Equalizing Education Access in Rural Georgia


By Gary DePreta, VP for U.S. State, Local Governments, and Education (SLED)

The Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG) is made up of 22 colleges across 88 locations and impacts over 320,000 learners through over 600 credit, adult education, and customized training programs. Core to TCSG’s mission is creating an education-to-workforce pipeline customized to the businesses and industries that power the Peach State’s economy (e.g., healthcare, manufacturing, automotive, information technology, and cybersecurity). Part of what makes TCSG successful – they boast a whopping 99.2% placement rate – is their ability to strike a balance between the in-person skills training needed to help students succeed in a hot market for talent and their commitment to offering students, faculty, and staff flexibility through hybrid learning options.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, TCSG – like many educational institutions across the globe – responded quickly to ensure continued access to coursework. TCSG’s eCampus platform, which leverages Cisco’s networking infrastructure, was developed so students across Georgia would have access to online learning regardless of location, unlocking programs that would not have been available for many students at their home technical colleges in more rural areas. TCSG’s eCampus offering has grown from serving seven students at three colleges to over 1,200 students across all 22 colleges. And while in-person learning options have resumed in much of the United States, TCSG continues to invest in eCampus as a hybrid learning option to meet the needs of Georgia’s diverse student population, with the goal of scaling to tens of thousands of students with even more courses offered in the coming years

I sat down with Steven Ferguson, Chief Information Officer at TCSG, to discuss why investing in hybrid learning options like eCampus is a key component of TCSG’s future and business strategy in a post-pandemic world.

“Higher education has traditionally been very reactive instead of proactive. Courses are offered once there is sufficient demand. What eCampus allows us to do is aggregate the pockets of student demand across the state for a course – 10 students here, 5 students there – and connect them with the right instructor, launching programs at a faster pace,” explains Ferguson. “For many in rural Georgia, access to world class instructors often based in larger metropolitan campuses via video conferencing on Webex by Cisco is the differentiator between whether or not students complete or even pursue higher education.”

The average age of a student at TCSG is 26 years old. 60% of students are women, and the majority of students are people of color. Ferguson explains that many students are simultaneously employed and are providing for their families, just as he was when he pursued his graduate degree, which is why asynchronous learning options are so critical for equitable learning outcomes and student success. “Simply where you are born affects the opportunities you are going to have in life. We know that. But talent is not discriminatory. And part of what eCampus does is create equity of access, overcoming the resource divide so that those in rural, often overlooked communities have access to the same high-demand educational courses and programs available in metro areas.”

Ferguson made clear that moving forward, TCSG has every intention of further scaling their eCampus offerings, because investing in hybrid learning is not only a good business decision but one that meets the needs of Georgia’s diverse student population. Having a remote learning component allows students more control over when and how they learn and significantly reduces operational costs. Instead of requiring an instructor for the same course at each of TCSG’s 22 campuses, eCampus matches student demand with the appropriate number of instructors. Ferguson notes, “TCSG is a Cisco shop. Cisco provides the underlying network and data center infrastructure that enables video delivery via Webex and has allowed us to further implement a leading CRM solution, identity management software, and automation in order to make the eCampus experience as seamless as possible for students.”

Ferguson offers four tips for fellow technology leaders looking to leverage technology for hybrid education:

1. Take the time to plan what digital transformation looks like. Many schools fail to plan for the IT infrastructure that will help their students and faculty succeed, tempted to string together point products without a cohesive architecture. “With Cisco’s partnership, we’re building the plane as we fly it. We started by taking the time to envision where we wanted to go and worked backwards to understand the necessary steps to get there. Because we know our goal is to offer multiple courses virtually to reach tens of thousands of students, we are able to be very agile and make course corrections along the way,” says Ferguson. Schools must answer what are the needs of our students, where are we now, and what do we need to get there? That’s where companies like Cisco can help educational institutions architect a path forward.

2. Overcome the limiting mindset of “we’ve always done it this way” and evolve educational models to meet the needs of students, faculty, and staff. Ferguson noted that the biggest challenge to eCampus was that it veered from traditional in-person educational offerings and was different than the way TCSG had traditionally approached its business model. But exclusively in-person course offerings weren’t what was best for students and their families. Now, Ferguson explains that it is pivotal for educational models to meet students and faculty where they are at – so that didactic learning can be done over Webex and the in-person learning components can be tailored to make the best use of students’ and faculties’ time on campus. TCSG prides itself on hands-on experience. For future phlebotomists, air frame mechanics, welders, and commercial truck drivers, hands-on experience is critical. “But there are didactic forms of education in all those programs. The theory, the lectures can absolutely be done over Webex, so that when students are required to be on campus, it is intentional time in the lab for hands-on work.  Requiring students to come onto campus fewer times in a semester for their practical training while doing didactic work from home might be what they need to complete their degree.”

3. Evaluate grant opportunities and leverage funding sources to anticipate future needs. While eCampus was conceptualized before the pandemic, unprecedented federal funding via the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund helped TCSG roll out the platform as a digital transformation effort reimagining the student experience and lifecycle. Ferguson notes that TCSG continues to apply for a variety of funding opportunities in order to anticipate growth and further innovate. Cisco’s Public Funding Office is a completely free resource to help customers identify the grants, bonds, and other funding sources that align with their programs and technology needs.

4. Expand Internet access on campus and into the community to bridge the digital divide. “TCSG made a concerted effort to greatly expand our wireless footprint in the past couple of years by installing Cisco Meraki access points throughout the campus parking lots and common public areas.” says Ferguson. Online course offerings via eCampus are only meaningful if communities have access to the Internet. This is why TCSG and other state agencies including Georgia’s Department of Community Affairs and Department of Education have partnered with service providers to map out where students can access the Internet – helping to bridge the digital divide throughout rural Georgia. Educational institutions can leverage industry knowledge in partnership with community leaders to have a voice in community broadband planning discussions.

Cisco is proudly committed to Georgia’s success and celebrates innovative customers like TCSG which set students up with the skills they need to succeed in a rapidly changing economy. Our purpose at Cisco is to power an inclusive future for all, which is why we announced an investment of $41 million towards a new Talent and Collaboration Center in Atlanta, which will create 700 jobs in the metro area, hiring some of the best talent from some of the nation’s top engineering programs, technical colleges, and HBCUs. This strategic investment will help deepen Cisco’s focus on diversifying its workforce, because as an organization, we are at our best when we are powered by diverse perspectives.

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