Expanding education: Why distance learning is called Alaska’s wave of the future

SPONSORED: Educational institutions statewide are embracing technology to help students achieve their higher education goals.

In Alaska, post-secondary education can come at a higher-than-usual price especially for people hailing from rural parts of the state. Besides the usual expenses, students face the steep cost of travel: Flying from a remote West Coast or Bristol Bay community to a university in Anchorage or a training center in Bethel or Fairbanks can be costly.

Which is why educational institutions around Alaska are turning to technology to make education accessible for students from every corner of the Last Frontier.

At the University of Alaska, Anchorage, students have access to web-based courses in a variety of subjects, at a variety of educational levels. Utqiagvik's IỊisaġvik College offers distance learning classes to students in remote villages across the North Slope. At Alaska Pacific University, it all started with the Rural Alaska Native Adult Distance Education Program (RANA). At the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, there's an ongoing, newly expanded effort to use distance learning to educate future community health aides and other medical professionals. The concept is simple: deliver high-quality instruction via the internet.

"It is sort of the wave of education of the future," said Shane Southwick, ANTHC's director of distance education. "It's already here. Universities are doing it, students want to do it and research shows it's just as effective."

Southwick came to ANTHC in 2016 to lead the consortium's newly established distance education department, where he works alongside seven instructional designers. Their first task? Bringing a large portion of the Alaska Community Health Aide Program online.

"They knew there was a need, they knew they needed to get on it," said Tim Jeter, one of the department's  seven instructional  designers. "I give big kudos to ANTHC for committing to this."

The health aide program, which prepares Alaskans to provide vital medical services in more than 170 communities statewide, involves four training sessions that traditionally take place at one of several training centers around Alaska. For the last eight years, Jeter said, students have been able to take some of those classes online, using videoconference technology to meet with teachers in real time. The new distance learning platform will be asynchronous, allowing students to complete more lessons remotely, on their own time, he said

Not every part of the community health aide training program can be completed at a distance: Some things still require hands-on instruction, Southwick said. Students would still need to visit a training center for advanced portions of the program. But distance education will allow community health aide trainees to spend less time away from home overall, he said. It could also help alleviate the waiting list to enroll in CHAP sessions, and help expand the life-saving program in communities around Alaska.

"I think that's a big part of the motivation to really jump in with two feet — the convenience of it for our students," Southwick said.

Once the health aide distance program is up and running, the department could turn its attention to other areas. Behavioural and dental health programs are up next, Southwick said, and other professional development and nursing courses could be migrated online, too.

It's all part of a growing crop of distance education opportunities with deep roots around the state. The University of Alaska's distance learning program features a range of undergraduate and graduate degrees, certificates and occupational endorsements. Alaska Pacific University's RANA program, launched in the late 1990s, was specifically designed for Alaska Native students. The courses involved interactive, web-based seminars, integrated discussions and small-group-based work.

Now that APU and Ilisagvik have partnered with ANTHC the e-learning offerings will only expand.

"There's going to be significant opportunity for distance education as a result of that partnership," Southwick said.

There are hurdles. Rural Alaska's slower internet speeds can be challenging, Southwick said. All the online classes in the world won't do any good if the internet connection can't handle the work.

To borrow an oilfield metaphor: "We're trying to deliver distance education online through a pipe that's not very big," Southwick said.

But the tide is still rising. Southwick said ANTHC hopes to see the first group of students complete the new online health aide courses by the end of this year. Then it's on to other classes and subjects. Through the consortium's partnership with APU, the distance education department will help plan other ways to reach more rural Alaska students with a wider range of instructional opportunities.

"It's really hard to get to Anchorage sometimes, so distance education really fits that niche," Southwick said. "We are so excited, because we are coming in at the ground floor with an opportunity to kind of shape this thing how we want."

This article was produced by the special content department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with ANTHC. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.