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Vermont Interactive Technologies Is Losing Its Funding. What's Next?

Hilary Niles
Technician Nic Levesque monitors instructor John Foster's electrical apprenticeship class, which is taught remotely via Vermont Interactive Technologies. Money-saving alternatives to VIT will eliminate the technician's role starting in 2016.

With 17 sites around the state, Vermont Interactive Technologies offers real-time video conferencing services, so Vermonters don’t have to travel too far to participate in certain classes, public hearings and the like. But the state-supported nonprofit will be shuttered at the end of this year, and users are still figuring out what that means for them. 

From the town of Springfield, electrician and instructor John Foster checks attendance in classrooms 110 and 115 miles away. 

In addition to six students before him, Foster is on-camera, teaching a Level 4 Electricity class in two remote locations.

“What is bonding?” he asks a student on his screen.

This is distance learning on Vermont Interactive Technologies, a nonprofit founded by the state in 1988. Foster and his students in St. Albans and Newport watch each other on large television screens. They all have microphones set before them, including students in the room with Foster, so everyone in all three locations can interact in real-time.

Technicians control the mikes and cameras, and fix inevitable glitches in the technology. At least, they will until December. Starting in January, instructors and students will operate a pared back version of the service on their own. 

For now, from his windowless perch in an adjacent control room, Nic Levesque monitors six screens that simultaneously show the instructor John Foster, his students in all three locations, a projection screen and a dry-erase surface. Boards full of knobs control the microphone volume for each person. 

Levesque explains just some of the technical complications that often arise: “When you have so many students in the same class and there’s like 10 to 20 microphones on, it can get a lot of random background noise and it can cause echoes or, it could cause a teacher to break up.” 

Technicians control the mikes and cameras, and fix inevitable glitches in the technology - at least, they will until December. Starting in January, instructors and students will operate a pared back version of the service on their own.

When that happens, technicians in all locations trouble-shoot via instant chat while the class carries on. It’s a service that’s universally lauded as high-quality.

But, the technical support that makes it good also makes it expensive. Last year, at Gov. Peter Shumlin’s request, the Legislature zeroed out a roughly $800,000 state appropriation for VIT. In 2016, clients will have to use an alternative, or do without. 

This mostly affects Vermont Technical College in Randolph, which uses VIT for its nursing program. Vermont Tech also helps run the state’s apprenticeship programs, like John Foster’s electricity class, through VIT. An alternative platform the school developed aims to save money by eliminating the on-site technicians. College president Dan Smith said he doesn’t think students’ learning experience will be compromised. 

Instructor John Foster expects to be trained soon, and he’s up for the challenge – to a point. 

“If someone says, ‘Well, this glitch is going to be, you push that button,’ then fine, I guess I can push that button,” Foster said. “But, if I’ve got to calculate and figure it out, I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think we’ll have an early night that night.”  

Any solution for other VIT clients is also likely to be “self-serve.”

But, it’s not at all clear yet what that solution will be, the sites where it will be available or even if the self-serve option will work for the nonprofits, private businesses and government agencies that use VIT for meetings, trainings, bankruptcy proceedings and public hearings.

A study committee meets next on Nov. 24 to figure out whether and how to continue a scaled-back service, once VIT is dissolved. 

Hilary is an independent investigative reporter, data journalism consultant and researcher based in Montpelier. She specializes in telling stories of how public policy shapes people's daily lives.
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