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Volume 3, Issue 3
March 2011

MSU Leads $12 Million Statewide Project to Expand Broadband Services, Access and Education

Computer Fluency Skills Necessary for Michigan Workforce to Participate in New Information Economy

Dr. Kurt DeMaagd, Assistant Professor in MSU's Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media, is in the midst of a three year plan that involves 300 partners and the technical and logistical skills to install 3,000 computers. The project is designed to increase the availability of public computer centers, expand broadband access in the centers, and provide technology education for Michigan citizens.

Photograph for MSU Leads $12 Million Statewide Project to Expand Broadband Services, Access and Education

According to DeMaagd, increasing citizens' confidence in technology will contribute to a more skilled workforce that is better equipped to meet the entrepreneurial demands of the information economy.

"We need to do a better job of familiarizing people with computers and computer capabilities. Some need to begin with the fundamentals of learning how to install and care for a computer, how to use email, or locate driving directions. Eventually, users gain enough knowledge to tackle online education and workforce development skills," said DeMaagd. "But it all starts with making sure Michigan citizens have access to computers and broadband capabilities."

Funded by three federal grants totaling more than $12 million, DeMaagd works with officials in the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), documenting information and progress. The grants were awarded by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Computer Centers, Broadband Access and Training

The first grant provided funding for installation of computers in 88 existing public library computers centers, as well as for the establishment of new centers providing broadband access in 15 underserved Michigan counties in primarily rural areas. Michigan libraries play a key role in providing computer access to their patrons, including the unemployed.

The second grant increased broadband coverage and created more public computer centers in additional rural Michigan areas, as well as some in urban areas. Ultimately, 76 out of 83 Michigan counties were covered by the funding.

The third grant provides tools and training for broadband use for residents in distressed urban areas included in the State of Michigan's Cities of Promise Initiative: Detroit; Flint; Highland Park; Pontiac; Saginaw; Benton Harbor; Hamtramck; Muskegon Heights; as well as Lansing; Jackson; and Muskegon.

"Approximately 80 percent of Michigan households have a computer, and anywhere from 30 to 60 percent have broadband adoption. More affluent areas are at that 60 percent range, while areas like Detroit are near 30 percent. People need access to the technology, and then they need education and training so they can become familiar with tools and skills that make them marketable," said DeMaagd.

DeMaagd points out that the work being done addresses both financial and education challenges in the information economy. "There is an ever-widening gap. Some sectors of the population can't afford computers or broadband services. And then there are others that don't see the value of computers or the necessary competency skills. What they need to recognize is that more and more services are online, not just for employability purposes, but to navigate everyday life."

Computer Fluency in the New Information Economy

The Detroit Digital Justice Coalition (DDJC), one of the partners in the project, emphasizes collaborative efforts to train youth and adults in digital media arts and to increase the online presence of local small businesses and community organizations. There are 13 centers in the Detroit/Hamtramck/Highland Park network, with populations ranging from youth to seniors, as well as members of special interest organizations, like environmental justice.

"It is a grassroots effort to boost our economic infrastructure," said Jenny Lee, co-director of Allied Media Projects, a non-profit member of the DDJC. We need to train people in the types of online capabilities and services that our community is asking for. Requests for digital media trainings and services come from small businesses, non-profits, and local education institutions. The number of requests are growing and we need people who can perform work in e-commerce, sound or animation, graphic arts, digital video, or e-books. We also need people who can train others in these skills. Once people acquire these skills we need to make sure the people who want to hire them can find them. To accomplish this we are building an online clearinghouse for the graduates of our digital media trainings. Finally, by bringing these concepts and skills into schools via teacher professional development, we begin a process that can prepare our area's young people to be leaders in a new information economy. Our hope is that this makes it possible for more young people to choose to build their lives in Michigan and apply their creativity towards our post-auto industry future."

Another partner is the YMCA of Marquette County, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. DeMaagd and MSU students installed computers at the Lake Superior Village Youth and Family Center and provided basic computer care and maintenance instruction for staff members. Karen Kasprzak, the center's director, estimates that an average of 30 students per day utilize the computers and Internet access to complete homework, check grades, email teachers, and research assignments. "They can rely on the computer center availability after school. Not only are they finishing their school work, they are exploring online and learning about other potential educational opportunities, such as Photoshop or PowerPoint," she said.

Dr. DeMaagd has a long list of collaborators in addition to the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition and the YMCA of Marquette, among them: the Library of Michigan, now housed in the Michigan Department of Education; the adult education unit at the Department of Energy, Labor & Economic Growth; Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget; Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center; Lansing Community College; Jackson Community College; and Lansing's Information Technology Empowerment Center, and 274 libraries and centers.

Dr. DeMaagd's ambitious timeline keeps him and his MSU students busy with all the components necessary to accomplish such a complex project.

"The phone rings constantly, and you don't even want to know about my email," he said.

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement