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Date: Fri, Jan 15th, 2021

Great Falls College upgrades classrooms with equipment to enhance virtual learning

Dave Bonilla, chief technology officer at Great Falls College, installs upgraded audio-visual equipment in a classroom to enhance the experience for those learning remotely.

GREAT FALLS, Mont. – The elves were busy over the holiday break at Great Falls College MSU.

And their magic will allow the college to better beam classes around the state as the Technology and Assistance Center staff members upgraded almost all of the classrooms on campus with audio-visual equipment to better meet the needs of students and faculty members who are participating in classes remotely. The upgrades include installing cameras, speakers and microphone arrays to improve streaming and recording capabilities to take learning to where students live and work.

"It's easy-peasy, one click and you're in the classroom," said Dr. Heidi Pasek, a sociology and psychology instructor at Great Falls College, after taking the training on the new equipment.

The upgrade was paid for with a combination of CARES Act funds and governor-allocated Coronavirus Relief Funds (about $80,000) and is a tremendous illustration of the way Great Falls College has been responsibly using taxpayer money to not only meet the short-term needs brought on by COVID-19 but also meeting long-range plans to enhance the college well into the future, said Carmen Roberts, executive director of operations at Great Falls College.

So far, the college has received $1,297,000 in federal and state funds and distributed more than $431,000 directly to 521 students affected by the pandemic. Additional federal funds have been allocated to the university system as part of the recently passed Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021. Spending guidelines are still being developed at the federal level.

"These classroom upgrades, along with other instructional technology purchased with CARES funds, will allow us to provide instruction to students wherever they need it," Roberts said. "It gives us so much flexibility to provide the best educational experience."

During a recent test of the equipment, Phil Carr, a network and communications analyst at the college, stood in a corner facing the walls and talked in a normal speaking voice and Dave Bonilla, Great Falls College's chief technology officer, clearly heard him on a computer in his office across campus.

"Great Falls College always has been a leader of online education," said Dr. Susan J. Wolff, CEO/dean of Great Falls College. "This is one more way the college will be able to stay ahead of the technology curve for our students. We have a great responsibility to use these funds in the most prudent way possible. Carmen and her staff are ensuring we do that. We know distance learning isn't going away when the pandemic is over, so investing in the future of the college in this way is incredibly wise."

Pasek, who started with the college in 1996, is elated at what it means for the college because she said it wasn't always easy last semester when students had to miss class.

"The quality wasn't consistent," she said. "That's so important. I want them to have a good experience. We got by, but this is going to be so much better. They can hear, and we can hear them, so much better through the new equipment. Now, I can zoom in on different sections of the board. Before I'd have to carry the camera over and shine it on the part of the board where I had written something."

Pasek said she is already rethinking the way she will teach going forward.

"I want to make that something all of my face to face students can take advantage of, because one of the things that affects your attendance is students don't come to class because they are sick or their kids are sick," she explained.
"It's not that they are blowing off class or just wasting time. I'm going to make sure to make that is accessible to students: Do you want to come to class or do you want to attend through these other avenues? I'm really excited that we have the kind of quality equipment that will allow us to do that."

Another upgrade made possible with CARES funds is a new access control system that will allow the college to lock every external door on campus with the push of a button, which means even greater security on campus.

The college also has used CARES funds to provide additional training and equipment to faculty to improve online instruction, and it will update its aging WiFi system with CARES funds.

"Students will benefit from all of these technology upgrades," Roberts said.

Students also will benefit from the purchase of a limited number of laptops and pre-paid hot spots that they can check out from the Library on a first-come, first-basis. The laptops are expected to be available soon. Check with the library for availability and check-out requirements. Wi-Fi antennas that will broadcast into the north parking lot will be installed after all of the classrooms have been upgraded.

The audio-visual equipment didn't arrive as early as anticipated so Bonilla and his crew of E.J. Suek, Arne Buhmann, Ja Sweat, Carr and student-worker Kory Goodau still are finishing up the last of the final 22 classrooms that are being upgraded.

It takes two to three hours per classroom to install, and Bonilla expects to finish up in the next few days.

"In the classroom, I have to put my ego aside and say, 'Who cares if they are sitting right in front of me or at home,'" Pasek said. "Wouldn't that be great to be on a beach and beaming into class? Who cares where you are? I think, as instructors, we need to be more open to those ideas without getting hung up on if it's the same as it's always been as long as that quality is there. I think they can have that same experience."


Scott Thompson, Great Falls College marketing and communications director, 406-771-4314,

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