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Cerro Coso Uses Virtual Open Lab to
Deliver Online Instruction

Jim Kiggens

By taking a flexible approach toward curriculum, a community college can quickly respond to emerging employment needs. Local wish lists vary, of course. In California's Eastern Sierra Corridor, the demand is for digital animation and web design instruction and for delivery of these courses in a distance learning environment. What good, after all, is 21st century skill building if students can't get to the campus?

Cerro Coso Community College is addressing the region's needs with 12 associate degrees obtainable entirely online and over 250 distance learning courses per year. Since 2001, the college's Academy of Media Arts has offered online degrees in digital animation and web design.

With five on-ground instructional sites, Cerro Coso Community College serves a population base of over 85,000 in an 18,000-square-mile area of mountain, desert, and valley communities. The main campus, at Ridgecrest, is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Hollywood's entertainment industry. Cerro Coso's online campus has a larger enrollment than any of its on-ground sites.

Self-paced courses are not an option at Cerro Coso. Students must access their courses, interact with classmates and instructors, and complete assignments on a well-defined schedule.

“Even if classmates or instructors are located thousands of miles away, we don't want a student to feel isolated,” says Jim Kiggens, director of the Academy of Media Arts. But student isolation wasn't the only problem he faced as an online design instructor.

He needed a practical, cost-effective way to post a student's work for critiquing by other students in the class. He wanted to provide rapid feedback for students struggling with various software programs, such as Softimage XSI, Alias Maya, Adobe Photoshop, and Conitec 3D GameStudio.

The solution, Kiggens discovered last January, was a virtual open lab. He used Macromedia Breeze to create this dynamic teaching environment, and he marvels that “it has completely changed the way we teach online.”

Virtual Open Lab

The Breeze system includes several components that can be used together to deliver both live and on-demand web-based training and presentations. Breeze allows Kiggens and his colleagues to add narration, slides, and animation to PowerPoint and deliver this audiovisual material through any standard web browser.

Breeze Live, a component that extends the Breeze platform with collaborative features like screen sharing and application sharing, is the basis for the open lab or online study group Kiggens hosts seven evenings a week.

During these sessions, he answers questions and provides skills demonstrations for the various applications the class is learning to use. Students query through the chat window, and the instructor answers the questions via the desktop by going into the screen-share mode, firing up the software the student is asking about, and demonstrating the correct solution.

"The classroom environment created by Breeze bridges the gap between online learning and classroom learning. It truly creates a virtual classroom in your own home," said Brett Freese, a student who logged on from Raleigh, North Carolina. Since online digital animation degrees are still relatively unusual, Cerro Coso draws a number of students who live outside the California area and pay out-of-state tuition fees.

The Academy of Media Arts at Cerro Coso has 11 online faculty, all of whom create their own course materials using Breeze. The learning curve was 15 minutes for them and perhaps only a tad longer for instructors in other departments. One of Cerro Coso's math instructors, for instance, who had been using Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Macromedia Dreamweaver to prepare his web pages, found it easy to publish that material in Breeze.

After seeing a Breeze demonstration, the college's special services director realized that the product's interface would enable an interpreter to sign online lectures for hearing-impaired students. Since traveling to all five on-ground campuses is nearly impossible for a single interpreter, Breeze presents a practical alternative. An interpreter with a webcam can sign a course from anywhere in the world.

Anticipating the Marketplace

Flexibility is the watchword for Cerro Coso's online offerings. The college's initial state funding for online development came in 1996 in response to a shortage of feature film animators in Greater Los Angeles. Now, Kiggens says, that market is saturated, and Cerro Coso has switched its focus to game art.

Supporting this new direction are global forecasts from DFC Intelligence, a market research firm. DFC  is projecting worldwide market growth in video games and interactive entertainment from $23.2 billion in 2003 to $33.4 billion in 2008.

Cerro Coso uses Breeze Live for marketing webcasts, including a recent campaign to promote a new summer course for teachers, Game Design for eLearning (C230). This course will feature Breeze lectures, Breeze Live collaborative design workshops, and weekly Breeze Live study groups.

C230 will teach K-12 and higher education instructors from various disciplines how to develop game-based learning content. These early adopters probably represent about 1 percent of the nation's faculty, but Kiggens believes that will change. Game use in the classroom today, he says, is about where internet use in the classroom was in 1993.

As President George W. Bush observed in his 2004 State of the Union address, community colleges are ideal venues for workforce training of all kinds. Cerro Coso, with its current focus on game art career training, is an example of how that goal can be realized.

For more information about Cerro Coso's Virtual Open Lab, contact

Jim Kiggens, Director
Academy of Media Arts
Cerro Coso Community College
Ridgecrest, California
505 281-5324


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