txdla_logoxThe Polycom team recently had the opportunity to attend the Texas Distance Learning Association’s (TxDLA) 2014 Conference, which brings together distance learning advocates, industry leaders and education thought leaders from universities and school districts around Texas to share best practices and explore new distance learning technologies.

During our time at the conference, we got the opportunity to have some incredible discussions with some representatives from universities and school districts that were looking to implement their first distance learning initiatives utilizing video teleconferencing (VTC) solutions. Many of these individuals were from rural school districts and many had some of the same challenges to overcome.

Catalog expansion is a significant issue for many rural school districts. Rural districts don’t want to deny their students’ desires to learn something that isn’t currently offered, but also can’t afford to add a new class and a new full-time teacher to the payroll for a subject that a small handful of students want to learn.

Even when finances aren’t the limiting factor, it can be difficult to add a niche or advanced course to a rural school or district. If there are no calculus or Mandarin teachers living in an area, they need to be brought in from outside the region. Unfortunately, many aren’t willing to make that move.

VTC can help schools overcome this issue. Utilizing VTC, a school can work with other schools and districts to hire a teacher that they can all share. The teacher conducts classes via video from a centralized location and has their salary split by the schools utilizing their services. In other cases, a teacher from a city or other metro region can be brought in to teach a single course for a small population of interested students. Either way, the school is given the ability to offer a new course to their students without having to break the bank.

TxDLA-2014bAnd there are other, equally exciting use cases for VTC in rural school districts – such as virtual fieldtrips. Using their VTC solutions, rural school districts can bring guest lecturers to their students from anywhere. They also can take their students on a wide variety of live fieldtrips via video, without ever having to board a bus.

And thanks to new technologies, it’s becoming easier than ever for rural schools and school districts to embrace VTC and distance learning.

In the past, implementing VTC solutions across a school or district meant making a large capital investment in new hardware. This was a problem for many school districts in rural areas that simply didn’t have the funds to purchase the equipment outright. For other rural schools, a lack of IT staff made it difficult to justifying the purchase of new hardware that required implementation and maintenance.

Today’s advanced VTC solutions are now available as a service. These “video as a service” solutions (or VaaS) are hosted in the cloud and require no additional hardware to be purchased and implemented in a school or district’s data center. They also are available via a recurring operating expense, which eliminates the single, large capital expenditure needed to purchase the hardware.

For rural schools that still want to own and implement their video solutions, there are ways to afford the solutions. Like many of the districts we spoke with at the TxDLA Conference, rural school districts are turning to federal programs to help afford the hardware needed to implement their distance learning initiatives. Federal grant programs – such as the Rural Utilities Service Distance Learning and Telemedicine (RUS-DLT) grant – can provide the necessary funds needed to facilitate the implementation of VTC solutions and the creation of distance learning programs at rural schools.

The TxDLA Conference was an incredible opportunity for our team to catch up with educators that are truly invested in video, and empowered by its capabilities. We were excited to see so many schools taking the leap and moving towards implementing VTC and distance learning – and equally enthusiastic about the districts expanding their existing programs. By embracing these technologies and using them to drive their distance learning initiatives, these school districts and universities will be able to offer a world of educational opportunities to their students.