[Editor's Note: Because several sessions took place the first and second days of the meeting, this will be a multi-part series of articles.]
By Mary Alice Murphy
The second presentation of the Interim Legislative Science, Technology and Telecommunications Committee featured four presenters from Western New Mexico University on the topic of Challenges of Remote Education.
The four presenters were Jason Collet, director of information technology; Donna Rees, extended university director; Dean Foster, director of online learning; and April Hanson, manager of the office of IT video communications.
Collet started off his presentation by saying: "Without proper infrastructure, data cannot be delivered. Cyberinfrastructure is paramount for effective and affordable bandwidth. For higher education, cyberinfrastructure limits not only what the institution may deliver, but also what the student may receive."
He compared New Mexico to countries of the world and states of the union. Hong Kong leads the world in peak bandwidth utilization, at 87.7 Mbps (megabits per second). Virginia leads in the U.S., with 73.5 Mbps, followed by Utah with 60.2 Mbps, Arizona at 46.1 Mbps, then New Mexico at 35.5 Mbps. Following New Mexico is Iraq at 34.2 Mbps.
"We are at half of what Virginia has," Collet pointed out.
New Mexico has the Rio Grande Optical Network that runs between the research institutions, University New Mexico, New Mexico State University and New Mexico Tech. An evolved loop that combines elements of Cogent and Plateau ISP resources creates a fiber loop in the eastern part of the state. From these two major hubs, New Mexico Highlands University, Northern New Mexico and Eastern New Mexico University gain access to 1 Gb or higher speeds. A sizeable portion of the state—the western part—is in need of strategy and development.
"We have bandwidth deserts in the state, especially in the western part of the state," Collet said. "Broadband is an ever growing standard, but I get only 12 Mbps to my house. The vast majority of the state is a broadband bandwidth desert, with no access."
Collet said the expectation of WiFi acces is important to where one goes. It's important to have a restroom, running water and WiFi.
"Access means viable speeds," he continued. "At Western, we used to throttle down videos to allow access to everyone. Higher education needs evolved from a need to access web pages to a need for videos, applications, servers, data centers, internet appliances and security systems, and the cloud."
He said no providers in Grant County can deliver more than 1 Gb to a site, although WNM Communications can offer up to 1 Gb. For residential uses, the only true broadband is available over cable. As for costs, WNMU pays $4.50 per Mb of commodity, whereas UNM pays less than $1 per MB. Residents pay more for less."
Collet said WNMU receives its bandwidth from a single source provider. "Grant County may have multiple ISPs, but the transport of the bandwidth all relies on CenturyLink fiber. We have the necessity of redundancy."
Rees said until recently, WNMU had four distance learning centers, but not enough students were going to the centers, but choosing to take their classes online, so "we closed three of them. We reached out to students to make sure they could get the courses they needed for graduation. I know of one student who lives in Glenwood and has to drive to his mother-in-law's in Silver City to have enough bandwidth to finish his degree. As of this morning, only 35 percent of the classes in Silver City are face-to-face. Last spring it was 40 percent. We have a few face-to-face classes in Deming."
In 1993, the extended university began video conferencing to the Deming Learning Center. "Now students can access the classes anywhere they have internet access. Sixty-five percent of our enrollment is online."
Foster said the challenge is delivering online classes to students in New Mexico. "Six hundred fourteen of our online students are in New Mexico, but we have to be realistic about what we can deliver."
Hanson said she in in charge of video conferencing. "This is not only synchronous videoing, but we record so students can watch later. A lot of our time online is the synchronous element. Video requires access that many students don't have."
Rees expanded on the earlier comment about training faculty members in the pedagogy of online classes. "Our first attempt was with a large group. That didn't work. We've redesigned the training to on-demand, so that faculty members can get help when they need it."
The next article will cover Grant County Collaboration: Building Interconnectivity.