For communities throughout rural Alaska, it's an ongoing obstacle: Teachers and health aides come and go, and qualified professionals leave for opportunities elsewhere. Most Alaska communities sit off the road system, urban hubs are often separated by hundreds of miles of open terrain and professional transience is frequent, according to educators and administrators alike.

One promising solution? Distance education.

To Dr. Esther Beth Sullivan, dean of curriculum and instruction at Alaska Pacific University, it's the answer to Alaska-sized problems of accessibility and rural development.

"The best approach that we all can muster is that if we can grow the leadership and the educational credentials of the people in the communities, we can better address this professional transience that sort of handicaps Alaska," she said.

Distance education isn't new. Across the state, educational institutions of all stripes have offered distance education programs in one form or another, from high school correspondence classes to online training courses to full-blown degree programs administered remotely. Students can participate in video conferences, real-time group discussions and online assignments that can be completed in their own time.

As Alaska's technological reach evolves, so do distance learning opportunities.

"The idea is, how can you use this technology to produce an engaging learning environment?" Sullivan said.

At APU, distance classes came online more than 15 years ago, with an initial group of 25 students taking approximately 14 courses through the school's Rural Alaska Native Adult Business Education Program. With funding from the U.S. Department of Education, APU set out to reach students in towns off the road system, focused on the areas of business, education and health care management, Sullivan said. Classes would meet online once a week, and students would complete the rest of their coursework according to their own schedules over the rest of the week.

In 2010, the university shifted into high gear, moving to incorporate distance classes in every degree program, Sullivan said. By that time, more than 100 students were enrolled in distance learning programs in about 50 offerings. Another 200 students chose to take individual online courses as part of their on-campus experience. These days, a majority of APU students take at least one online class while pursuing their degree.

Rather than a no-frills correspondence model, the dean said APU sought to develop blended-format, project-based, collaborative courses. Students enrolled in distance classes are still expected to work together; to bring their own experiences and produce their own knowledge.

"It has always been our challenge that every online class will be every bit of a class that you get on campus," Sullivan said.

It's no small challenge. Providing distance education opportunities in Alaska is complicated by geography, technology, economic and atmospheric factors. According to a 2015 report by the Connect Alaska initiative, "connectivity challenges are hindering educational successes like never before."

Working with data from 53 Alaska school districts, the Connect Alaska audit found that in two-thirds of schools, Wi-Fi access "is inadequate for instruction." Broadband access is just as spotty.

"Across the state, a number of challenges create a broadband education gap among the state's high poverty areas, those with significant Native American populations, and those located in rural and remote villages," the report stated.

Those challenges range from prohibitively expensive infrastructure costs to solar storms that interfere with signals in northern parts of the state. Ilisagvik College, the federally recognized tribal college in Utqiagvik, offers a warning to all students enrolled in e-learning classes: Check the aurora forecast before logging on, because nothing interferes with internet connectivity like a geomagnetic storm. The same issues face rural students enrolled in distance classes at APU.

"For the most part in rural Alaska, the connection is through satellite, so weather is still disruptive. There are many, many challenges infrastructure-wise in terms of internet access," Sullivan said. "Those systems have certainly gotten better over the last 10 years, but the key in Alaska has been internet access itself."

Still, despite the challenges, distance education opportunities are increasingly prevalent at schools and educational organizations around Alaska. Working with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, faculty and administrators at APU are preparing to expand their distance education offerings as part of the school's transformation into a tribal college. Working with the health consortium was a natural fit, Sullivan said.

"We have a common mission in the sense that we would like to see educational attainment, and education is part of health. And that's a challenge in rural Alaska," she said. "Distance education is not just a good idea, it's an absolute necessity in terms of growing professionals at home."

Next up for APU is a new Alaska Native Governance Program, Sullivan said. Not as general as Alaska Native studies, the program takes a deep dive into the many layers of tribal governance at play in Alaska. Sullivan said it aims to produce local leaders who are prepared to help develop their state and home communities — which, in a way, is what distance education in Alaska is all about.

"It is degree attainment in Alaska, and it is the most meaningful work that I've ever done," said the APU dean.

"Distance education is the difference between somebody being able to meet their educational goals or not."

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.