Update on the One Room University
Most of my efforts as county coordinator in 2010 were spent planning the One Room University demonstration project, which included numerous discussions with New River Community and Technical College and other stakeholders, and conducting a series of surveys, open houses and briefings. In short, I spent a lot of time talking without much apparent tangible progress - which is often the case for start-up projects. We're now at the point that many aspects of the project are moving ahead at once and progress is concrete enough to justify this update and similar reports in coming months.
Before starting, however, let's review the One Room University concept and its significance.
The basic idea for the ORU is: a classroom is not necessary for a student to attend a college class. College classes have been offered for years using Interactive Video Networking, but they're typically broadcast from one classroom to groups of students viewing large TV monitors in distant classrooms. Low-cost software is now available which allows IVN classes to be shown on a desktop PC for a single student with a headset for audio and to ask questions. In addition, only a DSL line is required for communication instead of an expensive, high-speed link. Individual IVN carrels eliminate the need for a classroom to offer a class - which saves a lot of space and only one student to enroll in a given IVN class. Consequently, the ORU will make it possible for dozens of students to attend dozens of separate college classes in the same (large) room at the same time.
The county commission is sponsoring the ORU as a demonstration project in cooperation with New River Community and Technical College. Starting in August 2011, all IVN classes offered by New River will be available to county residents at a center in Marlinton. The county commission's role is to provide a suitable facility for New River to conduct a two-year demonstration. In addition, New River will provide an on-site administrator to facilitate financial aid and provide day-to-day supervision at the site. City National Bank has agreed in principle to allow the ORU to occupy the second floor of its branch in Marlinton; the county commission must first negotiate a lease.
There are several important points to keep in mind about the ORU project.
First, IVN classes are not the same as online courses. Online courses are recorded and the student, using a personal computer and internet connection, cannot participate in the class. Questions to the instructor are asked and answered via email. Online courses are a good choice for motivated, self-directed students, but they lack the structure that comes with having to attend scheduled classes. Students attend IVN classes at the same time they would if they were physically present at a college campus. Students attending via IVN participate as part of the class and can ask and receive answers from the instructor. Instead of commuting to Lewisburg, as most New River students must do now, they will be able to attend the same classes at the Marlinton center.
Second, the ORU concept is not limited to community college or the IVN courses offered by New River. While the demonstration will begin with New River's IVN courses the same infrastructure can be used to provide IVN courses for four-year degrees, potentially allowing county residents to earn two-year and four-year degrees from State schools by taking most, if not all, required classes without moving away. The first step is to prove that the concept is viable by offering New River's IVN courses. After a year or two, when a successful demonstration project is on solid ground - and the Marlinton center is formally established as a New River campus - students will be able to take IVN classes from virtually any school, public or private, willing to work with New River to deliver their courses.
Third, the ORU concept is so simple and obvious but no one has tried it before. The closest working model is the Erma Byrd Center in Beckley. Many colleges provide courses there and many of them are IVN-based. But, the Center is a traditional classroom building which requires an entire classroom for a course no matter how many students enroll. The ORU project is unique; we are inventing the model that others will copy if it succeeds. New River regards the ORU approach as key to its strategy for meeting the needs of underserved counties in its region. That's why we have to prove to ourselves, New River, and others that it is realistic. I'm confident that if the demonstration is even modestly successful, outside sources of funding will be available to expand and sustain the facility. Also, other rural counties will see that post-secondary education can be offered at a modest cost.
Fourth, the ORU is one of several efforts in the county to provide college classes and adult education to residents. The nursing program centered at the high school is successful and attracts more students each year. Many students at the high school take college courses in the IVN classrooms for dual credit and get a head start on college requirements. The Career Center in Marlinton works closely with Snowshoe Resort, New River and state agencies to provide adult education. And, High Rocks Academy plans to offer college classes in conjunction with New River. Each of these programs or initiatives has its own objectives and serves a specific clientele. The ORU does not compete with these efforts. Rather, it builds on existing capabilities to offer residents options for college that are not available otherwise.
Now for the ORU update.
At the County Commission meeting on December 7 a contract was awarded to Jonathan Smith to develop conceptual drawings for the ORU. Jon graduated from PCHS in 2000 and is now working as an architect in New York. He came to Marlinton on December 15 to review blueprints of the second floor of the bank. We need such drawings to show the bank, New River, the county commission and the community how the second floor will be used as the need for space grows in coming years. Preliminary drawings should be available in early January with final drawings due by January 20. We will then be able to negotiate a lease with the bank.
Also on December 15, Elaine Diller and I met with Roger Griffith, Dean of New River's Lewisburg campus, and his assistant, Deena Rodgers, to review issues we've been discussing for months. Griffith said Rodgers will be working on the ORU project to help expedite New River's tasks in preparing to open the Marlinton center in August 2011.
We reported that at an assembly of juniors and seniors at the high school the previous week, 23 students provided their names and contact information because they are interested in the ORU as an option for college. Last spring, when we surveyed the then-junior class (now seniors) only five students said they would attend the ORU if it were offered. Together with other adults who have indicated interest since we've been holding open houses at City National Bank and making other presentations, we now know of about 35 prospective students.
While not all prospects will become students when the demonstration starts, these surveys have been instrumental in convincing New River that the ORU concept is viable and provides a reasonable hope of community participation.
We agreed on the need for a prototype test in Marlinton during the Spring 2011 semester to test the technology and students' use of IVN carrels. New River will determine which IVN class(es) will be used for the test. Three prototype carrels will be constructed at low cost. New River will provide laptop computers for the test including software licenses needed to present IVN audio and video. In addition, Griffith offered to provide surplus desktop PCs from a recent equipment upgrade at New River, plus software licenses, for IVN carrels in August, thereby reducing the county's equipment cost.
New River agreed to design and print ORU brochures with their logo and to provide a tentative list of IVN courses that will be offered during the 2011-12 school year.
Griffith and Rodgers said it may be possible for New River to offer one or two full scholarships for tuition and fees to graduating PCHS seniors who plan to take classes at the ORU. New River will hold its College Goals Sunday on February 18, 2011, at the Lewisburg campus. Assistance will be available for parents to complete the FAFSA form for financial assistance.
Elaine Diller will start a newsletter for distribution to prospective ORU students who attended Open Houses and the PCHS student assembly. Also, ORU is on Facebook.
We have less than eight months to bring everything together for August 2011. We were beginning to wonder when the project would get traction. We now have the sense that December 15, 2010, was a tipping point, when the One Room University started becoming real, not just a dream or collection of good intentions.
Upcoming ORU events
January 10: Open House at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank from 5 - 6 p.m.
January 20: Pocahontas County Chamber of Commerce will hold their monthly meeting at City National Bank to receive a presentation about the ORU.
Late January: Rotary meeting in Marlinton - Roger Griffith will participate in a presentation on the ORU.