Colorado’s regional collaboration efforts to increase statewide access to broadband internet have been touted in comparison to other states looking to solve this issue.

The completion of the 481-mile rural Project Thor broadband network in April is a momentous step toward meeting the increased demand for better access and affordability, as well as reliability, but this project does not yet serve home users. 

While the logistics of expanding the Project Thor network to serve educational and healthcare institutions, public safety and internet service providers is underway, the needs of unserved and underserved residents continue to go unmet. 

Tonya Drake

Currently, broadband access is not available to all families in the state. Even if broadband access is available, internet services can prove to be too expensive for many families, averaging around $100 a month throughout Colorado. Lack of connectivity has a very real impact on economic well-being.

Before the economic fallout of COVID-19, about 75% of Colorado jobs required some form of education beyond high school. Based on the Great Recession, we can expect that people with a postsecondary credential are more likely to see their earnings bounce back. Education can help people reskill and re-enter the workforce, and affordable, online education is one way to quickly do so. 

Social distancing, though, has changed almost everything. It’s accelerated our use of and reliance on technology to connect us in a time when the majority of our daily activities have shifted to online interactions.

Individuals who were already disadvantaged are struggling to access schoolwork, job listings, unemployment benefit applications and telemedicine. Without strong, reliable broadband, working and going to school from home isn’t an option.

Even though many of us are comfortable shopping, banking and communicating through our phones and computers, completing education online can seem like an uncomfortable leap for some.

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But many learners are discovering that advances in technology have helped higher education do a better job of personalizing learning to individual students. It’s also helping them complete their degree programs faster and more efficiently. 

As anyone who’s sat in a college classroom can tell you, the basics of higher education have remained more or less the same for decades. Online learning has a way of cutting through what can seem like a vast tangle of out-of-date requirements. 

While going to college online is often just as rigorous and challenging as attending a more traditional school, students earning a degree online don’t face the same kinds of time and space restrictions.

For example, a competency-based education (CBE) model measures a student’s ability rather than time spent in a classroom and allows students to draw on knowledge and skills they have gained from previous experience and education.

Instead of waiting on the end of a term or semester, students can complete courses as soon as they’ve shown that they have mastered the material.  Technology makes this streamlined style of learning possible for working adults.

With round-the-clock access to online learning, students have the flexibility to learn at their own pace whenever and wherever it works for them. 

Furthermore, local, regional and national leaders must work together to ensure broadband infrastructure is built to support online learning for individuals from both rural and urban communities.

As infrastructure advances in Colorado, the state will see a positive impact to its workforce as more residents are able to leverage online education, gain work-ready credentials and contribute in more ways to the local economy.

One Microsoft study found, for example, that counties with the highest unemployment also have the lowest broadband usage – the same can be said of the reverse. 

I commend the commitment from the band of local governments and partners from 14 rural communities in establishing a network to bring accessible, affordable and reliable broadband to rural communities across northwest Colorado. 

Now more than ever the vital need for broadband for hospitals, health care providers, schools, local governments, public safety and businesses is paramount.

As these efforts continue to progress and reach more of our most vulnerable populations, I hope to see more states learn from Colorado’s success and its unwavering commitment to equity and the importance of providing broadband access to all. 

Dr. Tonya Drake is WGU Regional Vice President Northwest and WGU Washington Chancellor.

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Tonya Drake

Special to The Colorado Sun