TELLURIDE – Sitting in front of his Thursday morning Advanced Placement literature class, Telluride High School teacher David Lavender began reading his students’ sonnets out loud, at one point repeating a particular stanza.
“‘Blue’ and ‘fish’, what great monosyllabic words. They really help the iambic.” he said. “Nicely done, Devon,” he added with a polite nod.
But junior Devon Richter wasn’t in Telluride. She was sitting in her classroom in Brush, Colo., a seven-hour drive from Lavender’s classroom.
Every other day, Richter joins other students from rural communities like Lake City, Mancos and Brush to teleconference with Lavender’s advanced literature course taught in Telluride. These are four of the 17 other communities equipped with video conferencing systems across the state.
The teleconference systems are a part of the three-year, $1 million Distance Learning Project, an initiative mounted by Gov. John Hickenlooper to begin offering a more diverse curriculum to students in rural school districts lacking the resources to provide AP courses. THS is currently in its first year of the program.
“The idea with distance learning and equipping the schools is to provide courses to districts that don't have it,” said Distance Learning Project Coordinator Charlie Wick.
The project, which will end next September, is much different than simply taking an online course, added Wick. “Distance learning is a lot different compared to an online course where you’re sitting in front of a screen, taking quizzes and tests and answering questions. Distance learning allows for those interactions that online courses just don’t offer.”
THS, a course content provider is in its first year of the program. “The technology of this program allows me to replicate what I’m doing as a teacher, and it doesn’t really interfere with my lessons,” said Lavender.
Offering lessons and coursework to students in far-off communities is rewarding, and Lavender enjoys seeing his students in Telluride interact with students in partnering districts.
“We’re reading Shakespeare right now, and we’ll have one student in say Lake City read the part of Ophelia, and a student in Telluride read for Hamlet. It’s fantastic,” he said.
But the program does have its drawbacks. The course largely depends on a steady internet connection between THS and rural school districts, like Lake City, which often lack steady broadband connections.
And Lavender and his students are frequently encountering scheduling conflicts between the students. Ten minutes into Thursday’s AP Literature class, for example, Richter had to leave school for choir.
“And that happens all the time here and in the other communities. We’ll soon have Ski P.E. here in Telluride, and the students in the other towns have their own extracurricular activities that sometimes cut into class time, so it’s been frustrating sometimes,” said Lavender.
Initially, the scheduling compromised the students’ learning, said Lavender, adding that many other high schools offer the distance learning programs, but many teachers won’t instruct the classes because of the frequent scheduling conflicts.
Throughout the first year, Lavender has sought ways around the scheduling problem. “All of our class materials are online. From the syllabus to the blog that the students contribute to, to the homework assignments, it’s all on the class website,” he said.
Lavender hopes that extending the availability of online materials to offering complete recorded classes will someday alleviate the problem.
“It’ll take some time to work out these problems, but I’m pleased with how the project has come along,” he said.
“At the end of the grant, we’re hoping that teachers like David will continue to keep the equipment and push out content to the schools,” added Wick.
“What David has done is, he’s not afraid