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Broadband internet takes education to another level

Tomorrow’s workforce may appear very different from today’s due to an expected increase in the number of science, technology, engineering
and math jobs. And the market for jobs requiring more education than a high school diploma but less than a college degree is also expected to grow.

But with the opportunities a changing workforce represents, challenges also appear. Fast broadband internet services, however, can help by providing rural communities access to the educational tools to make those career paths a reality.

A report by NTCA–The Rural Broad-band Association found that improved access to broadband internet allows communities to better provide critical training. Many small, rural communications providers offer fiber-based broadband services that can support distance education, and many also work closely with educators and industry to develop opportunities for students to acquire STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — and middle-skills jobs.

Students like Nathaniel Treadaway develop skills that increase economic opportunities in rural areas through work-training programs, apprenticeships and classroom instruction. Treadaway grew up in Kuttawa, Kentucky, with aspirations to teach music. But after studying music education at the University of Kentucky for a short time, he quit. “I decided the teaching field wasn’t for me,” he says. So he started working at a bank.

He soon realized the need to combine technology and his job, and he decided to go back to college. He enrolled at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah to pursue an internet technology degree. He got an internship at a major Paducah corporation that provides customer network support, and now he works there full time while continuing his education online. He expects to graduate this year.

At 29, Treadaway is part of a growing number of students attending college while continuing to work. “This is a rural area, and I’m thankful we have these opportunities,” he says. “It’s vital for those of us who want to stay here.”

West Kentucky Community and Technical College continues to address the problem of young people across rural America leaving for the bigger cities. “In the past, some of the younger generation felt like they had to leave the area to make a good living and raise their families, but they’re itching to come back,” says David Heflin, vice president of academic affairs at the college. “We want to find employment that can provide that opportunity for them. We can’t allow the ‘brain drain’ to continue taking our kids from this area. We have to provide opportunities so they have a reason to stay.”

DISTANCE LEARNING

Broadband internet leads the way in the industrial revolution, and it’s a driving force in education and jobs. Not only does broadband impact technology in jobs, but also manufacturing plants often rely on high-tech tools such as robots and cobots, which are computer-guided devices that assist a person. Partnerships among industry and educators are a growing trend to ensure that schools are offering courses that meet the requirements for these and other jobs.

Using technology to partner with other high schools and postsecondary institutions, high school administrators can create programs that help students prepare for guided postsecondary education, according to the report. Partnerships with other area institutions can help students prepare for regional job markets.

For rural community colleges, distance education plays a big role. Often, there’s not enough enrollment to support a local classroom, and online classes can fill a gap. It’s a growing trend. At Collin College in Texas — with locations in Frisco, McKinney and Plano — online classes now account for about 40% of the enrollment.

When Glenn Grimes, a Collin College professor of computer science, first started teaching 17 years ago, all the classes were face to face. “Back then, people didn’t have the bandwidth necessary to drive the audio and video needed to do online classes,” he says. Students now have the ability to pick and choose topics they wish to study from campuses all over the world. “It’s a huge benefit for students,” Grimes says. “It gives them so many more options.”

Rural broadband providers are playing vital roles, leveraging their networks and working closely with local educational institutions, the NTCA report states. Rainbow Communications of Hiawatha, Kansas, provides fiber connectivity to Highland Community College, the oldest college in the state.

The network allows the school to offer numerous courses at various sites. Career and technical education courses at HCC include building trades and medical coding. The college also supports the agricultural industry through such courses as precision agriculture and diesel mechanics, areas of study which are necessary as farms increasingly rely on precision agriculture that blends traditional mechanical equipment with analytical tech and GPS-guided systems.

In Brainerd, Minnesota, Consolidated Telecommunications Co. works with Bridges Career Academies & Workplace Connection, which brings together high schools, local colleges and businesses to provide career guidance and training. The effort focuses on building local career opportunities.

NexTech in Lenora, Kansas, works with local charitable foundations and public utilities to support high school and college internships. Students earn at least $10 per hour and are offered technical and nontechnical career experiences in areas like agriculture, economic development, automobile restoration, medical services, computer technology, art, banking, legal and others.

Broadband and its impact on education

  • Youth who live in areas with broadband are found to have earned higher scores on college entrance exams such as the SAT or ACT.
  • More than 70% of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association members can provide 25 Mbps and higher broadband to their customers.
  • A 2005 study found no significant difference between the writing skills of on-campus and off-campus students utilizing distance learning.
  • Distance education can help address the lack of specialization possible in small, rural schools that can’t provide as broad a range of courses as larger schools because of affordability or demand.
  • Distance education can also assist in early college attendance for high schoolers, particularly in rural areas that lack resources to support the increased expenses of college.
  • Broadband-enabled distance education allows all eligible students who have access to broadband to participate.
  • Distance education can also provide flexibility for working students and accommodate ongoing family obligations.

Source: Rural Broadband and the Next Generation of American Jobs, a report of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association.

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