By Ian Ross
A northern pioneer in distance learning is installing a new telecommunications system to better deliver its programs and courses to small and remote northern communities.
Gisèle Chrétien, president of Sudbury's Collège Boréal, says the overhaul of their six-year-old analogue-based network in favour of Internet Protocol (IP) technology was necessary for much smoother and better quality videoconferencing, as well as to improve access to broadband networks for multimedia applications.
In November, Northern Ontario Heritage Fund provided more than $1.2 million to assist Collège Boréal and its long-time telecommunications partner, Contact North, in upgrading their telecommunications systems as part of a larger $3-million investment by various federal, provincial and private-sector contributors.
The improvements will start this winter at 39 videoconferencing sites in 26 communities to increase access, reduce delivery costs and provide a compatible interfacing with other videoconferencing terminals and e-learning providers.
The innovative system blends Internet capabilities with the videoconferencing system and offers a more flexible tool to deliver both educational and workforce training programs.
With this new technology, distance-learning students enrolled in the college's human services, business and secretarial programs will notice a "close-to-TV picture resolution with much better utilization of how we can use computer applications at a distance," Chrétien says.
Larger video screens, she says, should create a more comfortable and classroom-inspired setting.
"What this new network will provide us with is opportunities to do more multimedia stuff which will be another method of program delivery."
The college was wrapping up negotiations in January with an undisclosed telecommunications vendor for the technology.
So as not to interrupt their academic year across the north, the system will be installed incrementally beginning with their Sturgeon Falls site and finishing up at the rest of their Northern Ontario locations by May or June.
Approximately 300 full-time students registered at Collège Boréal are served at a distance, about 20 per cent of the student population.
The college is now in discussions with the Ministry of Education to develop a number of online courses to offer students greater flexibility.
Their online-development department has plans to design six courses per semester to extend the college's reach into southern Ontario as a member of the Canadian Virtual College network.
Chretien says the virtual classroom does not eliminate face-to-face teaching "but there's certainly a lot of enrolment potential with non-traditional methods. That's why it's important to get into that component because it attracts more students and helps some of the (existing campus population) have a better understanding of technology if we can provide them with some courses to have that flexibility as well."