Faster Internet Service Fuels Growth at West Virginia Community Colleges

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(Courtesy of The Chronicle)

David Ayersman is in charge of technology at the nine-campus New River Community and Technical College, which has seen enrollment in its online courses more than double with the advent of broadband service.

But some less-connected campuses lag as the state vaults from poorly linked to highly wired

Community colleges in West Virginia are gearing up for a major upgrade in their statewide broadband network—a move that will provide new opportunities in distance education to institutions in a mountainous state that has long been unable to provide decent Internet access. Some colleges are already reaping the benefits, seeing enrollment increases in online courses. But others, in areas slow to be connected, are still finding it difficult.

For those on the fast track, the plan marks West Virginia’s long-awaited transition from the “copper age to the digital age,” says David J. Ayersman, vice president for technology services at New River Community and Technical College, in the southern part of the state.

Mr. Ayersman works in a state that in 2010 was ranked 48th nationally in broadband penetration, according to the Federal Communications Commission. But within two years, West Virginia is projected to be among the top five most connected states in the country, as broadband Internet access is extended to thousands of community sites. The expansion is being driven by a joint state and federal effort called the West Virginia Statewide Broadband Infrastructure Project.

The effort began just last year, when the state received $126-million in federal economic-stimulus money for broadband expansion. Most of those funds have been spent on schools and libraries, not colleges. But the initiative has drawn Internet providers to the state who, since they were wiring surrounding communities, could offer colleges lower prices to build their networks.

And by making robust connections more affordable to state residents, the effort is providing colleges with potential new students.

“What we’re seeing in particular is nontraditional students who are very interested in being able to access distance education without quitting their jobs or leaving their homes,” says Daniel P. O’Hanlon, vice chancellor for technology at the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and director of WVNET, the statewide Internet consortium, comprising education, government, and nonprofit groups.

Broadband uses fiber-optic technology to deliver fast streaming video and rich multimedia. In a mountainous state like West Virginia, where travel can be slow, establishing such a network is both costly and logistically challenging. “Networks in rural states have been problematic for not just West Virginia,” says Mr. O’Hanlon. Wyoming and Vermont, for example, have faced similar difficulties in getting companies to build networks in areas where populations are sparse.

An additional problem in West Virginia is that Internet providers were often being sold or reorganized, complicating any long-term plans that colleges like New River had made for network upgrades.

Without a good network, New River was stymied in its attempts to offer single courses at multiple locations on its nine campuses. A nursing course that tried to use videoconferencing to beam a professor’s lectures to several campuses had to be canceled. “It’s not something that a single person or a single agency can fix,” says Mr. Ayersman.

But with broadband on the scene, enrollment in New River’s online courses has more than doubled. Students are typically working adults who live in rural areas, he notes. Online classes give them flexible scheduling and reduce travel time; otherwise, many would have to drive 100 miles or more, over rough terrain, to get to class.

Mr. Ayersman is working with Internet providers to double the college’s bandwidth while cutting costs. “I think we are overdue,” he says, “and we’re finally getting the attention that we need.”

Left Behind

But for those in the more remote areas, progress has not been as swift.

At Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, on four campuses in the state’s southwestern coal country, gaining connectivity continues to be tough. It has been financially difficult to invest in network upgrades, says the chief information officer, George A. Beshears. Local populations are declining as the depressed economy produces few jobs, he notes, and so the college is not seeing the enrollment increases that push it toward better technology.

“We understand that we’re really below the curve,” he says. The college provides dial-up access to about 200 private residences in the area and experiences connectivity losses on its campus network during peak periods every trimester.

Better Internet access would mean broadband video capability, which would allow students to go through simulation training in an array of tech-heavy fields like welding, Mr. Beshears says. Many of the college’s more than 2,500 students are preparing to transfer to four-year institutions and receive vocational training in health, mining safety, and automotive work.

The college plans to promote programs in telemedicine as well, which would require streaming video. Telemedical training is in high demand in a state with limited access to hospitals and doctors.

Statewide broadband is also being billed as a way to increase research capabilities at four-year institutions and community colleges. “When we’re able to share resources, have remote instrumentation, large-scale big data computing—it changes everything,” says Jan I. Fox, chief information officer at Marshall University. She is a member of the West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council, which distributes grant money.

That access is coming through Internet2, a national high-speed networking consortium for higher education. Marshall University made it available to other institutions in the area after receiving a National Science Foundation grant in July. Marshall’s ability to share was contingent upon the statewide broadband push, Ms. Fox says, since Internet2 requires a strong network in order to work.

Mr. Beshears looks to Internet2 as a possibility for Southern West Virginia in the future as the college continues to upgrade its networks. He doesn’t foresee gaining access to the consortium anytime soon. For now, he says, the college’s primary focus is getting all campus locations up to par.

But for many college administrators in West Virginia, expectations remain high. “This once-in-a-lifetime federal-stimulus opportunity has answered our prayers,” says Mr. O’Hanlon, of the higher-education-policy commission. “What broadband does is equalize the playing field. Then it doesn’t matter where your school is located.”

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