Simply stated, distance learning programs operate on services designed to link teachers with students. In the business world, such services which exist to link product providers with product consumers are called "distribution channels." To be effective, these channels must change and adapt as products, providers, and consumers evolve. In the same way, effective distance learning programs constantly adapt their technologies and techniques to reach dynamic instructor and student populations.
We categorize NETnet services into three functional areas: (1) content, (2) communications, and (3) coordination. Following the business example, our members’ educational content is our product, communication technologies are our distribution channels, and end-user coordination is the constant process by which we translate student and instructor need into new services.
Although NETnet is not a college, we provide services to our member colleges and universities to make it easier for them to offer online and interactive videoconferencing (ITV) courses and degree programs. Our 13 members provide in excess of 200 ITV courses, over 300 online courses, and a wide variety of telecourses. In addition, many complete degree programs are available either online, via ITV, or using some combination of distance delivery methods. The variety of courses offered by our members means that there's something for everyone - credit, non-credit, and technological certifications for students of all ages, professional development and continuing education courses for adult or returning students, and dual credit courses for high school students.
NETnet communications services are based on numerous technologies that combine into three basic functions.
First, we aggregate telecommunications services. This may sound complex, but it really means that we serve as a meeting point. Our members use telecommunications technologies such as T1 lines, fiber optics, and wireless networks to connect outside their campuses to share courses and expertise. For students and patients, this is a great concept since it means they can access not one, but multiple organizations to get the information they need without driving hundreds of miles to get it. In fact, telecommunication services are the heart of information distribution channels that you probably use every day and take for granted – things like internet web sites, online shopping, and the ubiquitous email. But every distribution channel has to have a meeting point. For the NETnet members and a growing number of locations throughout East Texas, the NETnet Center for Educational Technologies is that meeting place.
Second, we centralize bridging services. Any good meeting has a purpose, and our purpose in aggregating telecommunication services is to connect (bridge) these links to some useful resources. You could look at it this way – once everyone meets at the NETnet building, we divide people with common interests into “meeting rooms”.
Data is one of our large meeting rooms. In this area, we link our members who want to provide online courses with internet service providers. We connect members of multi-campus systems (Texas A&M, for example) together so they can share resource and information with the other members of their system. We also connect our network with other state, national or worldwide networks so the citizens and communities of east Texas can literally access the world of information through a local member institution.
Video is another of our large meeting rooms. In this area, members using video conference technologies can connect instructors or healthcare providers to students and patients tens, hundreds, or even thousands of miles away. Just as in a normal conversation, each site can see, hear, and speak live, in real time, with other sites. Dozens of these conversations happen daily, usually at the same time. A doctor can consult with a remote patient while a teacher at a college instructs three remote classrooms full of students at three separate high schools. The more sites we aggregate, the more services we bridge. The more services we bridge, the more resources become available. It’s a very exciting process that requires a third service.
Third, we aggregate technical and administrative support services. Although the explanation is relatively simple, the underlying technology is extremely complex. As in any good meeting, someone has to serve as a moderator to keep things running smoothly. Each NETnet staff member is a gifted professional with specific coordination skills. As a result, a person that uses our system can always get the assistance they need from one location – whether they have a question related to project funding, want to be trained to use the video conference room, are ready to schedule an event, or need assistance during a broadcast. On a daily basis, we provide assistance to dozens of facilities via phone, email, and video conference. Many of the people we work with have never met us in person, yet they know we understand their needs and know where to find answers. For our members, these support services exist to take a complex thing and make it simple again.
One of the early objectives for the Northeast Texas Consortium was to serve as a “information clearinghouse” where distance learning resources were gathered, sorted, and re-distributed. As a result, one of the first actions of the NETnet Administrative Board in 1996 was to create a NETnet coordinating office to supervise the initial network project. From that beginning, the NETnet’s coordination efforts have expanded to include grant/financial management, consulting, technology and curriculum design, project management, training, and marketing. In the same way NETnet became an east Texas meeting place for technology, NETnet is also becoming an information clearinghouse for its membership – participating in regional, state and national planning, creating technical and staff development opportunities, and sharing the best of what it learns from distance learning professionals throughout the state. In this capacity, NETnet can assist its members and their affiliates in focusing their limited time and resources toward technology-enhanced education and healthcare initiatives that will most directly benefit their citizens and communities.