Montana's outback goes on-line

  • Robert Flaherty directs MSU's Virtual Medical Center

    Florence Williams

Note: this article in one of several feature stories in a special issue about the West's land grant universities and their extension programs.

A midwife in Wolf Point needs to know the latest practice for treating pregnant women with allergies.

A Native American high school senior in Cut Bank wants to know what a laser is.

A math teacher in Havre wants to earn a master's degree.

A farmer in Ekalaka finds a strange insect on his fallow wheat field and wants to know what it is.

These Montanans could call an extension agent, who would then call a chain of university experts, who might or might not know how to help. Or, in the case of the math teacher, she would have to travel to the nearest degree-offering program, hundreds of miles away. Lately, however, the state's vast distances have shrunk; fast help is now just an 800 phone number away.

Montana residents who have access to a basic computer and modem have abbreviated the distance between them and information. As the third-least-populated state in the nation (only 800,000 residents spread out over 145,000 square miles), Montana needs telecommunications. Thanks to huge grants from the Department of Health and Human Services, NASA, the National Science Foundation, US West and other private and public sources, Montana State University is administering cutting-edge outreach programs on-line.

Bozeman physician Robert Flaherty quit his practice three years ago to found and run the Virtual Medical Center, housed in MSU's health education center. The network enables previously isolated rural health care workers to access medical libraries and databases, consult up-to-date case histories and chat with experts about symptoms or treatments.

Being "wired" to the center has dramatically changed the way nurse midwife Jude Kurokawa does business. She lives and works in Wolf Point, 100 miles from the North Dakota border and 350 miles from the nearest major medical center. When two pregnant women showed up with unusual insect bites last summer, Kurokawa had already been briefed. "I'd seen this (electronic) posting about a rise in aggressive house spiders, and so I knew just how to treat the problem ... it's been an invaluable tool." About founder Flaherty, she says: "He's a visionary, and he has the patience of Job."

Flaherty, a jolly, bearded man, says he had no idea how popular the network would become. Funded in part by the U.S. Public Health Service, Merck Pharmaceuticals and the Digital Equipment Corp., the center receives about 100 "hits' or calls per day, and has served over 2,800 people. It has been so successful that Arkansas, Idaho and Washington have funded 800 numbers so their rural health care workers can dial in. Medics in Canada, Mexico, Sweden and the U.K. also log on via the Internet.

Native American high school students have benefited from the university's creative approach toward electronic extension. In a cooperative partnership, IBM donates a dozen laptop computers for every dozen the university purchases. Every student who successfully completes a free six-week math and science summer session in Bozeman gets to take a laptop home to the reservation.

The students, who are considered bright but troubled, must log on to a special network called AIRONET three times a week in order to introduce the technology to family and friends. On the network, they discuss everything from chaos theory to last night's basketball scores. The idea is to keep them engaged, stimulated and connected to each other, as well as to the broader Internet and World Wide Web, says program director Terry Driscoll.

According to student Averi Loring, a 17-year-old Blackfeet girl from Cut Bank, it works: "I average at least a couple hours a week talking to my friends from (the program). I will continue to benefit from (it) because I was able to see what college life would be like, gain knowledge about science, and experience what it is like to be around people that have high expectations for you."

The Montana State-based AIRONET also serves the seven rural tribal colleges in the state. Students can take courses on-line, work on projects with university professors, scan job listings and access data bases at Montana State's library such as abstracts, journal articles and the card catalog. Library books can then be borrowed through interlibrary loan.

The highest administrative costs for these programs are the 800 numbers, but without them, free on-line communication in most of Montana would not be possible. Internet providers do not serve the state's rural areas, and even if they did, many counties still have party lines.

In fact, the state's limited communication infrastructure is the only thing holding MSU back from bigger and better electronic outreach. A case in point is an innovative "electronic field guide" for controlling pests and weeds, now under development in the university's College of Agriculture. Although the field guide currently provides basic computer users with adequate information on chemicals, crop rotations and planting strategies, it falls short of its potential.

"We'd really like to include graphics of individual insects and weeds on-line," says Will Lanier, an insect diagnostician at Montana State. "The Web is by far the easiest place to put that, but the number of rural ag producers hooked up to the Web is low." In Glasgow, Mont., for example, a farmer is 350 miles away from the nearest Web provider. Continues Lanier: "It's a big logistical challenge. We're just waiting for the infrastructure to catch up."

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