Last week Fed UC spoke with James McGettigan, Regional IT Manager for the  National Park Service (NPS). Last Thursday night McGettigan received an individual Pioneer award from the Federal Government Distance Learning Association (FGDLA), with NPS winning an organizational Five Star award as well.

McGettigan spoke to Fed UC about why distance learning is critical for NPS, and why their implementation strategy has been so successful.

Thank you for speaking with Fed UC, and congratulations on your FGDLA award. Can you provide a little background about you and NPS for our readers?

The National Park Service is one of 10 bureaus that make up the Department of the Interior. Since 1916, the NPS’s mission has been to protect and preserve the natural and resources and cultural heritage of this nation. We support over 397 locations across the country that average 275 millions visitors annually.

I’m a senior IT specialist and serve as a member of the Northeast regional IT management team. I have extensive experience in communications, both data and video, and a particular focus on IT security.

What events and trends led you to implement distance learning?

I’m an analyst by nature, and am always looking to improve existing processes. Specifically we needed to evaluate our processes to improve both our internal and our external communication. Central to this improvement was the development of a video platform.

Here’s a specific internal example. As we were finalizing our enhanced VTC plans, Ellis Island reached out to us. They were greatly hampered by having a system that only worked with ISDN that was limiting their distance learning outreach. Our new VTC platform is much more flexible and robust.

Here’s an external communication example. In early 2010, Arcadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine wanted to reach their counterparts in Italy with their “No Child Left Inside” public education message. We were able to link the park to the U.S. Embassy in Rome, and from there multiple locations in Italy. We did something similar in Croatia as well, coordinating with the State Department, and the EPA.

Right now we’re excited about reaching thousands of public schools across this country. Geography and budget cuts make field trips harder and harder to undertake. With VTC we can bring the natural beauty and history of this country right to a student’s desk.

What tools and technologies support your distance learning strategies?

We’re working with Chroma key technology, and it allows us to do very exciting things. It allows us to interpose a talking park ranger onto any live video stream or static image. This is part of what makes the virtual field trips so exciting and interactive for students.

Another example that got some attention recently was TorchCam, the live video stream from the torch of the Statue of Liberty. I was honored to lead the team that traversed the statue, confirmed the feasibility and managed the installation. The TorchCam also provided a breathtaking video of Fleet Week earlier this summer and (You can check out the live TorchCam feed by clicking here.)

What new initiatives are you planning for distance learning and collaboration  over the next 24-36 months?

More parks are clamoring and partnering with us to implement these kinds of things for them. Regional and national interest in NPS has taken off.

Parks are establishing their studios, and/or are revamping their education programs to take advantage of new distance learning processes. Valley Forge National Historical Park and Boston National Historical Park are two that are close to completing their own distance learning production studios.

Within my organization, the Interpretative Education staff and IT staff are accelerating their coordination. Mobility is the next frontier, integrating that into our distance learning programs.

In some locations we’ve already implemented testing iPad and smart phone interaction with rangers. NPS has two mobile studios currently operating.