About Bernadine Joselyn

Bernadine Joselyn is Director of Public Policy & Engagement at the Blandin Foundation. Based in Grand Rapids, MN, Blandin Foundation is a private independent foundation whose mission is to strengthen rural Minnesota communities, especially Grand Rapids.

Congrats Senator Schmit: Push for broadband exemplifies “Legislator of Distinction”

Bernadine_InCommonsWe want to offer a big congratulations to Senator Matt Schmit, who has recently been recognized as a “Legislator of Distinction” by the League of Minnesota Cities for his work promoting the expansion of broadband Internet connectivity to rural areas that lack access and, specifically, for introducing legislation that created a fund to promote investment in new broadband infrastructure throughout the state. Senator Schmit was one of 12 senators to receive the award.

I have had the pleasure of working with Senator Schmit closely since he joined the Blandin’s Broadband Strategy Board more than a year ago. He came to us like a house on fire to get something done. “We’re tired of talk; it’s time for action,” he’s fond of saying. And act he did. He worked tirelessly on the legislation to promote the broadband development fund.

In the dead of winter last year, he toured the state to talk to communities about their need and used the stories to help create a solution, in the form of the broadband bill. We also worked closely with the Senator on the February Broadband Conference. He did a great job encouraging his colleagues to join us and helping them understand the importance of investing in broadband.

His determination continues. Just this summer he toured Minnesota communities to give them a heads up on the broadband fund. And I suspect when the time comes, he will be helping to gather the resulting stories of broadband expansion in the state and bring them back to his fellow legislators to consider future investment.

MIRC gets recognition from NTIA for Supporting Workforce Preparation Across the United States

Bernadine_InCommonsThe Blandin Foundation has been involved in broadband initiatives since 2003 but in 2010 our involvement took a new turn that helped us bring broadband expansion to a new level with MIRC (Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities), which received almost $5 million from the NTIA to work with 11 communities to create local broadband adoption programs. Because our plan was so grassroots oriented we didn’t have a roadmap – instead we had a list of strong partners at the table to create that roadmap. It was exciting and hopeful and a little scary. It was a leap of faith on everyone’s part and we are so thankful for the partners we gathered and the enthusiasm and wisdom they brought to the table.

We had reason to reflect again on the MIRC project recently when the NTIA released a report that feature an extensive look at the MIRC project. Here’s an excerpt from the press release…

The third case study [8] released today examines the C.K. Blandin Foundation [9], a private foundation that serves rural Minnesota, especially its home area in Grand Rapids. Foundation officials realized early that broadband access was a key enabling factor in promoting and preserving rural communities, and applied for a BTOP grant to carry out a multifaceted program called “Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities.” Using a model adapted from the Intelligent Community Forum [10], 11 local communities and nine partners assessed their own broadband needs and engaged a wide spectrum of community members in planning how to meet those needs. Additionally, since broadband adoption was the focus of this grant, C.K. Blandin staff engaged other partners with expertise in economic development, health care and social services. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development developed a user-driven, scenario-based curriculum for digital literacy, funded by the foundation, which was delivered in 30 work force centers throughout the state and translated in to Spanish and Somali. The project increased broadband subscriptions in rural areas by more than 56,000 households and helped revitalize participating rural communities.  As one local business owner commented, “We’ve turned a corner and become a community that’s actually growing and thriving instead of stagnant and dying.”

We are proud of the work we created collectively – the increase in adoption, increase in job, increase in skills – but we’re most proud of the connections that have been made in the local communities – the roadmaps that we’ve made together continue to be modified and used in the MIRC communities and in new communities through the Blandin Broadband Communities initiative. Broadband is expanding in the state as we build better networks online and off.

Showcase your innovation to American and Russian leaders – St Paul March 25-26

Bernadine JoselynThanks to the vision and leadership of Mark Ritchie, Minnesota’s Secretary of State, March 25-26 will be an opportunity to showcase innovation in your community before a high level audience of American and Russian leaders.  Here is his announcement with an invitation to participate with a booth or exhibit to inform others about organizations, companies, products, and ideas making a positive difference in your communities.

Conference organizers have selected the Fond du Lac reservation — one of nine communities participating in Blandin Foundation’s Community Broadband Program — to be featured on one of the “tours” described below.  Tour participants will hear about the Band’s innovative application of cutting-edge information management and decision-support tools to natural resource management and about youth engagement through technology in the economic life of the Reservation.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Dear Friends of the Minnesota World’s Fair,

An important step on our path to the Minnesota World’s Fair is taking place this March in St. Paul.

We have been asked by the US State Department, our partners in the bid for the 2023 World’s Fair, to host the next meeting of the official US Russia Innovation Working Group – a high-level dialogue created by President Obama and President Medvedev in 2009, designed to foster innovation through greater collaboration.

Thanks to the generosity of a number of companies, foundations, and research institutes we will be hosting a public conference alongside the official Innovation Working Group on March 25-26, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Click here to register

This US Russia Innovation Conference will bring together companies, universities, non-profits and research institutes, government agencies, and civic organizations to share best practices, review existing collaborations, and to explore new ways to strengthen US-Russian relations through mutually beneficial trade, investment, research and commercialization.

We already have delegations confirmed from the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Washington, led by Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and from Russia’s most innovative regions including Tartarstan, Tomsk, Ryazan, Kaluga, Ulyanovsk, Krasnoyarsk, Mordovia, Lipetsk, Sverdlovsk, and Novosibirsk. Many of these delegations will be led by Governors and will include representatives of leading companies, universities and research institutes looking for partners in innovation.

We expect this conference to sell-out, so please sign-up today if you are interested. Let us know if you would like to have a booth or exhibit to inform others about your own company, organizations, products, and ideas. Also, be sure to sign-up for one of the company tours and site visits being offered on the 26th. Finally, if your company or organization would like to be a sponsor of this event or related US Russia Innovation activities that will be occurring throughout the week, please contact me.


Mark Ritchie, Secretary of State, Minnesota


Blandin Foundation named a FTTH Top 100

Bernadine_InCommonsWe are honored to be named one of Broadband Communities Magazine’s Fiber to the Home Top 100. We are so pleased to be listed with many esteemed colleagues who also strive for “Building a Fiber-Connected World.”

Here is what they said about the Blandin Foundation…

Blandin Foundation www.blandinfoundation.org 877-882-2257

Key Products: Grant making, community leadership development and public policy programs

Summary: A private foundation based in Grand Rapids, Minn., the Blandin Foundation has been dedicated since 1941 to strengthening rural Minnesota communities. Its Broadband Initiative, launched in 2003, helps communities educate citizens about the need for ultra-high-speed broadband and plan and execute broadband projects. The foundation has published informational guides, sponsored conferences and educational events and supported many feasibility studies for the development of robust, high-speed broadband networks. It has supported implementation of broadband applications in schools, health care facilities and other institutions and for home-based users and has promoted broadband adoption in rural communities. In 2012, the foundation selected nine rural Minnesota communities for intensive, two-year partnerships to advance local broadband initiatives. It also led the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) coalition – a group of educational, job training and economic development organizations – in a BTOP-funded program to enhance broadband adoption and use by small businesses, unemployed residents and local governments. Completed in 2012, the MIRC program introduced more than 250,000 rural Minnesotans to online resources to find jobs, continue their educations and strengthen their businesses.

I’ll take this opportunity to add some of the most significant outcomes of the work that we’ve been able to track so far:

  • Data examining broadband subscription levels during the three years of MIRC’s implementation suggest that broadband adoption growth in participating communities grew close to 15% faster than in the rest of rural Minnesota.
  • Those communities that reported the highest rates of participation [in MIRC activities] also experienced the highest rates of broadband subscription growth.
  • Such evidence allows us to conclude that community-based broadband literacy and market development efforts can and do make a difference.
  • According to the University of Minnesota/Crookston’s MIRC project evaluator, “it is not hard to connect the MIRC project as a major contributor to Minnesota’s leading position [nationally] in rural broadband adoption.”
  • And, in the words of a MIRC partner in Thief River Falls, “MIRC is a life changing project for many individuals in the nine communities.”

MIRC community results show higher than average rural broadband adoption

Bernadine JoselynThis week the Daily Yonder’s series on broadband focuses on adoption in rural areas. They point out the rural adoption rates are not catching up with urban cohorts…

Rates of residential broadband adoption have grown considerably between 2003 and 2010.  Overall adoption rates have more than tripled from around 20% in 2003 to over 65% in 2010.  Interestingly, the overall “digital divide” between rural and urban households (technically designated as metro vs. nonmetro below) has remained consistent over this period at around 13 percentage points.

This is disheartening and diving into their statistics paints and even gloomier picture because the numbers confirm that households that could possibly benefit the most from broadband are least likely to have it. Older folks, folks with lower incomes and folks with less education are the least likely to have adopted broadband.

The good news is that the Blandin Foundation has had success working with communities in rural area to increase broadband adoption with the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) project. Over 18 months, the we worked with 11 Demonstration Communities (DCs) to increase broadband adoption. The MIRC final report outlines the adoption improvements…

Over the 18 months under comparison, all of the DCs grew their rate of broadband adoption at an average rate of 12%, compared with a rural Minnesota statewide average of 10.3% for the same period. In both 2010 and 2012, all of the DCs scored well in broadband compared with national rates of adoption in comparable rural areas. Average penetration in the DCs in 2012 was 67.1%, however, which was still 5% below the rural statewide average of 70.6%.

A more recent report by Robert Bell notes that broadband adoption is just one area where MIRC communities saw improvement…

Over the 18‐month period, the Demonstration Communities posted a 9.4% average improvement in their scores, ranging from a high of 16% to a low of 4% positive change.

Robert Bell worked with the communities to measure their “Intelligence” based on the Intelligent Community Forum criteria. The scores refer to above and are based on rating in the following categories. It takes adoption a step further and move communities up a later to greater vitality overall.

average change

Regular readers will recognize the MIRC story but I thought it might be helpful to borrow from the final report to outline some of the lessons the MIRC communities learned in the process in the hope that it might help close the rural-urban gap…

Communities know best.

Involve citizens directly in articulating their community’s broadband adoption and utilization goals to catalyze the long-term engagement needed to increase adoption.

Local leadership matters.

Help local broadband champions get and use skills to frame issues, build and sustain relationships, and mobilize people to build a community’s capacity to achieve its broadband goals. Train community leaders to use participatory facilitation skills. Effective meeting facilitation can make a big difference in keeping folks coming back to the planning and implementation table.

Broadband is not an end in itself.

Broadband is a means to the bigger picture of increased economic vitality and improved quality of life.

Outreach works.

Change follows relationship lines. Effective recruitment strategies for technologically-challenged small businesses and for historically marginalized populations are intra-community, hyper-local, high-touch, and personalized.

Peers make great teachers.

Peer-based learning formats that encourage local businesses to share practices, questions, and experiments are a popular, low-cost, and easily sustainable tool to build a community’s technological savvy.

Cross-community communication is key.

Signage, local media support, and online social media are effective, low-cost ways to spur and sustain energy and excitement for community projects.

Engage tomorrow’s leaders today.

Recognize and authentically engage the talents of young people. This next generation of leaders brings energy and sustainability to any community initiative. Youth can serve as co-trainers, technology mentors, and partners in computer refurbishment projects. They can also use their video and other social media skills to promote their communities.

Connect the economic dots.

Framing broadband use as a necessary ingredient in the whole-picture approach to community vitality can help communities see and leverage the connection between technology and benefits to community life. This framework can also help community leaders see how workforce, infrastructure, inclusivity, innovation, and marketing/advocacy are mutually interdependent aspects of community vitality.

Have patience.

The work takes time. Look for and celebrate early and easy wins along the way, but think about the long term and build capacity and energy for the long haul. Money and other resources follow vision and commitment.

Blandin Broadband Communities Launch

BBC group picLast week the Blandin Broadband Communities (BBCs) met for a two-day kick off meeting in Grand Rapids. It was pretty exciting to have so many community leaders from across Minnesota with a shared passion for broadband.

Each community has a different set of assets, challenges and goals – but we saw a lot of overlap too.

All of the communities had uneven access to broadband; for most that meant decent to good access in town and slower speeds on the outskirts. Almost every community had one sector that was doing well with broadband – often the school, health care or local government. And everyone had residents on the far side of the digital divide.

We heard from potential statewide partners who had tools to help each community close the gaps or build up strengths. We heard from past MIRC (Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities) leaders about what worked and what didn’t in their communities. To a person each commented that people and passion really drove success.

My favorite part of the retreat was hearing from each community about what in their community makes them proud. I wanted to share this list – partially as an introduction to the new BBCs but also to encourage other communities to start their broadband plans my thinking about their strengths and how broadband can make them stronger!

BBC MapFond du Lac Band of Ojibwe

  • Strong cultural identity
  • Self-determination
  • Economic success
  • Strong family connections
  • Innovative

Itasca County

  • Outdoor beauty and activities
  • Growing arts and culture
  • Positive leaders and involved community
  • Young professionals returning
  • Higher ed opportunities

Kanabec County

  • Strong sense of cultural heritage
  • Strong values
  • Classic series: ski, bike, canoe and run Access to quality health care
  • Numerous outdoor recreational opportunities

Lac qui Parle Valley

  • Strong sense of community
  • Shared forward thinking leadership
  • Good basic infrastructure to succeed
  • Diverse local partner
  •  Family-centered

Lake County

  • Fiber network
  • Bucket list destination place
  • Beautiful natural resources
  • Recreation
  • Good schools

Lake of the Woods County

  • People
  • Diverse economy
  • Education – great schools
  • Health care – new hospital, clinic, lab all integrated MBO

Mille Lacs County

  • Working together
  • ARMER/Technology Updates
  • Opportunity for Growth
  • Community Involvement
  • Education readiness

Southwest Minnesota

  • Cooperation
  • Renewable energy
  • Great economy
  • Available fiber
  • Strong farm economy

MIRC Partner Recognized: Carlos Espinoza

Carlos Espinoza is the assistant city planner with the City of Winona. He was instrumental in much of the MIRC (Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities) activity that happened in Winona. At the 2011 Broadband Conference, Carlos spoke about their efforts to add public wireless hot spots around Winona in popular areas such as the public park, Lake Winona and the city campground.  He also spoke about Project FINE; a project we have mentioned before that provides digital literacy training to new residents, many who are also new Americans. Carlos also worked on Winona’s website to attract new residents to the area to fill the open jobs.

carlosI was pleased to learn a little more about Carlos in a recent volume of the CURA Reporter. CURA (Center for Urban and Regional Affairs) strives to encourage University-Community engagement. Carlos was recently recognized for his work as a Krusell fellow. The article describes the special fellowships…

the program makes academic work more meaningful, enables fellows to be more purposeful in designing their academic program, teaches practical skills, and builds relationships and networks with professionals in the field.

Most of Carlos’ work for CURA centered around, unsurprisingly, urban work. He worked with City of New Hope Community Development Department, Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services (DBNHS), and Model Cities, a community-development corporation in St. Paul. But it sounds like the lessons he learned easily transferred to his more current, more rural setting in Winona. We know he helped make MIRC a greater success in his community…

I credit the Krusell fellowship with helping me gain the professional experience instrumental in being hired by the City of Winona immediately after graduating from the Master’s of Urban and Regional Planning program. Perhaps more importantly, the Krusell fellowship opened my eyes to the tremendous difference that community-development activities can have on people’s lives. Overall, the Krusell fellowship professional experiences allowed me to “get close to the action” and understand that when you work for a community development department or organization, your daily work has a direct and beneficial impact on local people and places.

A special thanks to Gary Evans

Bernadine JoselynEarlier this year our friend Gary Evan announced his phased “retirement” from Hiawatha Broadband Communications. We are hoping that phased approach is also measured. Although we know that Dan Pecarina will make a fine replacement, we are very aware of the work that Gary has done not just for HBC but on behalf of the telecommunications industry for more than 15 years.

Gary Evans has been on the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board since its inception many years ago. His expertise in the field has been helpful in understanding practical broadband access issues, but even more helpful is his ability to frame the importance of the work in terms of economic development and community vitality in rural areas. In 2008, HBC was awarded the Blandin Minnesota Broadband Community Award. Below is a video taken at the conference where the award was presented. Gary outlines the mission of HBC to help rural America with connectivity – and expresses his belief that connectivity is the “real key to vibrant and growing small towns.”

Gary credits success at HBC to excellent customer service and a strong local programming component. We’d like to add a visionary leader to that list. I don’t want to say that Gary is the rare businessman who blends financial acumen with a concern for the community – but he certainly exemplifies those qualities to the benefit of rural Minnesota. He has testified to the State and US legislative committees, promoting the need for policies that support better broadband in rural areas. In 2011, Gary was recognized as a “thought leader” in  the network revolution. His comments offer a glimpse of what it is like inside HBC. He says, “We expect more and we pay more.” He also spoke about hiring for attitude, not aptitude. In 2012, Gary secured a place from Minnesota at the federal broadband application table by becoming an Ignite partner, an initiative to promote US leadership in developing applications and services for ultra-fast broadband and software-defined networks.

Gary has set the stage for continued success and HBC reports that he will remain on as a senior consultant. We hope that phased retirement will allow him more time to set bigger stages – we know Gary has an interest in the theater and Shakespeare in particular. We hope for Gary a retirement not like King Lear’s but that he has time to find simple lessons and pleasures away from industry…

Our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. (William Shakespeare, As You Like It)

Tekne Award: A good time to look back at MIRC

Last Thursday night, the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities MIRC team received the Innovative Collaboration of the Year award from the Minnesota High Tech Association. Some of us celebrated at the glamorous event in downtown Minneapolis, but we knew that we were standing on the shoulders of partners across the state as, by definition, winning an award for collaboration is not something you do alone.

The MIRC project was launched  in May 2010 when Blandin Foundation  convened the many partners for the first time to get to know each other, to assess symbiotic needs and assets and to define success for the project.

The folks at NTIA who administered our grant as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) have been keenly interested in broadband subscription numbers and rates and in job creation.  Against these indicators we can report that we have “overfilled the plan.”  Jack Geller’s project assessment team at UofM Crookston has documented a total of 56,222 new broadband subscriptions attributable to MIRC work – comfortably ahead of the initial goal of 38,000.  Jack’s team further documented that the adoption rate is 29.8 percent faster in MIRC partner communities when compared to the rest of rural Minnesota. And, to top it off, the assessment suggests that Minnesota’s lead in rural adoption rates nationally is directly attributable to MIRC.

But over the long-run, perhaps the most important result of our work together will be the relationships we’ve forged.  So far these relationships have given rise to many many wonderful community impacts no one ever foresaw or even knew to hope for.  YOU have made it so.

Today I want to take time and space to recognize and thank our partners by sharing some of my favorite, fun stories of the difference this work is making. You can get a more complete list of projects – today I’m just sharing the tip of the iceberg!

Benton County Enables People with Disabilities to Get Online

Benton County has been successful with a number of programs that improve the standard of living for seniors – allowing them to connect with loved ones online either as they age in place or move to assisted living. Developing a program called BRAVE (Broadband, Resources and Vocational Education), the local assisted living center purchased computer equipment to create a computer center that includes assistive technology such as rubber, indestructible keyboards, large style keyboards and roller ball and joystick style mice for easier computer navigation.  It has been an opportunity to bypass barriers to getting online.

Cook County is Going Hollywood

Tourism is 70% of the local economy in Cook County with over 1,000,000 visitors annually. So it made sense to focus some of their programming on improving their online presence. Cook County improved mobile access to key tourism sites; they also made a big push to increase efforts to post local videos online with WTIP’s Videos from the Edge, which include great videos of the area, local events and local government activity.

Grand Rapids Website Wins Award

The Tekne wasn’t our only MIRC award. We were pleased to announce last February (2012) that Itasca Community Television earned the prestigious Pegasus Awards of Excellence for its website. The site features local video that helps keep citizens informed and engaged.

Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Create Computer Literacy Program

Fun to see what’s happening  with Leech Lake on local news program.  Hats off to Janice Gale for her inspiring leadership of the Temporary Employment Program’s tremendous strides in integrating digital literacy into tribal employment services:

Public Computers for Vets in Stevens County

Sheldon Giesse, Mayor of Morris and veteran, talks about how computers and wifi in American Legion are bringing two generations of veterans closer.

Thief River Falls Partners with Providers to Make Access Affordable

One of the stated goals in National Broadband Plan and Minnesota Task Force recommendations has been to encourage public-private partnership. Thief River Falls is working with local broadband provider (Sjoberg Cable) to make broadband accessible to low income homes.

Computer Commuter tours Upper Minnesota Valley Region

Lac qui Parle is the home to the Computer Commuter, a souped up mobile computer lab. In the video below, patrons talk about why the visit the site when it rolls into their town.

What 8 Computers Can Mean to Somali Community in Willmar

We visited the Somali Women’s Center last year – amazing to hear the work being done to welcome to immigrants, including computer training and connecting back home thanks to the MIRC-sponsored computer lab.

Remote Interpreter Training in Windom

Windom has seen an influx of non-native English speaking residents. It has spurred some serendipitous business opportunities, which are currently in development through remote access to certified interpreter training made available through the University of Minnesota via teleconferencing equipment in the local Community Education location.

Digital Literacy Brings Cultures Together in Winona

Winona has become a hub for New Americans. Many are welcomed to the community by Project FINE. Folks from the Hispanic and Hmong communities take classes either separately in their native language or together in an English-language class. While Project FINE works extensively with these groups, the computer/internet classes have been the first ones with great interaction between the two communities. It’s been a great way for folks to connect with friends back home while they make new friends in their new home.

iPads in the Schools in Worthington

The Worthington schools acquired wireless access and 40 iPads. IPads are distributed across the various school buildings. The Alternative Learning Center is the leading user. There are not enough to go around! The new wireless access also provides great flexibility for students and teachers.

PCs for People

PCs for People refurbishes computers to distribute to low income households. Through the MIRC project they have been able to redistribute more than 1500 computers to rural MIRC communities. They have also been able to partner with some communities to set up franchise-type local PCs for People outlets.

eBusiness Training Gets More Local Businesses Online

The University of Minnesota Extension and MNREM  (Minnesota Renewable Energy Marketplace) presented business training to more than 1600 businesses. Extension focused on classroom training.

MNREM focused on local Social Media Breakfasts and Webinars. Below is an interesting video on what happens when demand outpaces supply – as happened at one MNREM event. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXpA2GkZIvg

Digital Literacy Training

We also reached around 1000 individuals with training Knowledge Training classes and online digital inclusion through DEED (Department of Employment and Economic Development) and Minnesota Learning Commons.

Finally we were fortune to work with 11 Regional Development Commissions across the state. They were instrumental in helping to spread the word about various local activities and built partnerships locally getting people connected with resources they needed.

This is a generous list, but I promise you it’s only a partial one.  And many seeds planted have yet to bear fruit.

So you can see that many many hands and hearts and spirits have contributed to the impressive impacts we were recognized for with the Tekne Award.    I love our team!  My hats off to each of you.

Minnesota Schools Create Positive Outcomes from Technology

Sometimes at the Blandin Foundation we feel like gardeners. We sow seeds, we nourish projects and we wait to see what grows. It’s been fun to watch the Itasca Area Schools Collaborative (IASC) flourish especially as they receive attention (Minnesota Public Radio and Cisco website) for their success.

As Cisco reports…

Dr Michael Johnson believes that one should “never waste a good crisis.” In recent years the provost of Itasca Community College (ICC) has faced more than his share: beginning in 2005, declining enrolments in northeastern Minnesota dealt a serious blow to institutions of higher learning, as well as local elementary and secondary schools. As a result, colleges and schools funded by the state based on student population found their budgets stretched beyond the breaking point.

But Johnson and his colleagues in administration have turned obstacles into triumph: as part of the Itasca Area Schools Collaborative (IASC), the college now works in close partnership with a consortium of seven rural Minnesota K-12 school districts to share resources and provide the highest quality education possible for their students. Supported by a robust networking infrastructure, standardized systems and innovative technology tools, IASC members are ensuring that geography and distance no longer limit academic opportunity.

Blandin is pleased to have played a supporting role in the transformation. We invested $50,000 in MIRC funds through the Lightspeed grant program and $750,000 in regular grant funding to build two “immersive telepresence classrooms” in the IASC districts and related training.  (Subsequent funding includes $1.76 million in federal dollars, $1.76 investment from vendor partners and district investments of approximately $1.5 million.)

While Cisco gets into some of the details of how it happened, Minnesota Public Radio details the fruits of IASC’s labor…

Teachers are using telepresence classrooms for Spanish and Ojibwe, but next year, the district will offer 17 courses in them, ranging from literature and writing, to business, mass marketing and calculus.

School officials say the uses go beyond academic courses. The technology also will allow students to talk to people anywhere in the world, and take virtual field trips to places like NASA and the Smithsonian Museums.

[School Superintendent Matt] Grose said modern distance learning technology levels the playing field for school districts that are remote and sparsely populated. It allows them to hire specialized teachers and share the costs.

“Our kids in Deer River are going to have opportunities to take higher level courses that we can’t offer here, or at least that we don’t have the enrollment to justify a teacher for,” he said. “All of the sudden you can justify running that course and you have kids that are getting access to things that are rigorous and relevant. And we think that’s important.”

It appears that only a very small handful of K-12 schools and college campuses in Minnesota are using the newest generation of interactive technology.

We are pleased to see hard work and investment reap such benefits. We wanted to share an added perspective from IASC Technology Services Director Lora Mathison…

“This golden thread of connectivity allows classroom students to take trigonometry, dislocated workers to be retooled, agencies to offer state-of-the-art trainings for staff and business meetings to be scheduled without drive time.  The expansion to the community is only in infant stages… the expanded opportunities  for students, families, staff, community, businesses, medical institutions, non-profits and others will only be limited by creativity.  The future promises to bring new ways to utilize the telepresence classrooms that have not even been thought of yet.”

“As exciting and successful as this project has been for IASC and the region, it is just a glimpse of what may follow.  Fundamental changes in public education are on the horizon and innovative technology solutions such as telepresence will be able to offer transitional support.”

And while we’re celebrating Grand Rapids Area’s efforts around education, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune on the Strive Partnership…

Known as the Strive Partnership, the program follows this strategy: Identify specific goals, come up with a common way to measure those goals, and do so by using a rigorous set of data that can be shared with everyone. Each community sets its own priorities for improving education for students “from cradle to career.”

The Deer River School District is using the approach for an effort called Itasca Area Student Success Initiative.

Creating curriculum to help Minnesotans get online

The Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) project brings together Rural Development Commissions, 11 local demonstration communities and statewide partners in an effort to help Minnesota residents, businesses and schools to make good use of broadband. The project is about to celebrate a first birthday.

We are using a comprehensive framework based on the Intelligent Community Forum strategy that focuses on: broadband, digital inclusion, knowledge workers, marketing/advocacy and innovation. Within this framework each community is funding local projects to meet the local needs while statewide partners have been creating tools, such as digital inclusion curriculum, to support the local efforts. Collectively we’ve created tools to meet residents wherever they are on the digital literacy spectrum.

Digital Inclusion

Statewide project partners, PCs for People have been busy refurbishing recycled computers for folks who have never had a computer in their home. Last quarter they gave out a record-breaking 809 computers to proud owners across the state. (About 300 of those computers went to homes in MIRC communities.) Some new computer owners have taken to the computers easily, some have kids to help guide them, but for folks who need a little hand holding, the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) has created computer classes.

DEED began by using standards developed by the Digital Literacy Center to help determine what digital literacy skills they should strive to teach; they have developed online courses that start at the beginning (see video). They have a series of scenario-based learner-driven training modules that follows our hero Olivia as she strives to gain computer skills required to get a job and conquer other life challenges as they arise. These courses will soon be available through area Workforce Centers, community colleges, libraries and other locations. (As you watch the video you may notice the slow pacing to accommodate low English and literacy levels.)

Knowledge Workers

The Minnesota Learning Commons picks up the baton from DEED with their Knowledge Workers curriculum, which includes training in career planning, entrepreneurship, research, networking, problem solving, critical thinking and innovation. The courses are computer-based but will be presented in a classroom setting so that students have a supportive environment to build skills to take future online courses. The goal is to develop a workforce that has modern technology skills required to support the 21st century company so that Minnesota communities can compete with global counterparts for attracting businesses to the area. The courses are available through the local community colleges.


Along with training residents, MIRC also supports local businesses with ecommerce and ebusiness training. The University of Minnesota Extension offers a range of classes from Doing Business Online to Using Social Media in Business. (Some classes are offered with Spanish interpreters.) In four months, they have conducted 66 workshops in 18 communities, contacting 597 businesses and more than 1,000 individuals. As local reporter, Dave Peters points out, “This is the flip side of the federal stimulus money.” Much of the stimulus funding has gone to infrastructure. The MIRC project focuses on usage and adoption. In this context, teaching local businesses how to use broadband to grow.

The Minnesota Renewable Energy Marketplace (MNREM) has also been working this local businesses – especially renewable energy businesses and businesses, such as manufacturers, who support renewable businesses. MNREM has hosted several webinars on ebusiness topics providing high level instruction to decision makers and business owners. MNREM will be working in local communities to get local ebusiness specialists to work with businesses to help them make better use of broadband.

We’re proud of the lessons we’re teaching and learning. Our hope and expectation is that the skills that beneficiaries gain through the training will outlive the project itself and that even the curriculum will live on to teach folks throughout Minnesota and beyond how to use a computer to learn, work and live. In some ways much of our work is done – then next phase is developing relationships to help spread the word and use of the tools we have created.

Minnesota BTOP project poised for action in 2011

In March, 2010, the Blandin Foundation and 19 project partners were awarded $4.7 million in BTOP funding for Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities or MIRC. The MIRC coalition brings a network of resources and support to rural Minnesota individuals and communities – especially those unemployed and seeking employment, small businesses, coalitions of government entities, and local leaders.

There are two types of MIRC partners. Project Partners provide services in Minnesota, such as PCs for People, a nonprofit organization that refurbishes used computers with the help of people transitioning off government assistance and passes them on to low income individuals and families who do not own computers.

Through grant funding Project Partners, PCs for People will be able to extend or expand their services – especially to rural areas.

Our other partners, the 11 Demonstration Communities, have each received $100,000 to spend on projects in their areas. Since the project began, these communities have been assessing their technology strengths and evaluating need. This Fall they issued RFPs in their local communities, seeking locally grown projects that expand broadband adoption. “Local answers to local issues” is an important aspect of MIRC success.

The Demo Communities received many more proposals than they were able to fund; so MIRC leaders worked with communities to help encourage collaboration and project refinement. We were pleased to learn at a recent MIRC convening that the Demo Communities have made tough decisions and projects have been selected in each community. Here are some examples:

Stevens County: included in their projects in an effort to put public computers and Wi-Fi hotspots in 5 communities in the county.

Benton County: one project puts computers in the homes of seniors and folks with disabilities helping them connect remotely to health care services, encouraging them to learn how to use computers and staying connected with loved ones.

More stories were shared at MIRC members meeting last week. We also learned about tools that MIRC leadership has been developing for use in and out of MIRC communities, such as the Broadband Toolkit, which compiles a wide range of links organized by sector to help partners in the field answer the question – “what could I do with all of that broadband?”

Our prediction – or at least our hope for 2011 is that people aren’t asking what you can do with broadband – but asking what did we ever do without it?

MIRC Community Projects are Selected

We’ve run into an exciting but daunting realization working with our ARRA-funded Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC). We may be the leaders in terms of broadband adoption programs in rural communities such as very small towns and remote areas as well as county seats. It’s daunting because we often feel as if we’re in unchartered waters – but it is exciting and it encourages us to share our story to help others replicate the success that we’re seeing already in our 11 Demonstration communities.

Each community is developing their own strategy based on the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) framework and using the arsenal of tools offered through MIRC partnership. For example, University of Minnesota Extension has been focused on Main Street use of broadband. PCs for People gives out computers to folks in need.

We’re hitting a milestone worth sharing this month. Through an RFP process our 11 Demonstration Communities have received terrific proposals from local organizations with ideas to increase broadband adoption in their area. The response was terrific – more ideas than communities were able to fund. So the communities worked with several of the proposers to encourage them to collaborate and refine their projects. In the end, the Demonstration communities are enthusiastic about the projects that they have been able to fund.

Communities are currently notifying award recipients of their decisions and the projects are just beginning. We are looking forward to being able to share this information as the recipients in each community are notified.

Foundations funding digital inclusion

The Blandin Foundation got a nice nod yesterday from the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF). John Jung wrote about The Art of Giving in Intelligent Communities. He explains that while the ICF framework does not specify the a role for philanthropy that there is a danger that without addressing the potential for an increasing digital divide, it is difficult to create a digital inclusion policy or practice and that is a potential role for foundation support…

As broadband is deployed widely through a community, there may be serious risk that it will worsen the exclusion of people who may already be disenfranchised or marginalized on the periphery of our economy and society. We encourage Intelligent Communities to promote digital inclusion through effective public policies and seeking funding that will provide access to all members of their society to all forms of technology, high-speed broadband and training.

Blandin has been involved with broadband for several years, so as you can imagine I was interested in Mr. Jung’s observations. One of the core values at Blandin is to be inclusive and to that end we have really been trying to be even more purposeful as we reach out to potentially marginalized communities with our ARRA-funding Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (yes, there is a connection between our project and Mr. Jung’s organization). At our recent conference we heard from folks in the field about how to address the broadband gap. We learned that access means putting technology in the right hands (even if that means remembering ADA requirements to make our web sites accessible) and teaching the right people to use it – and not only teaching information consumer skills, but also helping folks to tell their stories online.

Last summer I wrote about an article that also struck a chord for me – because it too recognized the role of foundation support of broadband. In it Ford Foundation President Luis Ubinas wrote…

“The effort to ensure universal access to high-speed Internet among all citizens is a critical next step to ensuring that America realizes its great aspiration of equal opportunity for all.”

One of our goals is to ensure that broadband is a tool that removes barriers, especially in rural areas – a tool that supports equitable access to economic development, citizen participation and improved quality of life.

Leadership Training at the Blandin Broadband Conference

Yesterday I attended leadership training for MIRC partners. There were two great sessions. We had almost 30 attendees. Our first trainer/facilitator was Nehrwr Abdul-Wahd and our focus was Effective Collaboration. Our second speaker was Robert Bell from the Intelligent Community Forum. I took notes that I thought would be helpful to BoB readers…

Effective Collaboration:

What are the elements of collaboration?

  • Equal partners
  • Shared risk/reward/resources
  • Create something new
  • Self motivated (not forced)
  • Greater good (put aside individual differences)

Identifying resources at our disposal:

It’s really easy to miss something you are not looking for. (e.g.: the moonwalking bear)

Community resources available:

  • People
  • Organizations
  • Informal and volunteer associations
  • Cultural resources
  • Natural resources
  • Infrastructure
  • Product and service exports

Of these, what kinds of resources are the hardest to identify and what can we do about it?

  • Getting businesses to the table and trying to figure out what they want. They are busy doing their business.
  • Finding a champion makes a big difference.
  • Critical links is an important concept. Ex: having representatives from the “target” community involved. Bear in mind that representatives from a given (say, minority) community can be a great link, but they also can be a wall.
  • It’s easy to come up with possible organizational partners. Harder categories to address include natural resources; product and service exports. Examples of possible partners in these groups: environmental education; remote sensing technologies.

Session with Robert Bell: Intelligent Community Indicators

Introduction to Intelligent Community Framework
We are interested in models that folks can learn from. We identified the five indicators of intelligent communities by studying best practices.

Broadband: Globalization is really connectivity. That is, globalization is made possible because of connectivity. Connectivity starts with broadband. Broadband is the new infrastructure. It’s as necessary as clean water in your community.

Workforce: Broadband is important because it empowers the knowledge workforce. This means everyone.

Innovation: Innovation is the engine of prosperity today. Communities need to be in the innovation game. Everyone, every community, can be, IF you have broadband.

Digital Inclusion: You need to work at this, or the digitally distant/digitally marginalized will become more so.

Marketing/Advocacy: Intelligent Communities tell their stories well.

This framework describes a virtuous cycle. The characteristics of intelligent community are the same. We are trying to get the engine to turn.

Key factors for success across the entire cycle:

  • Leadership (vision – not necessarily positional or elected)
    • Ask: who can “cast glory” on the project
  • Collaboration

What are your biggest challenges? (Answers from attendees.)

  • The pace of the exclusion that is about to take place. I see that the exclusion here is going to be brutal. If you are not able to do the digital stuff you are just doomed. You won’t be able to be a worker, to get a good job, to access services.
  • I think a lot of us have just coasted along… woe is us, we don’t have the resources, we are going to be stuck with dial up forever. Actually, our participation rates are similar to rural areas when we do have access. Farmers are businessmen, they need to be on line too. So it has been a kick in the pants for those of us in the public sector to realize that we can and need to roll up our sleeves and work to get this done. Just because you are small doesn’t mean that you are not smart.
  • We’re good on the innovation and broadband indicators. We are lacking in digital inclusion efforts and need to focus on addressing knowledge work force and advocacy/marketing. To address workforce we are partnering with University, foundations, industry, local technical college. The real challenge is in middle management.

Community colleges are unsung heroes of this work. Who your friends are is a key indicator of our success at adoption. One of the things I’ve seen work – get champions of the excluded communities to be your ambassadors. Digitally literal older folks talking to digitally uninitiated older folks.

How can we work more effectively with internet providers?

  • Sometimes incumbent providers have little incentive to invest and innovate. That’s just the way it is. The more effective question is: what are you going to do about it? There are a range of possible responses, from controversial to not controversial. Government can build its own communication network. If you do this, you change the conversation. Providers have just lost a big customer, and they know you know how to do what they do. Another community passed zoning regulations that required all new construction. Set up your own non-profit coops to offer your own telecommunication services.
  • What are some ways that other communities are talking about broadband without talking about broadband?

The most important thing to talk about is that it is about your children. Every community wants to be a place where you can raise your children and where their children can stay and find work. That’s a great starting place: do you want your community to be a place where 20 years from now it is still here, and still a great place to live? It’s absolutely about the people. Technology is the easy part.

  • It’s also about change. People are always resistant to change. A phrase: you may not like change, but you’ll like obsolescence even less. Change is going to happen whether we are on board or not. Intelligent Communities have decided to cease their own destiny, rather than let others decide.
  • Advocacy is a particular challenge. Talking about BB as the “new infrastructure,” especially with our elected officials, being of the generation they are, there is a disconnect in terms of their priorities for infrastructure. They tend to focus on roads, sewers, keeping the schools open. There are a lot of hard choices. What’s your best elevator speech for why this?
  • It is the past and the future. You do need septic system and the lights need to stay on. But with lights on and good roads, what have you really done for your community? You need to create the next growth opportunity. You are not going to do that by keeping the roads nice. It is about the future.
  • It’s not about broadband. It is about a quality of life issue. You almost have to make a personal connection with someone before they “get it.” There is a great opportunity for us to use the baby boomer generation to stay in their home longer… those applications.
  • We are not just promoting broadband… we need to be using broadband ourselves. What I am most excited about is learning from• There could be five different elevator speeches. You could lead with any of the innovators…. Innovation, broadband, workforce, etc. They all interconnect.

Which Intelligent Community indicator gets the most attention in your community?

  • In Benton County it is digital inclusion.
  • Access…. Because without access we can’t think about the other indicators. Thanks to ARRA funding we can now look at other indicators.
  • City of Windom: We’re getting most attention by focusing on knowledge work force and innovation aspects.
  • The projects we anticipate through RFP process will most likely focus on digital inclusion. But as an economic developer, we are leading with innovation. But all of the indicators are inter-connected and inter-related. It all moves forward together. But it makes sense to pick an indicator to be the focal point. With our college we are linking our college to our high school and middle school, using science clubs, for example. We’d like to link the elementary schools, middle schools and high schools to make science labs digital and linked up with one another and across the globe. To allow students to have interactions with the universities. That should help to develop the knowledge work force, and that will facilitate innovation.
  • When we bring in big companies, they usually have 2 questions: 1) where is the skilled work force coming from? and 2) we need access to a major university. I think broadband access is the backbone for addressing both questions.
  • In Worthington we are trying to get our elderly out of their homes, because we have housing shortages. We are building a lot of senior living environments to free up housing stock.
  • Yes – when we say “stay in their home,” we mean stay in the community. That’s where they want to stay.
  • The goal is keeping them as independent as possible.
  • Funding for assisted living is going to go away. You have to be careful in counting on that solution.
  • You need to create an environment to attract/retain workers who can in turn support seniors. Seniors often shop locally.

Are boomers an obstacle?

  • Yes!
  • They do have disproportionate wealth and power.

The advocacy box is in my mind where our charge is. Is that the role of RDCs? Am I right?

  • RDCs can focus within the advocacy role, but helping to match need with resources.
  • We’re seeing a focus on need to increase the number of government services through broadband.
  • We see big barriers for expanding e-government in our area because of the need to avoid violating open meeting laws.
  • Are there data that show what is “acceptable” and what is not “acceptable” broadband?
  • Don’t think of it as a number… ask the question, what do you need it for?
  • What’s fun about this project is that we are building tools that citizens can actually access.
  • Crow Wing County has cut 7 people in the Assessors’ office. They have been able to keep up with their workload because of their adoption of technology.