|Eyes on the skies|
|By Ann Coppola, News Reporter|
The collective groan you might have heard in the past few weeks was probably the millions of scholars, young and old, acknowledging that summer vacation had ended and it was time to head back to school. You won’t hear any complaints from the Correctional Education Association though, where things are looking up, quite literally.
CEA has refurbished its educational system into the Transforming Lives Network, where educators can download programming via the association’s satellite. TLN currently provides 1,400 hours of offender education and more than 600 hours of correctional staff training each year.
“It’s provided from our satellite on a digital band signal which is uplinked to hundreds of facility sites throughout the nation,” TLN project director Anne Charles explains. “Each facility uses a fixed dish and the signal goes directly to a satellite decoder. They subscribe to and then tune the decoder to our frequency, and then they can get the programming.”
According to CEA executive director Steve Steurer, satellite programming is one of the few viable ways to bring programs into an institution.
“If you work in corrections, you’re not going to get Internet connections just to download lectures and other classroom activities, and educational DVDs just aren’t a very attractive option anymore.”
Three hundred facilities around the U.S. subscribe to TLN, including federal, county, and state facilities, parole and probation offices, juvenile centers, and job corps sites. The service is broadcast in six time zones.
“We currently reach Hawaii and Alaska, and we have the potential to broadcast to Canada and Mexico,” Steurer adds.
“College of the Air,” which started last fall, is the latest TLN service. In partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and Milwaukee Area Technical College, TLN provides college credit-bearing courses to subscribing facilities. Students can earn an associate of arts degree or transfer credits toward a bachelor’s degree.
“Normally facilities have to get enough inmates to get a local college to come in, but with the College of Air they can have one or two students in the middle of Montana participating,” explains Steurer. “You don’t have to have a minimum number of students anymore. It’s an innovative way for places with just a few guys participating to join in.”
“It’s very cool because this way the playing field is level,” Charles adds.
The college combines pre-recorded lectures with direct correspondence between the Milwaukee Tech professors and participating facilities.
“Subscribers can download the classes and rebroadcast them in a schedule that works for their facility,” Charles says. “The inmates watch the programming and complete the activities. The site monitor sends the work to their teacher in Milwaukee, who grades the activity, gives feedback to the class, and awards the credit.”
The college will offer seven courses for the upcoming fall semester. Charles says TLN can offer everything from environmental science to history to sociology providing a whole battery of general education curriculum.
“Often corrections hires people with not very much education,” she adds. “We offer opportunities for staff to be able to continue their education and become more valuable to their facility.”
Tennessee is just one of the states looking to increase their number of TLN subscribing facilities. Billy Murphy, Whiteville Correctional Facility’s education director has seen the satellite programming transform his classroom.
“I came on staff two and a half years ago and was struggling to find a resource to assist me in the classroom,” Murphy says. “I began searching for GED prep material and discovered that we had been using VHS recordings.”
The tapes were disappointing, so Murphy took it upon himself to find an upgrade.
“It was a hodgepodge: we were taping one program on top of the other, and there was no continuity,” he says. “I got the facility to buy a couple of TVs and DVD players and brought my own DVD burner. I started collecting, burning, and setting up a library of TLN programming.”
Whiteville now subscribes to TLN and College of the Air. “This will be our third semester of offering College of the Air,” says Murphy. “I have ten students signed up for the fall, compared to just four last fall. One student is working towards his associate’s degree, and he will be there soon.”
Murphy is one of several corrections educators across the country discovering the benefits of satellite programming.
“This fall we’re hoping to begin broadcasting 24 hours a day,” Steurer says. “We’re excited: the sky is the limit.”
“No,” Charles adds, “the sky is actually not the limit.”
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