The young families participating in Regional School Unit 3’s family literacy program are spread across 11 rural towns and 440 square miles in western Waldo County. They rarely attend in-person, adult education classes at Mount View High School in Thorndike.
“For some of our students, it could be an 80-, 90-mile ride each way,” said Pat Hughes, adult and community education director in Unity-based RSU 3. “It had to be a home-based program.”
But the home-based program participants have reported feeling isolated from fellow participants and their instructors, Hughes said.
That’s why the RSU 3 adult and community education program has spent the past few years developing and scaling up the RSU 3 Virtual Learning Center.
The virtual center brings together computer-generated avatars – each connected to a real person – in a virtual environment constructed to resemble the actual Mount View High School in Thorndike. Students with access can enroll in a selection of adult education, GED preparation and Kennebec Valley Community College classes; interact with RSU 3 adult education staff; and learn how to write resumes and search for jobs in the Maine Department of Labor career center section of the virtual world.
Grant funding from a variety of sources and consultation with technology developers in Florida and the United Kingdom have made the virtual center possible.
The SPICE Family Literacy Program served by the virtual center serves high-needs families and offers parents the chance to boost literacy skills so they can earn GEDs or enroll in college courses and enhance their employment prospects.
“They feel more connected to us than they have through email,” Hughes said. “They feel as connected to us in the virtual center as they do when we go into their homes.”
The virtual learning center is gradually expanding in terms of offerings and population served. At the start of the fall, the virtual center became available to all RSU 3 adult education students, not only family literacy program participants. In January, the virtual experience will become available to all interested Maine adult education programs. And as the population served grows, RSU 3 plans to start offering virtual MIT classes for adult education credit.
“We’re going to keep adding as we go along,” Hughes said. “We have no idea where it could lead.”
Taking classes through the virtual center isn’t distance education, Hughes said, because all interactions take place in real time.
“There’s an actual person attached to every avatar in there,” she said.
Along with alleviating rural isolation, Hughes said, the family literacy and adult education students who participate pick up valuable computer literacy skills as they learn to navigate the virtual world.
As the virtual center continues to grow, it’s not out of the question to expand it beyond adult students to serve those in kindergarten through high school, Hughes said.
RSU 3 created the following video to demonstrate its virtual learning center.