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New Mexico State University

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Teaching the troops: NMSU offers distance education through "Sociology in a Sack"

New Mexico State University is taking distance education well beyond the borders of the Land of Enchantment, offering airmen from Holloman Air Force Base - and possibly all U.S. troops - the chance to continue their education during deployments.



NMSU Army R.O.T.C Cadet Larry Baca demonstrates use of podcasting as an educational tool. A course is being developed by the university for use by military personnel on active duty. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

/> "I think what we have started here will have Department of Defense-wide implications and it's really going to take off," said Brig. Gen. David L. Goldfein, commander of the 49th Fighter Wing at Holloman Air Force Base. "I believe it's going to be extremely successful because it speaks to the way our young airmen like to learn."

The idea is simple: Provide airmen at Holloman an entire course, minus the mid-term and final exam, on an iPod. The digital media devices were bought by NMSU specifically for this project. The first course being offered is called, "Sociology in a Sack."

"Inside the sack, we have the iPod loaded with lectures, a charger, belt clip, cover and headphones," said Rodger Bates, the special assistant to the vice provost for outreach. "We also include support packet, including instructions, a syllabus and sample quizzes. Everything they need for the course."

Bates recorded the lectures himself on his Mac laptop, drawing on his experience as a sociology professor. Now in administration, he said the program is an example of how the university is fulfilling its responsibilities to the people of New Mexico.

"Holloman is an important part of the community in Alamogordo and the state," he said. "This project helps us serve and support the people of Holloman - that is part of the land-grant mission."

The idea for the iPod courses came up during a welcome reception for Goldfein in August 2006 hosted by the Committee of 50, a group of local community leaders including former state Rep. Toots Green.

"I wanted to meet the new base commander. When I was there, I got the opportunity to talk to him and I asked him if there was anything NMSU could do for Holloman and the Air Force," Bates said. "He very quickly said he needed distance education courses on the iPod."

Goldfein said the project is needed because Holloman personnel are being deployed more often, for anywhere from three months to a year, and there had been no university offering continuing education aligned with the service's Air Expeditionary Force schedule, which provides rapid response airpower for ground troops.

"So, if you're on a 120-day deployment and you're trying to continue your education, it's frustrating because courses are offered at times that are not aligned with your deployment schedule," he explained. "If you're doing distance learning, you have to have access to a computer to do your research and get your lectures and other things. When you go down range, it's hit or miss. Very few locations have the kind of Internet access where you can have unlimited amount of time to continue your education.

"With this program, an airman, soldier, sailor or Marine can sign up for a course that is almost completely loaded onto a very portable, personal video iPod," he added. "Now, they can take this thing into Iraq and Afghanistan, can get all the lectures, information, coursework, materials - everything needed to complete a college course while on duty, but at their leisure and on their time frame."

Upon returning from deployment, the troops turn in their iPod, and then take the mid-term and final.

Bates said getting the project done in a matter of months is a testament to the quality of the people of NMSU, particularly Paul Gutierrez, associate dean and associate director for the College of Agriculture and Home Economics and vice provost for outreach services; Wendy Hamilton, extension department head, and Sonja Jo Serna, information technology specialist.

Although the program is just getting started at Holloman, Goldfein wants to move quickly to expand it. He has already spoken to fellow commanders about it and he plans to talk to Maj. Gen. Robert P. Lennox, commanding general at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.