COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - United States Rep. Fred Upton speaks to those in attendance at Glen Oaks Community College Tuesday, celebrating a $900,000 distance learning grant the college received as an earmark in the newest federal budget. Upton helped spearhead putting the earmark in the bill, which the college looks to use to put videoconferencing equipment in classrooms to allow lessons to broadcast synchronously to students.COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Members of GOCC’s staff and Board of Trustees pose for a picture with U.S. Rep. Fred Upton following a presentation on the $900,000 distance learning grant the college received.

Upton visits GOCC in celebration of $900k distance learning grant

CENTREVILLE — A sitting United States Congressman was in Centreville Tuesday morning to mark a special occasion for Glen Oaks Community College.

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton was on hand at GOCC’s Dresser Business Development Auditorium as part of a celebration of a $900,000 congressional grant the college received to implement enhancements to their distance learning program, one of the first colleges in the nation to receive such a grant.

The grant project, funded with an earmark approved in the newest federal budget with the help of Upton, will feature the installation of videoconferencing technology and infrastructure in four classrooms at the college to allow instructors to broadcast synchronous live instruction from their classrooms.

The project also includes outfitting up to two classrooms in each of the 11 local school districts in GOCC’s coverage area, which includes the nine school districts in St. Joseph County as well as Bronson and Union City in Branch County, with basic videoconferencing capabilities for dual-enrollment high school students to participate in synchronous courses.

“My staff and I had a lot of meetings to discuss and see which projects would be best to convince my colleagues, and this project was one of those at the very top,” Upton said in a speech at Tuesday’s ceremony. “This $900,000 will help distance learning and help make sure we are connected.”

Rob Kuhlman, Glen Oaks’ director of institutional innovation, said the college is targeting the project to be completed by the beginning of the 2023-24 academic year.

In his address at the ceremony. Kuhlman said the college has many students, including high school, traditional and non-traditional students, who have different schedules. The main goal of the grant, he said, was to expand their distance learning opportunities to meet the needs of every one of their students and their respective schedules.

Kuhlman described some of the technology that will be involved with the project.

“We’re going to purchase video conferencing equipment that we can place in four of our classrooms, maybe five if the budget allows it. They will have cameras, microphones and be able to record as well, which makes it even more valuable,” Kuhlman said. “We will provide instruction in the event of a campus shutdown. In 2020, we had to shut down campus, therefore instruction was stopped. With this model, with this equipment, that will not be the case.”

As for the impact on local school districts, Kuhlman said their current dual-enrollment model involves students being transported to GOCC for classes. With the equipment planned to go into local district classrooms, he said that won’t be a requirement for dual-enrollment.

“We will use our video streaming classrooms to stream directly to their individual districts,” Kuhlman said. “These students, obviously, will have to have strategies for how to deal with that type of learning, and I’ll address that later. Our local district partners will also be involved in terms of us purchasing the video conferencing equipment for them as well.”

To prepare for the project, Kuhlman said, the college “had to create a more reliable, resilient and cost-effective system.” Over the years, he said the college upgraded some aging infrastructure to prepare for the project, including new cabling, fiber lines, switches, and upgrades to their firewall. The college also purchased some uninterrupted power supply units so that if the power goes out, the college can safely operate and continue instruction.

Additionally, to supplement the new system, Kuhlman said they are looking to activate fiber-optic internet between GOCC, the ISD and the local school districts.

“Some time ago, they laid fiber between Glen Oaks and the ISD. That fiber has remained dark for a number of years because we didn’t have a use for it. Now we do,” Kuhlman said. “We are going to connect that fiber and activate it, so now Glen Oaks is connected to the ISD, the ISD is connected to all the local school districts to enhance the streaming.”

In his speech to those in attendance, Upton said COVID-19 was a “terrible time” for the nation and the world, particularly in rural areas that didn’t have the technology to function the new realities of life under COVID. In particular, that expanded to education.

“School districts were shut down. Kids lost their opportunity, and their lives changed,” Upton said. “Whether it was telehealth or telelearning, or just being able to work at your business like before, connections really matter.”

With the grant, Upton said there would be a big impact of the grant on students, particularly dual-enrolled ones.

“This is going to have an emphasis on those dual-enrollment students, kids that want to get ahead and be able to do something that quite frankly wasn’t around back when I was a student,” Upton said. “This is really good news, and I look forward to seeing it really work. The impact that this will have in the county, this will have an impact on thousands of kids every single year.”

In an interview following the ceremony, Upton said the grant was “unprecedented” and hopes to see similar ones pop up across the region.

“This may be the first one in the nation, but it shouldn’t be the last one,” Upton said. “I’m convinced that the success here will be a spin-off for other community colleges to look at, particularly when they serve wide areas. Knowing that so many young men and women are going to community college those first two years, for this county where two-thirds of those high school graduates come here first, we don’t want to leave them behind.”

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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