Writer: D'Lyn Ford
LAS CRUCES - New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service will demonstrate new distance education technology in opening its first learning center April 17 in Clayton, a northeastern New Mexico town 414 miles from the main campus.
NMSU is the first Extension Service in the nation to use HorizonLive software that allows live voice transmission on the Internet with simultaneous online chat and visual aids. Streaming video can also be incorporated, given adequate bandwidth.
Dedication plans call for Clayton participants to take brief online courses originating from Las Cruces, witness an online news conference and retrieve archived classes on the World Wide Web, all using HorizonLive. The event will begin at 12:15 p.m. at the Union County Extension office.
In addition, Extension offices in DeBaca, Guadalupe and Harding counties will hold local receptions to open their learning centers in Fort Sumner, Santa Rosa and Mosquero, respectively. The learning centers will be the first among county Extension offices across the state to offer training and for-credit courses, said Billy Dictson, Extension director and associate dean with the College of Agriculture and Home Economics.
"I would have loved to have had a tool like this when I was a county agent," Dictson said.
Extension offices are getting high-speed Internet connections and additional computers with support from industry, Dictson said.
Eastern New Mexico Rural-Plateau Communications, based in Clovis, has provided high speed lines for four Extension offices in its service area. New Mexico Technet will equip 46 NMSU learning centers statewide with fully networked computer labs at an estimated cost of $50,000.
Extension faculty from across the state learned how to use HorizonLive during March in service training on the NMSU campus. They heard an online update from Dictson on which New Mexico counties will have high-speed connections in the next few months and a review of Extension's involvement in distance education.
During the hands-on training, faculty tried out the software's capabilities, responding to online quick polls about their work, which often requires traveling to events in more than one county on the same day. Results, displayed online in a pie chart, showed that 40 percent of participants spent 20 or more hours per week in face-to-face contact with clients.
By e-mailing ideas to Dictson, participants registered for door prizes that included scanners and digital microscopes. In an online quiz, they identified photos of prickly pear cactus, a bird called a trogan, Loretto Chapel's spiral staircase in Santa Fe and the Chiricahua Mountains along the Arizona-New Mexico border.
They experimented with an online drawing pad to indicate locations of a sprinkler system and corral on two posted photographs. Faculty also e-mailed each other during the session to set up dinner meetings with cross-state colleagues.
The training was prompted by thumbs-up reviews from participants in pilot classes last fall. Farmer Jerry Hobson of Roswell logged on from home for training about noxious weeds from Richard Lee, an Extension specialist based in Las Cruces.
"It was well worth the effort and about as close to cloning (Lee) as possible," Hobson said. "Plus I fed the dog and grabbed a snack."
NMSU's agricultural and extension education department offered a research methods course this spring for Extension agents working on their master's degrees.
"We really like it," said Libbie Plant, a Lea County Extension faculty member working on a graduate degree. "It is very nice to be able to stay in the county to attend class. It is also great to attend class in two-hour blocks instead of four-hour blocks on the weekend. We have more time to think about the information, therefore the retention is better."
Students who miss a class can view an archive of the entire session, including interaction between teacher and students.
Faculty are applying for grants to help speed the process and foster connections with remote locations.
"I can't express how excited I am about what I see coming in the future," Dictson said. "I'm looking forward to the day when using this technology is as common as picking up a cellular phone."
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