- Associated Press - Sunday, April 6, 2014

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - Dagmara Motriuk-Smith wore a microphone pinned to her sweater and a battery pack tucked into the band of her pants.

The assistant lecturer in biology stood behind a waist-high podium at the University of Wyoming-Casper on a recent Thursday afternoon, dabbling at her computer.

With a few mouse clicks and keystrokes, Motriuk-Smith’s electronic presentation appeared on a screen, and she lifted her gaze toward her class.

She was not wearing the microphone to amplify her voice in a crowded lecture hall. The five students blinking back at her could hear her voice just fine.

Motriuk-Smith wore the microphone to reach the rest of her students — the ones in Riverton, Cheyenne, Sheridan and Laramie who would see her as a two-dimensional figure on a screen and would hear her voice transmitted over a video conferencing network.

This is distance learning in the 21st century.

Demand for courses taught online or through video-conference portals like Motriuk-Smith’s has skyrocketed in Wyoming in the past six years. As the technology has developed and colleges caught on, more courses began offering online or video conference options.

At Wyoming’s community colleges, enrollment in courses taught online or by video conferencing increased from 1,985 students in 2008 to 3,016 students in 2012.

Since 2007, the number of students taking online courses through the University of Wyoming’s Outreach School more than doubled. The number of students taking video conferencing courses there increased about 20 percent.

For students looking for options or flexibility in a college degree, these online options are trending.

Online education is essential to the community college mission, Wyoming Community College Commission Executive Director Jim Rose told the Casper Star-Tribune (http://bit.ly/1i8CfLZ).

“You won’t really be effective in increasing the educated citizenry if you are reliant upon students making their way to your front door,” Rose said.

Classes taught online or via video conferencing bring education to places in the state where a community college may be dozens of miles away.

The increasing trend is due to colleges updating their technology infrastructure - new servers, monitors and cameras - and more students and teachers learning about the online option, Rose said.

“More people, more educators, more faculty are seeing they can do this,” he said. “They can actually teach online.”

The Wyoming Department of Enterprise Technology is working on a new bandwidth project to overhaul Wyoming’s Internet connections. A project like that can only benefit the community colleges’ online outreach, Rose said.

Like Wyoming community colleges, the Casper-based UW Outreach School says online and distance education is important to expanding their reach across the state.

Enrollment in courses offered through UW’s Outreach School, many of which are taught in a new building on Casper College’s campus, has grown over the last five years.

But enrollment in online and video-conferencing courses has grown faster.

“The Outreach School is really integral to making sure it’s not ‘the University of Laramie,’” said Brent Pickett, associate dean of UW’s Outreach School and director of UW’s Casper campus.

UW’s online reach has spanned continents, said Reed Scull, the associate dean of UW’s Outreach School.

Several years ago, about five female students from Saudi Arabia enrolled in UW courses offered online, he said. Their social customs discourage women from taking classes with male students. Online courses offered another avenue for learning.

“Technology has just made … the university’s outreach more efficient and effective,” Scull said.

Today’s online and video conferencing courses have developed far beyond what was imagined in the early days of outreach education, said Maggi Murdock, UW’s interim vice president for academic affairs and a former UW Outreach School dean.

Murdock worked in the outreach school, where Motriuk-Smith now teaches, for more than a decade in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She taught classes by phone, mail correspondence and sometimes travel throughout the state.

“We used what we thought was cutting-edge technology,” Murdock said of early teleconferencing systems. “We’d have these big kind of boxes, and there would be an (operator) in Laramie plugging people into the system.”

Today, the swiveling video camera in Motriuk-Smith’s classroom is no larger than a baseball. An operator in Laramie still connects and disconnects the video conference call, but not by plugging wires into a computer server or switchboard. The call is programmed to start and end automatically.

When video conferencing was introduced in the 1990s, connections were spotty. Images would reload every few seconds, Murdock said, creating a series of stop-motion pictures instead of a real-time video image.

Still, it was an improvement over audio-only conversations, she said.

“Those of us who had started with audio conferencing thought we had died and gone to heaven because we could see our students,” Murdock said.

The microphone cord winding from Motriuk-Smith’s waist to her neck doesn’t bother her.

After teaching video conferencing courses for nearly seven years, she is used to it. Plus, she said, it allows her to walk around the classroom, instead of being glued to a stationary microphone at a podium.

Teaching video conferencing courses is more challenging than leading a traditional classroom, she said.

Her teaching style changes when her students are hundreds of miles away. She builds questions into her teaching plan. She wants to hear from every group of students during a class period so no one feels left out of the classroom.

“The idea is to create an environment where they are forced to push the microphone button and speak,” Motriuk-Smith said.

She said she now has more help available to work through technological glitches, and she is seeing greater interest in her video courses on the part of traditional UW students based in Laramie.

“When I started, I’d have three or four from Laramie,” she said. “Now I frequently have 20 and a wait list.”

___

Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

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