Far-reaching teaching

Cortez’s Unlimited Learning Center uses technology to offer a variety of courses

Cortez is miles away from the ivy-covered walls traditionally associated with a university education – but no matter.

You can still obtain a university degree without ever leaving the city.

Brian Weber, technology specialist with the Unlimited Learning Center in Cortez, shows off its high-definition capabilities. Photo by Gail Binkly

Tucked into a modest-looking facility at 640 E. Second St., the Unlimited Learning Center offers cutting-edge technology that enables students to learn from teachers hundreds of miles away and take college-level courses in up to 80 subjects.

The Unlimited Learning Center, which operates as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, partners with Utah State University Eastern to offer accredited university courses for certificate and degree programs from associate’s to master’s and Ph.D.

“A student can actually go from pre-literacy to a master’s here,” said center director Ann Miller. “We probably have more distance- education capacity than most colleges or universities in this state.”

For the past 37 years, the center also has offered the only adult basic-education services in Montezuma and Dolores counties, teaching non-credit courses in GED preparation, basic English, English as a second language, workplace literacy, and computer training from basic skills to 3-D computer animation for games.

“Some people just want the job training, not to enroll in college, so we try to have classes that are more accelerated,” said Miller.

“Because of people being laid off, they’re having to retrain. Or they may have been ranching or working construction and have back injuries, so they get their GED or take workplace literacy.

“Or you have people who have highschool degrees but have been out too long and need other skills, or their math or writing skills are bad and they need help, even though they have a diploma.”

Tia Lee is one of the center’s success stories.

When Lee moved to Cortez from California, she had done some college work but had not obtained her GED. “I heard from a friend they were starting to do classes here,” Lee said. “It was about their second semester. They were tiny classes, two or three people.”

She earned her GED, then went on to take university courses. In June she graduated with an associate’s degree in English – and was valedictorian for the center’s USU students at the graduation ceremony June 20. “She did it all through distance learning,” Miller said.

In her second semester, Lee began working nearly full-time at the center as a facilitator for the university classes, serving as a liaison between students and teachers. A creative writer, she is working on a novel.

“I loved the classes and the environment. It’s nice and small,” she said. “The teachers at USU are really good. It’s totally different from the traditional student environment.”

The 7,000-square-foot facility includes a conference room, a broadcast laboratory, high-definition laboratory, computer lab, server room, and medical lab, now recognized by the state as a licensed medical training center.

It’s a big step up from the old days, said Miller, who has been working in adult education since 1974. She started with the center in 1990.

“Back in 1990, we operated out of the trunks of our cars,” she said. “Then we were housed at the junior high for many years and at some grade schools, then the Nazarene Church. But we always had to work around their schedule, so we started looking for other opportunities.”

In 2001 they worked with Ken Charles of the state Department of Local Affairs to obtain a $365,000 Community Development Block Grant. They also sought help from foundations.

“We literally begged for money. We put out 200 applications to different foundations and five funded us for this building,” Miller said. That, along with the DOLA grant, enabled them to build the current center in collaboration with the Montezuma County Housing Authority, which donated the land as part of its nearby Prairie Estates project.

The facility opened in 2004.

The center was helped along by a Star Schools grant it obtained from 1993 to 2002 that also involved four area school districts and a four-state consortium. The Star Schools program, under the U.S. Department of Education, supports distanceeducation projects that serve under-served populations.

“That grant was to train teachers on how to integrate technology into the classroom,” Miller said. “When that grant ended we wanted to keep the momentum going.”

The center then obtained a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service grant, designed to help rural areas buy equipment for distance education, for its adult-education program. Its partners were Southwest Memorial Hospital, the city of Cortez, San Juan Technical College and the Red Mesa school district on the Navajo reservation.

“We got the grant in late 2006 and in January 2007 we had equipment put in place,” Miller said. They then began receiving classes from the College of Eastern Utah. (USU has since absorbed the College of Eastern Utah-San Juan Campus in Blanding, Utah.)

The center tested the live interactive video- conferencing system in spring semester 2007. “We did a Navajo language class to see how the system worked,” Miller said. “I tried to pick the hardest class possible to see if live interactive video conference would work, and it worked perfectly.

“We were one of six different sites. The others were in Monument Valley and around southeastern Utah, on the rez. The teacher was 92 miles away and we would hook in with different sites.

“With that test done, we went to eight classes the next semester. Every semester we added classes.”

This fall they will be offering up to 80 different classes.

Some have just eight to 10 students who sit in a classroom and watch their teacher on a screen. If only one person wants to take a specialty class, he or she can do so using a high-definition webcam and a small study area.

“Someone working on a master’s degree can take the class that they need. They can talk to teachers wherever. They talk back and forth if needed.”

The center not only receives long-distance classes, it broadcasts some of its own. Last year, it conducted a successful trial transmitting high-school classes to the Chupik Indian school district in Alaska. “They didn’t have enough electives for their students and we provided them with about 12,” Miller said. This fall the center will be working with three or four districts in Alaska, and it may expand to other states.

“We have one teacher in Dove Creek, one in Towaoc, and four or five in Cortez. They’re retired teachers.”

The center’s certificate programs include such fields as medical coding, nursing assistant, medical assistant and lab assistant. “Many of our students actually work at the hospital,” Miller said.

“Since the Baby Boomers are starting to retire, the medical field is really growing.”

One student who got her GED at the center and continued on to become a medical lab technician is making more money than the center’s teachers, Miller said.

Students can also be certified as personalcare providers for the elderly or disabled in their homes.

“We train students who are working on their GED. We have been able to co-enroll GED students in college classes too, especially job-preparation classes. We’re seeing that having a GED is not enough. You’ll still flip burgers if you just get a GED.”

The center operates through the San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), which provides specialized educational services in nine school districts in Southwest Colorado.

“They contract with us for the secondchance program for high-risk students that drop out of SWOS [Southwest Open School] or high school or are expelled,” Miller said. “These are very high-risk students. This is their last opportunity.”

Last semester, the center had 120 adulted students, 45 high-risk students between 17 and 21, and 62 students taking college courses.

Anyone 17 or older can attend the center. Miller said obtaining funding to keep all the programs going is “a juggling act.”

“Colorado is the only state that does not support adult ed,” she said. “We have funding from lots of different streams..”

Miller said enrollment is limited somewhat by the size of the facility.

“Seventy students is about all that we can handle for college classes. There isn’t much parking,” she said.

But she wants the facility to be used 24/7 to benefit the entire community. She hopes to offer more general community classes – art education, for example – and helpful instruction such as emergency preparedness.

“The Colorado state library contacted us and we got a grant for 20 laptops that we will be using for a mobile computer lab, a class with the community.” The class will teach computer skills to community members who didn’t have the chance to take computer classes in school.

“We don’t have any fluff here at all, but we take advantage of every grant we get to be able to give the most service possible to the community.”

For more information or to register, visit the center at 640 E. Second St. or call 970- 565-1601.

From August 2012.