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Growing Educational Tech in Rural Michigan

High tech careers are expanding rapidly, growing at nearly twice the rate of other industries. Education in the tech sector, however, has not kept pace; research through the New Jersey Institute of Technology predicts there will be 1,000,000 unfilled positions in U.S. computer science jobs by the year 2020. In an effort to prepare future generations for high-powered, highly-paid tech careers, President Obama enacted the ConnectED initiative in 2013. The program outlines a plan for connecting 99% of students with new tech in the next five years.

Schools throughout Michigan have also recognized the growing need for technological development. Schools in Emmet, Charlevoix, Gladwin, and Clare counties have recently added new devices for their students and faculty to use. Usage in each school varies, with some students using individual devices and others shared between schools, grades, and classrooms.

Use of iPads, mini-iPads, and Chromebooks has brought new levels of engagement to classic lessons. “The interactivity is certainly more engaging than a static textbook,” said Rick Diebold, superintendent of the Charlevoix-Emmet Intermediate School District. In a traditional textbook, where a student might read a blurb about a chemical reaction or historical battlefield, they can now click on a link and see the experiment or tour the location in real time. Students are creating pictures, videos, blogs, and more, building experience with tasks they will be expected to know later in college and in their careers. With access to individual devices, students can learn and create independently; however, the increased connective demands are creating other obstacles.

Two districts in the Clare-Gladwin Regional Education Service District (RESD) upgraded their wireless networks in 2010 to support modern Internet capabilities.

“The 2012-2013 school year was the first year to use the new infrastructure, and it was already outdated,” said Ken Chinavare, technology director for the Clare-Gladwin RESD. Wireless arrays had to be moved, reconfigured, or added to improve coverage, straining the schools’ tech budgets. “Wireless tech right now is the single most expensive thing we pay for every year,” said Chinavare.

Connections at home are also a challenge. Connect Michigan’s coverage map reveals that wide reaches of Emmet and Gladwin counties are covered by a single provider or cannot get access at all.

“We have a lot of rural areas, and we don’t have blanket high-speed access,” said superintendent Diebold. “There are some areas that don’t have it, and other families can’t afford it.”

More affordable devices like Google’s Chromebook run a gauntlet of programs through the Internet but have very little capability without a connection. Without reliable Internet, students miss out on valuable tutorials, videos, chat sessions, and other tools.

Eminent tech powerhouses such as Adobe, Apple, Microsoft, and others have stepped in to help mitigate surrounding barriers to digital access and use, pledging a total of $2 billion to support ConnectED. AT&T has pledged $100 million in broadband service, device management, and maintenance to help qualifying schools integrate successfully. Connected Nation has been selected to administer the application process over three phases this summer, fall, and spring. The first phase deadline is July 1.