AUGUSTA — Kathy Wentworth was skeptical when she learned that she could go to college by watching television, and without having to leave the island where she lives 16 miles off Maine’s coast.
“It was like, `Oh right,’ because when you think of TV, you think you can’t concentrate,” said Wentworth, a single mother of two who works part-time.
But now Wentworth is a believer, along with thousands of others ranging from a disabled woman to prison inmates who are taking advantage of the program.
“It’s a super system. I would recommend it to anyone,” said Wentworth, 34, a freshman earning A’s and B’s who brims with eagerness at prospects of earning an associate’s degree.
The University of Maine System has gone high-tech to bring college to every corner of the 33,000-square-mile state, from the remote outpost of Allagash in the north, to paper mill towns and potato farming communities, to Vinalhaven Island, where Wentworth lives.
Maine’s program, which allows students to attend class at 81 locations through interactive audio hookups, is viewed as a national model, according to Pamela MacBrayne, who’s in charge of running the program from the University of Maine at Augusta.
There are similar programs in other parts of the country, but none is as extensive or covers a state as thoroughly as Maine’s, MacBrayne said.
“I get calls constantly from other states,” said MacBrayne. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the only statewide system that provides access to an associate’s degree.”
A decade ago, trustees of the seven-campus state university system recognized that the state would never be able to build enough campuses to reach all the remote outposts of Maine.
Television, cheaper than new classrooms and professors, was identified as the best means to deliver classes anywhere, and the Community College of Maine hit the airwaves in September 1989.
Enrollment has grown from fewer than 2,500 at the outset to nearly 4,000 this fall, “and we expect that (growth) to continue,” said MacBrayne.
The number of classroom sites — ranging from high schools to technical colleges to one corporate boardroom — has more than doubled to 81 in two years.
To get to class, the typical student travels about 10 miles or less, compared to 32 miles most would have to travel to get to a university campus, officials say.
Jennifer Turner, who is disabled, said she cuts off a half-hour of commuting time by attending classes in the paper-making town of Rumford, rather than the University of Maine at Farmington 30 miles down the road.
“The access for me as a wheelchair person is incredible,” added Turner, 21, a junior rehabilitation services major.
In the Maine State Prison, inmate Michael Bibro is taking two of his three classes — history of western civilization and geology — on ITV tapes.
The system gives inmates a wider selection of courses than they would have if classes were taught only by instructors who come to the Thomaston compound, said Bibro, who’s working toward a bachelor’s degree.
The 38-year-old said the opportunity to go to school “has expanded my world considerably.”
“It’s gotten me to realize that the world is a lot more interesting than I thought,” said Bibro, who plans on “going as far as I can go” in college during his stay in the maximum-security prison.
The average age of a Community College of Maine student is 37. Three-fourths of the students are female and many are working, said Fred Hurst, UMA’s director of distance education technologies.
“It’s not mom and dad saying, `You’re going to get a college education,”‘ said Hurst. “Our students perform as well or better than their counterparts in other classrooms.”
Students and instructors often feel uncomfortable when they’re first introduced to the system. But the uneasiness fades as instructors adjust their deliveries, timing and visual aids, and students get used to communicating with their TV professors.
Karen Demsey, who teaches a course called understanding music to as many as 125 students at 35 sites, uses the TV system’s manifold capabilities to superimpose herself over graphics like a weatherman does, place herself in an inset and display pictures while her voice is heard in the background.
“The camera is a very powerful tool,” said Demsey, who believes students stay glued to their sets because they’re “not used to having people on TV looking back at you and talking to you.”
Demsey and other ITV instructors teach before regular classes in studios on each of the seven state university campuses, while control-room operators use joy sticks to control robotic cameras picking up the action.
Operators are paired with instructors so they can become familiar with their partners’ movements and graphics needs.
All of the electronic classrooms are connected by a fiber optic cable system, which also provides a two-way video capability. Any two classes can be delivered statewide at any time.
But the seven campuses also can broadcast different courses within their own geographical regions. From the campuses, microwaves carry signals to classrooms at 81 sites. From those locations, students can talk to instructors via special cordless telephone lines.
Classes taught over the interactive TV system run from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays, giving working students a wide range of hours to go to school. “Early morning is quite popular,” said Hurst.
Keeping in touch with students is a big challenge for some ITV instructors, who believe two-way communications are imperative for a successful class.
Demsey asks students to send photos, notes about their work, hobbies and background. “Students are happy to comply,” she said.
Instructors visit classrooms and 11 university campus centers to meet their students.
Staffers at campus centers who proctor exams and distribute class materials make sure students have access to counselors and other campus services. Students can call toll-free numbers to have library books from the university’s collection sent to their classroom sites.
The interactive TV system is also used by non-college groups for statewide teleconferences, state government hearings and other events.
Last May, Arnold Schwarzenegger answered questions from high school students across the state as he visited Augusta as part of his nationwide physical-fitness promotional tour.