How colleges reach remote students

Imagine coaching a student intern who is teaching in a school that’s so remote, there are no roads leading into town. Or trying to observe a social work major who has a field placement hundreds of miles from campus.

For colleges and universities that serve rural areas, interacting with students who do not have access to campus—either by car or the internet—can be a challenge.

But higher ed institutions are finding ways to expand their reach into rural communities through video-based distance learning.

In the tribal reservations of Arizona, hamlets in northern Alaska and other remote communities, colleges are also training a future cadre of professionals who can relieve severe shortages of teachers, social workers and child welfare workers.

“Rural areas have a lot of things working against them,” says Jessica Retrum, associate professor of the Department of Social Work at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “On top of not having the resources, they don’t have the workforce to meet the needs of those living there. That’s the crux of why we want to reach rural communities.”

Here’s how four institutions are bridging the gap between their campuses and students based in rural areas.

Following a competitive review process, including a Request for Proposals (RFPs) from all major vendors, stakeholders within the Colorado Community College System (CCCS) commenced vendor trials to ensure that the product met the needs of each individual college.

Metropolitan State University of Denver: Interacting with social work students

As with teacher education, social work programs require regular observation of students in the field. At the Metropolitan State University of Denver, faculty have turned to videoconferencing to interact with rural students who are enrolled in the online bachelor or master of social work programs.

Students in Colorado, where 73 percent of the counties are designated as rural or frontier, are served by the program. Social work majors live anywhere between two to six hours away from campus, and in the winter those times can double.

To complete their degree, students need to learn various communication skills that demonstrate their ability to work with clients.

“Because this is an applied clinical practice degree, it’s very relational,” says Retrum, who chairs the social work department. “We’re training people to work with other human beings, so that can be tricky when they’re trying to do things online.”

Students can participate in role-play exercises—which are normally done in a classroom on campus—from an offsite field agency, using platforms developed by Zoom and YuJa. The students can record the simulated activity at the field office, upload it and have their professors and peers provide feedback.

The videoconferencing tools are central to the university’s aim of helping to overcome the shortage of behavioral health professionals in rural Colorado, which has 52 percent fewer mental health providers per capita than urban areas in the state.

“Our hope is that if we educate them and help them stay in place in rural areas, then they’ll work in those areas,” Retrum says.

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