High-tech tutoring takes root in Aroostook schools

Posted Jan. 22, 2011, at 4:39 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 28, 2011, at 12:17 p.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — Armed with the latest in communications technology, two of Maine’s northernmost campuses are not about to let geography stand in the way of serving their students.

The University of Maine at Fort Kent and Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle are using digital equipment and communication software to make sure students get the academic help and support counseling they need, regardless of where those students are located.

An increase in online course enrollment in UMFK’s distance education program has led to the next logical step — online tutoring and counseling.

“UMFK has 10 new online programs,” Lena Michaud, director of student support services, said. “In this fall, all of those classes will be up and running, [and] we need to be proactive. This is huge.”

With college tuition rates soaring in states such as California, distance learning is becoming more of a viable option, according to Loni Nadeau, administrative assistant for UMFK’s distance education program, which administers the online classes.

“The online courses operate just like the classroom classes here on campus,” Nadeau said. “There is a syllabus, a start date, an end date, tests, research papers and books.”

What is different, she said, is that the students can participate on their own schedules within those start and end dates, accessing all class materials and communicating with instructors through their computers.

Michaud’s office, funded under the federal TRIO program, is responsible for all campus academic tutoring, advising, academic skills workshops, personal counseling and testing.

Students enrolled in UMFK’s online classes, regardless of where they are globally, should have access to those services.

That’s where technology comes in.

Phil Dubois is a third-year business student at UMFK and a tutor in Michaud’s office who has spent the past year fine-tuning online tutoring.

“I experimented with it last semester,” Dubois said. “I worked tutoring a student in accounting and could open up programs like Excel on my computer and his at the same time so we could look at it together.”

The one-to-one, real-time communication is possible through the software application Skype, which allows users to place voice calls over the Internet.

When coupled with a webcam, users can actually talk face to face.

The biggest advantage to Skype, said Laura McPherson, director of NMCC’s academic success center, is that it’s free.

“We decided we should try it,” McPherson said. “I got to thinking how we could use it for tutoring, and that started the wheels turning.”

At NMCC, McPherson said, the technology is geared toward students enrolled in and physically attending courses on campus, though anyone with an active NMCC identification card, enrolled in any course, has access to the tutoring services.

“The [student] tutors tried it out on each other for a semester, so we know from their experiences it could work,” McPherson said. “This semester we are educating the student body about it and how they can access it.”

McPherson’s office helps students negotiate the downloading and use of the free Skype software and also provides a list of available tutors and their contact information.

“Students are starting to come in to get set up,” McPherson said. “If they bring a laptop, we can help them set it up.”

For now, tutors are available online from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. Those days and times could change, McPherson said, depending on use trends.

For now, she said the tutoring is a perfect fit for a campus located in northern Maine.

“We have students from all over Aroostook County, and there are times when they just can’t make it in for a tutoring session if the weather is bad and traveling is not safe,” she said. “This way, they can access the services we offer from home.”

McPherson’s office offers tutoring in everything from pipefitting to wind power to general education courses.

UMFK’s online tutoring and counseling services are available based on the tutors’ schedules, but Dubois said that is the beauty of the technology.

“I can be on campus or at home and help someone online,” he said. “All the students have to do is contact me and make an appointment.”

Based on the tutoring he already has done, Dubois said, he has found the online communication “just as good” as being physically with a student.

“Now we are looking at getting additional software that will allow up to six people to be online together at the same time,” Nadeau said. “This is perfect for accommodating our online students and distance learners.”

As part of NMCC’s efforts to boost awareness of the online tutoring services, McPherson said her office is holding a drawing next month to give away five webcams, and in April, a waiver for a three-credit course will be awarded.

For information about the online services, students may reach Michaud at 834-7531 at UMFK. McPherson may be reached at NMCC at 768-2766.

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