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Prison educators travel N.C.'s information highway.

In the wake of new communication technology, North Carolina prison educators are reaching more inmate students than ever before. Now, offenders throughout the state can actively participate in classes live via the North Carolina information highway.

The information highway is a result of a public-private partnership that has enabled the state to build a telecommunications network operated by telephone companies, with the state as the customer. The highway was announced in 1993 by Gov. Jim Hunt. Public schools, community colleges, prisons and government agencies have first priority in accessing this tool. The goal of this new network is to serve all voice, data and video needs of state and local government, such as video courses, distance learning, telecommunications via computers, electronic mail and information management. More than 125 information highway sites are currently operational.

Many of the sites are located in hospitals, schools, universities and community colleges. Through the use of the highway, advanced classes can be taught by videoconference to remote, rural school systems from the North Carolina School of Science and Math located in Durham, N.C. Training for teachers and nurses is provided through videoconferences, saving travel time and costs. The network has a multitude of uses in allowing North Carolinians to "connect" through technology by visiting a local community college or school rather than actually traveling on the road, and has been used for "town meetings" and to provide medical help to rural counties.

Video sessions are perhaps the most exciting aspect of the information highway. Each month, more than 1,000 video sessions are held between and among sites throughout the state. Through the use of videoconferencing, three North Carolina prisons - Hyde Correctional Institution in Swan Quarter, Pender Correctional Institution in Burgaw and Southern Correctional Institution in Troy - can communicate with audio and video simultaneously, thus minimizing the cost of travel and staff time.

Over the past year, the information highway has been instrumental in bringing community college courses to prisons. Courses have included psychology, literature and business classes. It also has been possible to hold enrichment classes broadcast simultaneously to the prisons from the North Carolina School of Science and Math. Students have been very excited and enthusiastic about the opportunity to take these courses. Topics such as emotional intelligence, the meaning of dreams and stress management have been the source of much interest.

Interactive Courses

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) has offered correspondence courses to inmates for more than 25 years through a contract with the North Carolina Department of Correction, which is paid for through inmate canteen proceeds. In the fall of 1997, UNC approached the Division of Prisons regarding a business course that would be offered over the Internet to university students. Since North Carolina does not permit inmate access to the Internet for any purpose, the division proposed offering parts of the course to inmates over the information highway using its videoconferencing capabilities in lieu of the live Internet classroom discussions. Thus, in January 1998, the university began conducting its first course for inmates over the information highway.

This course, "Introduction to Microeconomics," which was developed collaboratively with the UNC Kenan-Flagler School of Business and University Access Inc., a distance learning company, offers three university credit hours, which are transferable to community college programs or to the university for further study upon the inmate's release.

Forty students at two prisons were selected for the course, which is offered on the information highway only to inmate students. Other university students participate in Internet discussions while inmates have the opportunity to experience live videoconferences. Students must meet eligibility requirements, including a high school diploma, previous college course credit and eligibility for release within 10 years. Students view weekly hour-long documentary-style videotaped lectures by UNC Professor of Finance D. Robert Connolly. Each week, two-hour class discussion sessions are held at the two prison units simultaneously over the information highway and are facilitated by a specially trained UNC teaching assistant.

A Positive Reception

This innovative means of course delivery has been well-received by both inmates and correctional staff. The cost-effectiveness is clear: two or three classrooms can be connected via the highway hundreds of miles apart, with the teacher at yet another across the state, communicating live to all classrooms. Several additional community college classes will be offered over the information highway in the fall.

When the success of the university-level course has been evaluated, North Carolina is hoping to continue this project in collaboration with the university system. The School of Science and Math continues to offer short courses this spring, including "Rational Thinking," and community colleges plan to offer additional staff training courses in criminal justice.

Prison administrators and classification committees currently use videoconferencing capabilities on a routine basis, saving travel time and costs.

Jane Young, Ph.D., is director of education for the North Carolina Division of Prisons.
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Author:Young, Jane
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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