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CROWNPOINT — Navajo Technical University is taking the first steps to starting distance learning services, thanks in part to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The university received notice about the award of almost $450,000 last month from the USDA Distance Learning and Telemedicine program, which provides funding to rural hospitals, clinics, schools and libraries for equipment and technical assistance for telemedicine and distance learning, according to a USDA news release.

Grant recipients must demonstrate they serve a rural community and provide at least 15 percent in matching funds, the release states.

USDA Rural Development State Director Terry Brunner said in the release the university's services will improve educational and economic opportunities for individuals living on the Navajo Nation.

"This will give students the chance to access more courses and more opportunities to further their education," Brunner said.

Jennifer Stanley, director of the university's E-Learning Department, said the grant will purchase equipment to start distance learning programs in Crownpoint, as well as the university's satellite campuses in Chinle and Teec Nos Pos, both in Arizona.

Stanley said a couple of courses have been offered by distance learning, but the broadband connection was weak, causing delays during classroom instruction.

Once established, distance learning would join the university's other models of E-Learning — hybrid and online — and Moodle, which is the university's learning management system.

Under hybrid, instructors teach face to face and use Moodle to post material online, such as supplemental reading material or website links, or host student discussions, Stanley said.

Online courses are completed through Moodle and the web with instructors and students communicating by email or messaging with minimum classroom instruction, she explained.

Students especially benefit from these e-learning options when they face issues like transportation, she said.

"At home, they can log into their classes instead of having to travel in. We're in a rural area where the roads get muddy," Stanley said.

She added that instructors benefit, as well, because they can incorporate Moodle into their courses by directing students to supplemental material to enhance learning or saving instructional material to use next semester.

NTU student Lushaun Jack was completing an assignment for her American history class Thursday using one of the computers in the E-Learning Department.

Jack, a junior majoring in early childhood multicultural education, said Moodle has been beneficial because she can log on and complete assignments anywhere.

"It's pretty simple," Jack said. "I can get it on my phone, like to see if she (her instructor) posted any assignments or any updates."

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and nsmith@daily-times.com. Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.

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