USDA grant will help FLC open distance learning centers in Shiprock & Window Rock

Facilities will offer high-speed Internet access

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., has received a nearly $1 million federal grant that will allow it to open two "rural connectivity centers" on the Navajo Nation.
  • The $950,060 award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is one of 86 projects across the country being funded through the Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant program.
  • The program is designed to help rural education and health care entities remotely reach students, patients and outside expertise.
  • The rural connectivity centers are planned for Ignacio and Antonito, Colorado, in addition to the centers on the Navajo Nation.

FARMINGTON — Fort Lewis College hopes to open "rural connectivity centers" in Shiprock and Window Rock, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation soon. The institution received a nearly $1 million grant from the federal government to facilitate distance learning.

The $950,060 award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is one of 86 projects across the country being funded through the Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant program. The program is designed to help rural education and health care entities remotely reach students, patients and outside expertise, according to a press release.

The Durango, Colorado-based college applied for the grant in June 2020 and was informed last week it had won, according to assistant professor Benjamin Waddell, the lead principal investigator on the project. He said a group of college officials would get together in the days ahead to discuss the next steps in opening the rural connectivity centers and begin discussions with stakeholders in the communities where they will be opened.

The centers are planned for Ignacio and Antonito, Colorado, in addition to the centers on the Navajo Nation. The facilities are designed to improve access for approximately 3,270 FLC students in those communities, according to the press release.

Waddell, who estimated that between 15% and 20% of his students are Navajo, said he was entertaining hopes that Fort Lewis College would receive some degree of funding from the USDA when he helped craft the grant application last spring. But he harbored some doubts that the college would receive a full grant.

Benjamin Waddell

"It was a complete shot in the dark, but what we were trying to do was unique in terms of what this grant usually serves," Waddell said, explaining that FLC's proposal included a strong element of cultural pedagogy. "That was different from what most recipients had done in the past."

Waddell said when he began working on the application in March of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown began, it didn't take him long to realize that the proposal he was putting together would fundamentally change the way classes would be taught if it were implemented. Waddell said he was conducting his classes in his basement, trying to offer the best instruction he could through a virtual format. But he recognized the limitations of that approach.

For the two semesters he had taught since then, Waddell said he has been employing the HyFlex course design, which is a far more advanced digital instruction model. He described it as an approach that offers "a classroom you can walk into physically or virtually," one that works just as well for an on-campus student in Durango or a remote student in Shiprock.

"It provides flexibility in real time to the student," he said.

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A camera system transmits and records every lecture, allowing remote students to follow along as if they were in the classroom. That system also allows students who were present in the classroom to go back and digitally review any material they might have missed the first time around, he said.

HyFlex also includes an online platform component where materials such as class quizzes and reading assignments can be accessed. Waddell sees that as a godsend for students who face long commutes to the college or those who have heavy demands on their personal time that other students don't, often causing them to miss in-person classes.

"They can easily catch up in a way that would be difficult in a traditional classroom," he said.

Waddell said that is the difficult reality that many of his Navajo students face.

"We recognize so many of our students struggle with their commitment to their family and place and community," he said. "A lot of our students begin to run into those barriers three or four or five week in (to a semester). This makes it so much easier to help nontraditional or minority students. … I've found that retention is much better in a HyFlex classroom, and performance is better."

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He said he normally sees a considerable drop-off in engagement among his students after the third or fourth week of a semester, but that has not been the case since he started teaching through the HyFlex system.

"I would say 85 to 90% of my students are super engaged, and a year ago, that wouldn't have been the case," he said.

Waddell said he has become so enamored of the HyFlex system that he considers it an indispensable tool.

"I started doing it because of COVID, but to be honest, I wouldn't do it any other way now," he said.

The USDA grant FLC received will allow the college to align the HyFlex platform with its planned rural connectivity centers. Waddell described those facilities as more than traditional classrooms or computer labs, but they are primarily designed to serve as sites where students who lack high-speed Internet access at home can go and enjoy the benefits of that service while remaining in their community.

Waddell said the centers would be unique to their community, so each one will look and feel different. In Antonito, for instance, FLC officials are working with the mayor to remodel a historic train depot, he said.

"We're finalizing the details so they work best with their community culture," he said. "It really does depend on the community."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.