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Colleges expand reach with broadband grants

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Charleston, S.C., residents gain digital skills at the public computer centers opened by Trident Technical College.

​Many of the world’s largest technology corporations are headquartered in California’s Silicon Valley. But just outside the area’s reach, many Californians live without broadband access. It’s not just affecting their ability to surf the internet; it’s also affecting their opportunities for employment and education.

In March, the Foundation for California Community Colleges (FCCC) launched California Connects, a three-year program funded by a $10.9 million Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant. The program provides digital training, access and resources to underserved populations. Students in math, engineering, science achievement (MESA) programs at 33 community colleges—many in the Central Valley—are getting hands-on digital literacy training and bringing that training into their homes and communities.

“Completing coursework at the college-level these days, and having access to internet and access to a computer is essential,” said Paul Lanning, FCCC’s president and CEO.

About 5,800 MESA students received laptops, equipped with Microsoft Office, and six months of home internet access. They’re getting trained in Microsoft applications and many have received Microsoft certification.

Paying it forward

As part of the program, students also become community trainers. Many are going back to their high schools to give those students the basic skills they may not receive in daily classes.

Expanding access, one college at a time

MESA students at rural Mendocino College wrote a computer program to help high school students prepare for the math portion of the college’s placement test. Those same students then brought their laptops to the high schools and taught the younger students how to use the program.

In addition, they take their laptops to tribal centers on rural reservations to help people do online job searches.

At the same time, the MESA students are turning their families on to technology just by having a computer and broadband access at home. It’s also turning more people on to college.

“The program is connecting the whole family and community to the college,” said Armando Rivera, MESA program director at East Los Angeles College.

Some of the students’ family members, in fact, have signed up for online classes. And the students themselves are “increasing their success possibilities,” added Rivera.

The goal of the program is to have at least 61,120 new, trained broadband users and 9,168 broadband adopters.

“It’s an opportunity to impact students and their families in communities at the local level,” Lanning said.

Changing communities

In many of the rural areas of South Carolina, there is no connection to broadband. In fact, only 39 percent of residents have broadband access. But most people have access to their local community and technical college.

The South Carolina Technical College System (SCTCS) is reaching deeper into communities with the Reach for Success project. The project leverages BTOP grant funds to bring high-speed Internet to those underserved regions. Computing centers, once only for students, also have been refurbished and opened to the public. Fifty-one centers have been expanded, and 19 new centers have opened across the state. About 37,400 residents have been served by the program.

Many of the people taking advantage of the centers are “older, poorer” residents, according to Bernie Straub, vice president of information technology at Trident Technical College. They’re interested in researching medical issues, filing for Social Security benefits online and seeing pictures of their grandchildren. The centers also see residents who are job hunting. Workshops at the centers are teaching them how to do all this.

Last quarter, more than 500 people in the area took advantage of the workshops in the Charleston area.

Straub said there was “pent-up demand” for broadband access in the area.

“The grant makers were wise and foretelling,” Straub said. “They suspected there was uncultivated demand in rural areas.”

For many residents, learning the benefits of high-speed Internet will push them to sign up for home broadband. Those who live far from the city will be able to work from home or take online classes.

The grant ends in January, but the computer centers will remain open to the public one additional year.

Going mobile

Public computer centers are a big part of the $6.6 million grant to the Missouri Department of Higher Education. The Pathways to Broadband Access and Technology Education project calls for 23 centers to open in the state.

“It’s 2011, but you would be surprised how many people don’t have access to a computer,” said Rich Prather, director of public computer center performance at Metropolitan Community College (MCC).

In greater Kansas City, where more than 16 percent of residents live in poverty, increasing educational attainment and technical skills is key to getting people into the workforce.

MCC has opened to the public four centers. Two more will open shortly. Local organizations, such as the Kansas City Housing Authority and Catholic Charities, are busing in groups to use the centers and to take workshops in everything from computer basics—how to turn on the computer and open documents—to Microsoft applications.

People studying for the GED are taking advantage of broadband access to use online study guides and practice tests. Students at the college who may never have learned how to create a spreadsheet or a PowerPoint presentation are able to get extra assistance for classes.

The next phase is to break out of the brick-and-mortar facilities and go mobile. MCC is working on equipping a vehicle with laptops and 4G Internet capability to take around to neighborhoods, churches, community centers and other areas where there’s need.

A by-product of the centers is that people are enrolling at MCC. Just getting people on campus to use the centers “removes the fear barrier,” said Carolyn Brown, MCC’s director of resource development.

At least 25,000 residents are being served by the project. Though the grant ends in 2013, the hope is that the project will be self-sustaining.

“There’s definitely a need out there,” Brown said.

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