Communication for development Knowledge

Posted July 1999

Special: The first mile of connectivity

Rural distance learning via video conferencing - the Northnet experience

By Neal Gorenflo
Foundation for Rural Service
Washington, USA

1. Introduction

  • Why the first mile?
  • Telecommunication services and stakeholders
    2. Lessons learned
  • Communication for sustainable development
  • Eyes see; ears hear
  • Participatory rural communications appraisal
  • Radio and video
  • State media for democratic development
    3. Technologies
  • Telecommunications for sustainable development
  • Rural telecommunications in Africa
  • Integrated rural development through telecommunications
    4. Applications
  • Internet and rural development
  • Participatory approaches to rural connectivity
  • Empowering communities
  • Rural telecentres
  • Training community animators
  • Video conferencing
  • Connecting with the unconnected
    5. Policies
  • Global information infrastructure
  • Rural networking cooperatives
  • Public and private interests
    Editors, contributors
  • I first learned about Northnet, Montana State University-North's (MSUN) video conferencing distance education network, when researching grant awards for distance education programmes in the United States . When I called the grant awardees to learn more about their project, I was fortunate to get the project directors, Dr Carl Ellis and Cliff Whittemore, on the phone together. On that first call, they spoke enthusiastically about the innovative and successful system they pioneered. After researching Northnet and distance education networks further, I began to understand their enthusiasm. Launching a system from scratch is a massive effort with lethal pitfalls at every stage. If properly financed, an achievement in itself, a project is faced with a chance for failure in each of all of the dimensions that govern a distance education network. Moreover, the technical, economic, pedagogical, regulatory and organizational dimensions that determine the operation, effectiveness and long-term sustainability of a network are so interdependent that failure in one area can translate to failure for the entire system. The complexity of such an endeavour makes it incredibly easy for motivated, knowledgeable and well-financed projects to fail.

    The purpose of telling Northnet's story is to show how they addressed the interdependent challenges of technology, economics, regulation, pedagogy and organizational design in establishing a distance education network and to draw from their innovations principles that can be universally applied. There are two good reasons to focus on the principles behind the Northnet's innovations rather than on the innovations themselves. First of all, it may be too early to tell if Northnet will deliver long-term success. Therefore, it would be misleading to label all of their innovations as exemplary. This doesn't mean that there's nothing to learn from their innovations - some of them will undoubtedly prove to be exemplary. However, it's possible that Northnet understood the challenges, but made wrong choices at certain junctures. Only time will tell. Secondly, some of their innovations are dependent on local conditions and therefore may not be easily reproduced outside of their jurisdiction.


    Northnet was started as a demonstration distance education project involving K-12 schools in Northeast Montana in 1992. Its largest source of support was a single federal grant. It was initially meant to serve a relatively small number of schools. MSUN was asked to administer the project in 1993. Dr Ellis and Mr Whittemore, the grant administrators, expanded the scope of the project. They applied for more funding and built the total grant pool to approximately US$4.1 million through three federal grant awards.

    The Northnet team considered the grant money, although relatively large for a distance education project, as seed money sufficient enough to attract serious partners. They asked Nemont Telephone Cooperative, Northern Telephone Cooperative, three Rivers Telephone Cooperative, Triangle Telephone Cooperative and Blackfoot Telephone Cooperative to participate in the project. Northnet came to the table as a partner armed with knowledge, prior funding and a succinct plan for the telephone cooperatives' managers and board members to consider that offered tangible benefits to their companies and communities. Northnet researched the network infrastructure of the state, learned the location of the needed fibre links and had identified unused capacity. In fact, Northnet came to the initial meetings with their own network maps. Northnet presented the co-op managers with the grant award letters to establish their seriousness. Dr Ellis emphasized that proposing a succinct plan was essential to attracting the participation of the co-ops. Northnet's proposal was just two pages long.

    The Northnet team's seriousness, preparation and clear plan impressed the co-op managers. As a result, the co-op managers sought the approval of their respective board of directors to participate in the proposed network. Largely on the strength of the potential contribution that Northnet would make to their member communities, the five co-ops decided to participate. The five co-ops formed Vision Net, a completely separate for-profit corporation, in 1995 to jointly provision, operate and partially underwrite the network. Each co-op owns 20 percent of Vision Net and the CEO's of the five owner companies sit on Vision Net's board.

    Organizational innovation

    Northnet is an informal partnership between MSUN, Vision Net and two consortiums of primary and secondary public schools (K-12 schools). There is no formal structure governing participants. It is a private effort without government oversight or funding beyond what is offered in the federal grants. The grants don't require alliances and have no jurisdiction over Northnet. In fact, Northnet is only the name of MSUN's contribution to this partnership and is used for simplicity's sake to describe the entire arrangement. Each partner governs itself and has to some extent reorganized to participate in the network. Partners are bound only by mutual need. Voluntary cartels, alliances and consortiums are by nature fragile. In the case of Northnet, however, it is the high level of interdependence between participants that insures the longevity of this informal partnership.

    MUSN is a university chartered by the state of Montana whose support is based on enrolment. With one of the lowest population densities in the United States, reaching students has always been a challenge to the state university system in Montana. MSUN, as an extension of the main campus located in Bozeman, is an embodiment of earlier efforts to address this challenge. Dr Ellis, as Vice Chancellor of Students, is responsible for enrolment levels, among other things, at MSUN. With 23 years of experience in distance learning, Dr Ellis saw distance education as a solution to MSUN's declining rolls.

    Northnet increases MSUN enrolment in a number of ways. First of all, it offers accredited university courses to college age students unable to commute to a MSU campus. It also offers university instruction to adults as well as wide range of continuing education courses including Teacher and Volunteer Firefighter Certification. High school students can even get a head start on their college education by taking advanced placement courses through Northnet.

    A vital element to MSUN's efforts to increase enrolment through the Northnet's video conferencing network is the availability of studio space in distant communities. Enter K-12 schools. K-12 schools in Northeastern Montana are faced with declining student rolls, a potential loss of accreditation and school consolidation. The potential loss of accreditation is due to K-12 school's difficulty in attracting the right mix of teachers to cover all the subject areas well enough to meet state accreditation standards. Subject area expertise is dispersed unevenly through the participating school systems leaving the many schools without adequate subject coverage.

    To solve this problem, two groups of K-12 schools created consortiums to participate in Northnet. Unlike public schools districts in the state of Montana, these consortiums are not governed by Montana's Office of Public Instruction. These consortiums are ruled through by-laws drafted specifically to regulate participation in Northnet. Each school belongs to a "pod" that includes 13 other schools. Pod size is determined in part by the network's switching capacity. For US$8 000 annually each school can choose instruction from the 13 other schools in their pod plus access to classes in other pods on a pay-per-view basis. Essentially, the network creates an efficient market for classes between participating K-12 schools. In this way, each school can choose the best instruction available in each subject regardless of geographic location. These K-12 schools are happy to donate evening studio time for MSUN's University and adult education offerings in return for solving their daytime accreditation problems.

    Northnet not only solves the accreditation problem but also slows the trend of school consolidation. Heretofore, there's been nothing to stop school consolidation in rural areas like Northeastern Montana. School consolidation is widely considered by school administrators to be the fastest and least expensive way for school systems to reduce budgets and protect accreditation. Unfortunately, school consolidation can reduce instruction quality. Generally speaking, student teacher ratios and student commute times to schools increase with consolidation. Furthermore, studies have shown that smaller schools benefit students from poor communities significantly without a corresponding significant decrease in educational achievement for wealthier students.

    Students, however, are not the only people who suffer when a small town loses a public school. Scott Adams, General Manager of Vision Net, says that small towns "dry up when they lose their high school." This is a major concern of the co-ops who own Vision Net. If the communities these co-ops serve decline, then they too will "dry up." Northnet offers co-ops a way to conserve and build educational resources within their communities, thereby stemming community outmigration.

    Community preservation is just one aspect of the co-ops' business case for Vision Net. The co-ops also get a large customer in the bargain - Northnet. As Vision Net's largest, long-term customer, Northnet helps to cover Vision Net's baseline expenses over an extended period. Vision Net also allows the co-ops to expand their economies of scale and scope. As a cost sharing effort to provide broadband service previously unavailable in their respective service areas, Vision Net enables the co-ops to offer their customers a wider range of services at greater profit margins than they could acting independently.

    Through this unique, loosely governed partnership, each participant receives a benefit absolutely vital to their continued growth or survival. The network allows MSUN to build its student rolls, K-12 schools to protect their accreditation, and co-ops offer more services and grow their revenue base. And more recently, five Indian reservation schools will be joining the system. The extremely high level of interdependence bodes well for the continued success of the partnership and makes complex legal governance unnecessary.

    Other key innovations

    The key technical and pedagogical innovations are related. The class studios were designed from scratch with pedagogical goals in mind. This is very unique. Most video educational networks use "off-the-shelf" equipment that allows relatively little customization. The Northnet team examined the systems of large video conferencing equipment makers and concluded that it wouldn't meet their pedagogical goals. Contrary to the assumptions of many equipment makers and educators, Northnet saw a distance education network as more than a method of delivering instruction across distance. They believed that the medium, with the proper design, offered a more dynamic and powerful learning environment than standard classroom instruction.

    Given the inadequacies of the existing equipment, the philosophy and pedagogical goals of the Northnet team, and the technical resources at their disposal, Northnet decided to collaborate with a local engineering firm to design, assemble, and write the software for the in-class studio systems. The result was a totally customized push-to-talk system that allows chairmanship control from any of the 14 studios in a pod. This means that during a session each student can ask the instructor a question, everyone can hear the question and answer, and that what is seen on every monitor can be changed from every studio. Furthermore, each monitor simultaneously displays a video feed and presentation software that allows instructors and students real-time manipulation of the presentation data.

    The regulatory innovation was important to the financial feasibility of Northnet. Northnet initially approach US West, one of the "Baby Bells," to price out fibre links. US West used tariffed pricing that guaranteed cost-recovery - US West was unwilling to assume any risk. The co-ops, on the other hand, were willing to form a separate entity to manage the network and offer unregulated pricing. This pricing put a self-sustaining distance education network within reach, but it required the co-ops to accept some risk and jointly form a corporation to do so - no small feat.

    The key economic innovation also ensures financial feasibility. A potentially lethal pitfall of distance education networks is the practice of contracting network services for short terms. There is a tendency in competitive telecommunications markets to avoid lengthy telecommunications contracts with the expectation that prices will fall. While it is generally true that prices have fallen and continue to fall, this practice doesn't allow for long-term economic modelling necessary when multiple players must share and budget for network costs over extended periods.

    Northnet took a contrarian approach to pricing. They signed a network service agreement with Vision Net locking in a flat, per hour haul rate for ten years. The contract serves as an economic starting point that all players can organize around. It allows Northnet to price services to the K-12 schools at self-sustaining levels for the long term, the K-12 schools to establish relatively stable budgets around Northnet's pricing, and Vision Net to cover a large part of their operating costs. This arrangement offers unprecedented organizational and economic stability for each player and the entire partnership. The benefit of this long term stability in the form of continued educational services, busi-ness expansion for the co-ops through Vision Net, increased MSUN student rolls and investment protection for the entire system far outway the savings that Northnet may have realized with short term contracts.

    Principles for partnering

    Northnet relies on its partners for success. Although the below do not represent a comprehensive list of rules for partnering, they are the important lessons that can be drawn from Northnet's experience. Although many of these are ideals, they can be used to evaluate a potential partner.

    Seek partners institutionally predisposed to cooperation. Telephone co-ops make ideal partners. The reason for their existence is a community's will to cooperate. Furthermore, because co-ops are owned by customers, governed by democratic principles, and chartered to serve the community, they are usually willing to hear any proposal that will benefit their community. They also are in the habit of cooperating without outside entities, particularly other cooperatives.

    Seek partners with something vital to offer and gain. The strength of the Northnet partnership is partly due to each partner being able to receive at least one benefit absolutely vital to continued growth or survival and to give one or more partners the same thing in return. There is an extremely high level of interdependence. The more vital, long-term benefits that can be exchanged between partners, the greater the stability of the partnership.

    Seek partners with a willingness to change. Though it may be hard to gauge, willingness to change is a necessary attribute for a partner. Partners will need to change their normal ways of doing business to accommodate the partnership. In Northnet's case, MSUN widened the scope of the project to make it successful, the co-ops jointly formed a new company to participate, and the K-12 school chartered by-laws to govern their participation. In each partner's case, participation meant a major evolution in mind-set and organizational structure.

    Seek partners with something unique to offer. Northnet is relatively free of turf wars, in part because each partner offers something that the other partners can't. Consequently, there is no temptation for partners to make competing contributions. The lack of capability overlap fosters role clarity. In the face of capability overlap, other means of governing roles must be found.

    Seek partners that can balance the motivations of solvency and public service. Public institutions tend to be focused on public service rather than solvency. This characteristic of public institutions challenges distance education networks with public partners. Northnet is unusual because each partner is concerned with both solvency and public service, but realized that solvency is means to an end and not an end in itself. Northnet keeps in mind the end of offering long term, self-sustaining educational services to the public. Therefore, profit motivated organizations or fiscally irresponsible public institutions may not make ideal partners.

    Seek partners with a long-term stake who are willing to institutionalize participation. Northnet's partners are rooted in their communities and provide benefits likely to be valued in the long-term. Furthermore, because each partner has formed a new organization to participate in the partnership, participation is institutionalized and doesn't rely on key individuals for survival. Outside consultants and corporations, wealthy individuals, or government agencies staffed by political appointees should be scrutinized as partners from this perspective.


    The efforts of Dr Ellis and Mr Whittemore of MSUN Northnet have shown that dedicated leaders are as important as dedicated partners. Dedication has a three-part meaning in the case of Dr Ellis and Mr Whittemore. First of all, Northnet is their job. They see Northnet as the primary means to achieve what their employers expect of them. The complexity of their system demands full-time attention and they are able to give it. Furthermore, they are dedicated because the project is a logical expression of their career aspirations. This is what they can and want to do with their lives.

    They also exemplify dedication in their ruthless pursuit of excellence. Dr Ellis, with over 23 years of experience in distance learning, saw Northnet as an opportunity to build a model system. At each juncture and in every dimension, his team sought out the very best means to achieve their goals. This meant that they took the time to question assumptions, conduct independent research, and come to their own conclusions about how to build a distance learning network. The Northnet team avoided tempting shortcuts and paced themselves for success.

    The ability to question assumptions, research, and come to independent conclusions is the mark of intellectual leadership and is another key factor in Northnet's success. Dr Ellis approached the project with the same rigor, thirst for knowledge, and zeal for clarity that a good academic brings to any research project. At the same time, he didn't approach his partners as an academic. He approached them as a business partner and he communicated to them as any good businessperson should. His proposals were short, clear, and emphasized benefits to partners.

    As noted, partnerships should avoid relying on a few key individuals for survival. Interestingly, Dr Ellis' and Mr Whittemore's personal attributes of patience, vision, dedication to excellence, enthusiasm, and sense of mission have made dedicated leaders of many individuals across the partnership. Mr Adams, manager of Vision Net, exemplifies this phenomenon. He embodies the esprit de corp that originates from the Northnet team. He feels that he is part of a mission of great significance for his community and himself and therefore feels a remarkable a sense of personal ownership in the success of the network. In this regard, the Northnet team passes the ultimate leadership test - they've made leaders of others.

    Prospects for duplicating Northnet

    Northnet depends on the availability of inexpensive fibre links, a flexible regulatory system, unique technology, technical expertise, interdependent and cooperative partners, skilled leadership, and fairly large start-up investment. It is unlikely that a network like Northnet can be duplicated in developing countries in the near future. Developed countries, including the United States, have trouble enough fostering self-sustaining distance education networks. Many who attempt such networks can't surmount the cost of broadband transport. And some only surmount the cost for a short period. As we have seen, the requirements for success are many, financing the transport isn't enough. It is just the minimum requirement.

    Northnet is unique. Uniqueness is Northnet's primary lesson. Northnet took advantage of unique local resources and combined them in an innovative way. To some extent, local organizers must ignore the details of Northnet's success. They should avoid wholesale borrowing of any model. However, they should consider Northnet's methods. This means that local organizers should consider their own unique circumstances and design their knowledge systems to make use of the resident technical, social, financial and regulatory infrastructure available. And like Northnet, they must combine these resources in an innovative way. This means that the choices of technology, organizational structure, and means of financing should depend on local circumstances. A rural knowledge system in Nigeria should not resemble one in Montana. Organizers should also consider Northnet's effective partnering and leadership methods.

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