echnical College Uses Fiber Network to Offer Dental & Medical Courses at a Distance

Students and staff at Northcentral Technical College (NCT) and other schools are finding a new fiber optic TV network a real wonder.

 The new WONDER network (Wisconsin Overlay Network for Distance Education Resources) is a fiber optic telecommunications system that connects technical colleges and University of Wisconsin campuses in the central Wisconsin area with high-quality, two-way interactive television, allowing the schools to share classes. Through the use of fiber optics, which have much greater capacity than conventional phone lines, WONDER is able to deliver flawless two-way picture and sound, as well as high-speed computer data, between campuses.

WONDER is one of the largest fiber optic video networks in Wisconsin. In addition to NTC, technical colleges connected to it include Western Wisconsin in La Crosse, Fox Valley in Appleton and Chippewa Valley in Eau Claire. UW campuses conducting classes with the system are Eau Claire, La Crosse, River Falls, Stevens Point and Stout (Menomonie).

The WONDER system can also be connected to other systems currently operating, such as WestWING (Western Wisconsin Interactive Networking Group), NWECS (Northern Wisconsin Educational Communication System), SCING (South Central Interactive Networking Group) -- all digital networks, representing over 50 pre-K-12 and higher education institutions. WONDER can also interconnect with the University of Wisconsin-Extension's statewide video network and with other videoconference sites nationwide.

NTC provides office facilities for the network director and administrative assistnat for the WONDER system and acts as the management agent on behalf of the nine WONDER members. Now in its second year of operation, WONDER has an operating budget of $92,000 a year, with a total network infrastructure investment of over $2 million.

NTC has been a pioneer in Wisconsin in the use of ITFS (Instructional Television Fixed Service) and dedicated microwave transmission systems for distance education since 1976.

Students at NTC in Wausau share the lecture portion of a dental hygiene class with other technical colleges. Altogether, nine schools make up the WONDER fiber optic network.

Currently at NTC, one classroom is designed for the new WONDER system, with expansion possible in the future. The instructor controls what the students see; he or she can display the teaching station, a visual aid, or up to four classrooms at a time to the students, just by touching a control pad. Nine sites may be tapped into a course, and there is an average of 20-30 students per classroom.

The WONDER system allows one instructor to offer a class to up to nine schools at one time. It expands educational opportunities because ordinarily the course would not otherwise be available at those other institutions. Students also save time and money in avoiding long treks to distant campuses.

Bob Hannu, the network's director, says that WONDER may also allow schools to attract students they would not otherwise bring in. For instance, an industrial technology degree from the University of Wisconsin-Stout is now offered to students in Wausau and Appleton through classes delivered via WONDER.

Dental Hygiene and Educational Interpreter Programs

During the spring 1997 semester, over 35 credit classes were made available over WONDER. NTC is host for eight of the courses, focusing on the Dental Hygiene and Educational Interpreter training programs.

Dental hygiene classes have attracted an average of 30 students face-to-face at NTC since it began in 1995, with an additional 23 students on the network at three connected campuses. Courses offered in the program on the fiber optic network included:

  • pre-clinic;
  • oral anatomy and histology;
  • periodontology,
  • general and oral pathology;
  • radiography; and
  • pharmacology.

An average of 13 students face-to-face, and nine students on the WONDER network, are enrolled in Educational Interpreter training courses, which include:

  • interpreting;
  • transliterating;
  • oral interpreting; and
  • orientation to hearing loss.

Before WONDER, the Dental Hygiene program had a one- to two-year waiting list. Many students would attend NTC taking general requirements for the program, but would than have to wait a semester or two before being able to begin any core classes. Lori Watt, a student using the system, agrees the availability of the program through the network helped her, and other students, get into the program quicker. "Some students were apprehensive about moving to the Wausau area to attend NTC, take general classes, then wait to begin the program. Now, with the network, people don't have to relocate to be in the program, and there is no delay in completing the program," Watt says.

Defeats Weather, Distance &Crowding Over an Instructor to "See"

The Dental Hygiene program is the first in the nation to offer an entire degree program in it through distance technology. Jodi Olmsted is a dental hygiene instructor who has been teaching classes on WONDER since it began.

"One benefit of the network is minimizing the amount of lost class time due to weather," notes Olmsted in a comment about this region's seasonal storms. "Many times winter snowstorms create hazardous driving conditions and students who commute are unable to make it to class. Before WONDER, missed class time meant missed material. Now, classes held over the network can be videotaped, sent to the campus, and made available to students who miss class, resulting in little or no time needed in the next class period to get caught up."

Olmsted mentions another benefit. "It eliminates students crowding around the instructor to see demonstrations in lab because the camera is the students' 'eyes' over the instructor's shoulder. With multiple televisions at one location, everyone sees what the instructor is doing frojm the same vantage point. Computers can be used for presentations, and videotapes or slides can played through the network," says Olmsted.

Students still have the same accessibility to the instructor that they would if they on campus. One hour each week is scheduled as a dedicated office hour on WONDER to meet with an instructor. If students prefer, they have the option to speak to the instructor by telephone from the school where they are located. Students can take this time to clarify material or discuss their clinical work.

Scheduling class time, meeting times and alternate times in case the system g'es down is an important job for the success of the network. Director Hannu says more emphasis is being placed on the WONDER sites, as the system enters its third year of operation.

Attention Now Is on Using WONDER to Teach

"The first year attention was paid to getting the system built," he says. "Now the attention is focused on how the system is being used."

Through an Inter-network Scheduling Agreement with the four surrounding networks, WONDER was responsible for facilitating over 2,000 hours of cross-network programming during the 1995-96 school year. The ability to provide educational programs between the pre-K-12 and higher education network groups is made possible by the MCS-300 Master scheduling software, provided by the Grass Valley Group, as part of each network's contracted service.

Future plans for WONDER include participation in a $2 million grant project that would triple the amount of network capacity available to the member campuses. At that time,continuing professional education courses, teleconferencing to save on business travel, and special training courses are just a few options expected to be explored. Until then, however, the primary use of the system will be for educational purposes.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.