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Area schools to receive funds for distance learning

MARSHALL -- Schools in southwest Minnesota will benefit from $369,906 in grant money for promoting distance learning, awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Monday.

"Oh, wow, that's good," said Gary Fisher, Luverne superintendent, upon learning about the grant. "Wow, we got it!"

Southwest Minnesota schools that will get grant funds include Adrian, Jackson County Central, Luverne, Pipestone, Russell-Tyler-Ruthton, Southwest Star Concept, Westbrook-Walnut Grove and Windom.

The money will be distributed in the form of equipment by the central grant recipient, Minnesota Southwest/West Central Service Cooperative. Each school will receive an estimated $10,000, which it will match.

"(It's great) any time you can provide more opportunity for students, especially when out here, we don't have the student body to offer the classes we want," Fisher said.

The remaining grant money will fund shared equipment for all the schools, which will help them leverage existing resources to make distance learning easier.

For example, one device will record video conferences, so students who miss a day of class would be able to watch it later. Moodle, a course management system, will offer students and teachers online collaboration space where they can turn in assignments outside class hours and supplement classroom time.

"We've operated as a distance learning environment for our schools for over 25 years now," said Josh Sumption, manager of information technology with the cooperative. "This grant will allow us to upgrade our equipment that's become outdated and just doesn't serve its purpose anymore, so we can continue to provide those interactive television classes."

The new technology should help make ITV classes more similar to real-life classroom environments. The addition of SmartBoards will allow students in different physical locations to collaborate just as if they were in the same classroom.

"It's a great program, to be able to get in reality, 50 percent of our expenses for this covered," Sumption said.

The cooperative will likely begin purchasing its new equipment shortly after the grant funds are received. Plans are to have everything in place by the start of the next school year.

"Hopefully this will start providing some opportunities in the schools in southwest Minnesota that wouldn't normally be there," Sumption added.

Part of the intent of the project is keeping small, rural schools competitive with their larger, metro-area counterparts, which can afford a wider array of electives and options for their students.

"Any time you can get some help somewhere, especially as we look at our funding and so forth -- any time you've got money coming in to help kids, it's kind of exciting," Fisher said.