service for undergraduate courses. The centre also provides online courses. The twist is that the bulk of these courses is delivered by other institutions. UCC's role is to support the student and provide facilities.

This has called for UCC to relinquish its traditional regional service monopoly and build alliances. It also means the university must provide new kinds of support and re-package existing support systems.

In the community of 100 Mile House, many residents seek to upgrade their skills to improve their employability. They approach UCC either with a specific programme in mind or, more typically, with a desire to see what programmes are available locally.

In the past, when course offers were limited, the only option for study was to travel a minimum of 100km to a larger centre. Now 100 Mile House is able to "offer" a broader range of courses and programmes locally.

Prospective students are referred to a coordinator who helps individuals explore options in light of their career objectives and locate programmes that will meet their needs. In a majority of the cases, prospective students are referred to institutions other than UCC.

Students enrol in those institutions and receive their credentials from them, not from UCC. Of the 70 or so active students in the centre at any one time, several are taking undergraduate courses from the University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University and BC's Open University. Others are tackling an early childhood education from Northern Lights College and four are taking postgraduate studies from the University of Calgary.

Students also take employment-related certificates from UCC, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and British Columbia Institute of Technology. Overall, about 20 per cent of students take graduate or undergraduate courses and the remainder are enrolled in a variety of certificate and diploma programmes.

But the support does not end there. Many of the students are older and have not been involved with formal education for years. Frequently they lack confidence in their abilities and are not prepared for the discipline and self-motivation required of a successful distance learner.

To assist them, the centre runs workshops in essay writing, maths refresher courses and study skills. The coordinator routinely contacts students to ensure that they are on track and determine what support might be helpful.

Services range from helping students set up a study schedule to assisting with examination preparation. The aim is to keep the students motivated and develop attachments to their programmes of study.

The centre also offers a quiet study space where students can come to concentrate on their homework or work with other students in study groups. This has been especially valuable for the many adult learners who have families.

As one student said: "The centre allows me to switch hats from my responsibilities at home as a mother to those of a student."

Students are even able to use the main UCC library in Kamloops, some 250km away. Library materials are now delivered by courier, facsimile or online - and it is anticipated that the use of courier delivery will decline in importance as online journals and texts become more widely available.

Not surprisingly, the "digital divide" is apparent at 100 Mile House, with large numbers of potential students lacking information technology access at home. The centre gives students access to email, the internet, facsimile and long-distance telephone services. There is a small computer lab with high-speed internet access and a variety of software.

Anyone in 100 Mile House who is exploring distributed learning options, or has enrolled in a programme delivered at a distance, is able to use the centre's computer laboratory at no cost. This approach helps to ensure that technology will not create a barrier to entry.

In a small community and with limited institutional resources, a university cannot be all things to all people. Yet, by rethinking its role, it can play a critical role in ensuring increased access and success in an online environment.

Don Kinasewich is coordinator of the distance-learning support centre and Adrian Kershaw is vice-president, community and distributed learning services at the University College of Cariboo, British Columbia, Canada.

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