Satellite Systems Turn Challenges into Opportunities for ND and WV Students & Educators

Getting students and their teachers together is not always a simple matter. Geography and finances often conspire to make it difficult, if not impossible, to provide all the classes and training that students and educators need.

These issues challenge educational systems everywhere, and the Washburn, Kenmare, and Divide County public schools in North Dakota and West Virginia's Department of Technical and Adult Education are no exceptions. While the specific issues these two systems face are quite different, the solution is the same - a Hughes Network Systems (HNS) inTELEconference videoconferencing system that brings remotely located students and teachers together via satellite. Based on very small aperture terminals (VSATs), inTELEconference allows both point-to-point and multipoint videoconferencing.

For North Dakota, the driving issue was the limited range of the state education network's existing interactive fiber-optic system. Designed to provide rural students access to foreign language classes and advanced math and science courses not offered in their local schools, this network only reaches schools within a 125-mile radius of Bismarck. This limitation posed many problems, particularly for college-bound students who must pass certain high school classes to enroll in college.

Several alternatives for meeting the needs of these students were considered, according to Bill Strasser, distance learning director for the North Dakota Education Network's fiber-optic and VSAT satellite networks. 'We looked at extending the existing terrestrial network, but the cost was prohibitive and the distances it had to cover was too far. We then evaluated the HNS system and found that it was specifically designed for this kind of application.'

Now that the videoconferencing network is in place, more than 600 students attending three rural secondary schools outside the 125-mile terrestrial-line access area are receiving instruction in previously unavailable subjects. The VSAT satellite system supports point-to-point as well as multipoint interactive video and audio conferences between schools. Students can see and interact with the instructor simultaneously via monitors and microphones located in the classrooms. Likewise, instructors can hear questions and discussions from all classrooms and, by simply switching from one view to another on their monitor, interact visually with any of the classrooms, one at a time.

Each site's equipment includes cameras, a monitor, microphones, and an inTELEconference station.

Former Medical System Becomes New Distance Learning Network

West Virginia's Department of Adult and Technical Education satellite videoconferencing system began in a very different manner. The inTELEconference system was originally implemented as part of a NASA program testing interactive satellites for use in the medical field. The system was installed at several technical education training centers throughout West Virginia to give physicians in rural areas access to the expertise of specialists at the Scott and White Medical Center (the medical branch of Texas A&M University) in College Station, Texas. Interactive satellite videoconferencing quickly proved a success for medical consultation and diagnostics, so the medical school upgraded its system to accommodate more sophisticated graphics and other specialized capabilities.

The Department now uses its interactive videoconferencing capabilities for teacher training and to provide students at Shepherd College's campuses with access to the same instructors and courses. The HNS satellite distance learning system has eliminated much of the need for Shepherd College students and instructors to travel between campuses and has reduced the number of instructors the college must hire in order to deliver courses to students on both campuses.

The Department of Education's network consists of 10 sites, eight of which are permanent installations in technical education centers throughout the region.

West Virginia has also taken advantage of the VSAT system's easy portability. They have a trailer equipped with video apparatus as well as a VSAT satellite antenna, which can be towed behind a vehicle and set up virtually anywhere to provide immediate access to the network.

Both Systems Offer Multiple Benefits

System set up and operation is simple and efficient. In fact, the mobile unit in use in West Virginia can be up and working in a matter of minutes, says Halstead.

For both West Virginia and North Dakota, distance learning via satellite is expanding the horizons of students and teachers as it helps to control costs and maximize use of scarce resources.


Contact Information:

Hughes Network Systems
Germantown, MD

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.