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Big Sky Connection -- Large distances between communities can present a challenge for Montana's rural students. Online coursework and sharing is providing an innovative way to reach these students. Comments from Joe Thiel (teal), director of academic policy and research, Montana University System.


Click on the image above for the audio. -- Miles Community College is in the eastern Montana town of Miles City, which has population of less than 9,000. (David Schott/Wikimedia Commons) 

Eric Tegethoff

September 6, 2022

Montana's big landscapes and sparse populations present a challenge to colleges and universities. But the internet is shrinking distances for the state's rural students.

Joe Thiel is the director of academic policy and research for the Montana University System. He said long distances to college can act as a bigger deterrent to enrollment than the cost of higher education.

However, Thiel noted that the state can't have a college in every small community. And he said there are even challenges for small communities that do have one of the state's 16 university system campuses.

"So, even if you have a college in your community in a rural area," said Thiel, "you might not have access to the courses or programs that you want for your career interests for your pathways to help you succeed."

Thiel said it's an especially hard time to attract students, which is why using the virtual space creatively can be an asset for high education.

He said the amount of online coursework grew rapidly during the pandemic when in-person classes weren't feasible.

Thiel said one innovative partnership Montana's colleges and universities have is with the technology company Quottly. It allows schools to share courses across campuses and provide remote workforce training.

Thiel said the university system is working on ways to expand this service.

"We can take advantage of the fact that we have 16 campuses," said Thiel, "all with their own unique specialties, all with their own capable faculty - and find new ways that we can share those courses and share those programs more sustainably across the entire state."

Thiel said bringing higher education to more places is not only good for the students it serves, but also for their communities.

"The communities that need trained teachers, trained health professionals, trained business leaders," said Thiel, "they can develop those locally rather than having to rely on their attempts to recruit them out of state, which too often have failed."

Support for this reporting was provided by Lumina Foundation.