Access to Online Education in Rural America: Bridging the Digital Divide

Concurrent Session 1

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Developing rigorous online experiences is futile if students cannot engage with them.  The lack of fast, dependable internet access is common among rural students. It also affects economic development by hampering employee training. To address this educational digital divide in rural Michigan, NMU created the Educational Access Network (EAN).


Dr. Steve VandenAvond has been NMU's Vice President for Extended Learning and Community Engagement since 2015. Steve has worked in adult and continuing education for more almost 20 years as a faculty member and administrator in both private/non-profit and public colleges and universities and has devoted his career to providing adult students with suitable access to higher education. Having received his doctorate in development psychology from Loyola University-Chicago, Steve's focus has been finding ways to not only create adult friendly academic programs and services, but to cultivate meaningful and engaging relationships with adult students, especially when they study at a distance. Dr. VandenAvond came to NMU from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay where he had been serving as the Associate Provost and Dean for Outreach and Adult Access since 2010. From 2000-2010 he was a faculty member and administrator at Silver Lake College and was a faculty member and the director of the psychology program at Michigan Technological University from 1997-2000 where he also co-founded and directed the Center for Educational Technology Research and Assessment.

Extended Abstract

Marquette, Michigan, home to Northern Michigan University, is located in the heart of the state’s Upper Peninsula, a rural geographical area larger than nine U.S. states. At the university’s border is Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. Surrounding the campus are magnificent forests, hills and some of the oldest rock formations on the globe. What did not surround the campus at one point was easy access to high-speed internet and, as a result, access to online educational offerings. The region’s sparse population, geographical isolation and rugged terrain are all reasons why large commercial internet vendors have not hurried to the area to provide internet service.

The lack of fast, dependable and affordable access to this critical 21st Century learning tool is a common challenge to colleges and students in rural America. It also affects local economic development by hampering business and industry in employee training. To address this issue in Michigan’s rural U.P., NMU created its Educational Access Network (EAN).

The EAN is comprised of two elements.  First, it involves a growing array of credit and non-credit online educational offerings.  Second, it involves NMU’s own LTE internet access service – called NMU LTE – that allows NMU students and partners throughout the U.P. to access these educational offerings. 

The EAN provides educational access to U.P. residents seeking educational experiences in four main areas:

  1. The EAN serves learners who need workforce training, but cannot travel to a campus or training facility to receive it.
  2. The EAN provides access to those interested in personal and professional development, especially if these educational experiences must be documented by a university.
  3. The EAN serves those interested in online degrees, certificates, or other credit-bearing educational credentials through Northern Michigan University’s Global Campus.
  4. The educational wireless broadband network provides educational access to K-12 students from partner school districts and college and university students throughout the Upper Peninsula, especially those that have limited or no access to high-speed internet service to complete their schoolwork. 

The EAN is designed to provide opportunities for professional and personal development, improve public health, and foster economic development as well as providing flexibility and access to rural degree-seeking students.  The educational broadband system of the EAN also provides a model solution to the ‘digital divide” problem in rural communities that has long been of state-wide and national concern.

The sharing of this resource with the Upper Peninsula is certainly helping the community. It is also benefitting the university in many ways. These include growth of the dual/concurrent student enrollment program and an enhanced concurrent student experience; growth in NMU’s Global Campus, which oversees all online degree programs; a larger role in area workforce development; and the potential for increased revenue from personal and professional development courses.

Northern Michigan University’s EAN is a model for 21st Century education delivery and distribution in rural America. Its strategy, goals, and results are being praised by government, community and school leaders, as well as U.P. families and students. It puts one of today’s most powerful learning tools in the hands of geographically and often times financially challenged students, and it levels the learning playing field.

The presentation will describe the local, regional, and national collaborations that were necessary to implement the EAN, the intended outcomes on rural communities, and the assessment plan for measuring its impact.  The changing landscape of higher and continuing education, the use of technology to gap the digital divide in rural communities, and the inherent obligation of colleges and universities to provide equal access will also be discussed.

This session is designed to allow participants to meet the following learning outcomes:  Participants will:  1) gain an appreciation for the importance of educational broadband for students across the lifespan; 2) recognize the extent of the digital divide between residents of rural communities and those who live in urban settings;3) understand the inherent responsibility of colleges and universities to provide equal access to all students; and 4.) understand the specific structures and processes needed to provide high-speed wireless educational broadband to rural communities.