First-Ever Wireless and Fiber-Optic Distance Learning Network Offers Students Equal Educational Opportunity

Colorado State University is collaborating with the East Central Board of Cooperative Educational Services to expand and equalize educational opportunities for K-12 students in rural schools in eastern Colorado.

The distance learning network, which links 18 rural Colorado school districts all the way to the Kansas border, is scheduled to be completed in November. The first classes and a teacher training program will be offered starting spring semester 2006.

Colorado State worked on the project with several state agencies including the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Colorado Department of Education and the East Central Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which represents the 18 school districts.

"This project has the potential to bring affordable distance learning to every rural school in Colorado," said Patrick J. Burns, associate vice president of Information and Instructional Technology at Colorado State, who served as a technical expert on the project.

The network is designed to allow students and faculty in rural Colorado to participate in interactive video conferences and video classes among themselves and with all other sites participating in state networking.

Richard Dunn and Richard Hill, retired directors of the Colorado State University Rural Education Assistance Program, based the requirements for the network on a three-year study. More than 30 professional educators and interactive video technicians participated in the study, including Burns.

"Pat’s knowledge of the technical requirements for an interactive audio-video system and the infrastructure to make it affordable for rural school districts was vital," Dunn said.

The prototype wireless and fiber-optic network – the first of its kind in the nation – will help satisfy a state constitutional requirement that gives all Colorado children equal educational opportunities. The requirement led to a lawsuit – Giordano v. State of Colorado – and resulted in a $190 million settlement in 1999 to improve school facilities.

The new network also will help students in those districts prepare for new college-prepatory curriculum requirements established by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. Those requirements must be met by 2010.

Under present conditions, many students at rural Colorado schools would have difficulty entering college because of the lack of affordable infrastructure to support high-speed Internet access and interactive video classes.

CDOT made the network affordable by providing right-of-way access to unused fiber optics at cost. Funding for construction and equipment funds came from the school districts and a $453,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture Educational Grant obtained with the help of U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave and U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard.

Dunn previously had worked with five school districts in eastern Colorado to set up a trial audio-visual interactive network. The system worked so well that it was expanded to a total of seven school districts, but telephone line costs rose from $35,000 per year to more than $300,000 per year, and the program closed.

The system being built contains costs and also allows students and faculty in rural Colorado to be both content generators and consumers through interactivity with numerous other sites in the state.

Networking these school districts together also has an economic benefit for many of these small communities, Dunn said.

"We hope this network will help stabilize the economic base of rural Colorado by reducing the need for additional school consolidation, which in the past resulted in school closings for many Colorado rural communities," he said.

In preparation for the new network, Colorado State officials have worked closely with the school districts to develop curriculum and teacher training programs.