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Internet and computer access are challenges of teaching tech in rural areas

Foresthill got access in 2005, some communities still without
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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With an ever-increasing amount of services being made available online, access to fast and reliable Internet service is drawing a dividing line between those who have access and those who do not in the Auburn-area. A strong broadband connection can now mean the difference between life-saving medical monitoring in real-time and access to supplemental educational videos, according to Brent Smith, CEO of the Sierra Economic Development Corporation. Because of its varying terrain and more remote location, Foresthill is one local area that was without broadband Internet access until 2005. Darren Belles, who teaches Tech Essentials and Spanish at Foresthill High School, was selected by the Auburn Rotary Club as the Teacher of the Year. He said teaching technology in a rural area is rewarding, but has its share of challenges. While Sebastian Corp now provides broadband access in almost all of Foresthill, many of his students are still using a slower dial-up connection or don’t have Internet access at all. “Foresthill and Colfax have the greater percentage of kids that don’t have a computer. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality,” Belles said. “They might have a computer, but they might not have high-speed Internet. You can’t watch a YouTube video on dial-up.” Belles has over 260 videos on his website that he has created with supplemental lessons for his Spanish students, but said he can’t integrate videos like that into homework, or assign homework that would require high-speed Internet access. While Sebastian Corp provides high-speed internet service to the school and the vast majority of Foresthill, Belle said for some families, access it is still out of reach because they can’t afford it. “I would imagine it would be the cost,” Belles said. In addition to having high-speed Internet, the high school has Wi-Fi in its library and core building. Sue Lunsford, principal of Foresthill High School said the school is planning for the Wi-Fi to extend to the entire campus eventually. Belles said with an increasing amount of colleges integrating technology into their curriculum, learning more advanced technological skills is important for students. Despite some of the constraints of teaching in a rural area, Belles said there are benefits, too. “It’s easy to know just about everyone. I can say ‘hi’ to the vast majority of students,” Belles said. Sean McMaster, a junior at Foresthill High School, was working on creating a high-quality brochure during the Tech Essentials class Tuesday morning. Fellow junior Christopher Mader was making a video to highlight the school’s Music Lab class. McMaster said he runs into challenges with the speed of the Internet access at times. “Sometimes it can be really slow,” McMaster said. “Sometimes I have trouble with saving or downloading things.” Lunsford said part of the reason she nominated Belles for the Teacher of the Year award was based on the way he implemented technology in the classroom. She said when he wasn’t able to make a presentation to the parents of incoming freshman he made a video that captured it all. “It was very obvious to anybody watching it that he is very good with applying technology and with using the video to communicate that with parents,” Lunsford said. “Seeing how he used the video to speak on camera, while showing them the computer screen, was very powerful for parents to see.” While technology has enhanced learning at the high school, access to high-speed Internet wasn’t always an option for Foresthill residents. Robyn Husmann, customer service manager for Sebastian Corp and a Foresthill resident, said bringing broadband Internet to Foresthill was a challenge because of its remote location. The company was able to use the copper wiring in place from the phone company it purchased, but had to go beyond that to provide access. “There was no infrastructure for high-speed Internet at all,” Husmann said. “There were a lot of labor and additional materials that needed to be added.” She said not having high-speed Internet was a barrier for her personally. “We had dial up prior to that and it was to the point that it was getting so bogged down it was difficult to even get email at that point for me personally. I was getting so frustrated that I stopped checking my email,” Husmann said. “I wanted to go back to school and I couldn’t do that because of the connection.” Husmann said Internet service through Sebastian Corp starts at $29.95 a month at a speed of 1.5 megabytes per second and can go up to 20 megabytes per second. Cost rises with connection speed. While Foresthill has access now, there are many rural areas near Auburn that still don’t have the option to access broadband Internet service, Smith said. Broadband consortium aims to expand rural broadband access The Sierra Economic Development Corporation held the first meeting of its Gold Country Broadband Consortium last month. He said about 80 people attended the meeting with a goal of expanding broadband access into areas that currently don’t have any Internet access first and eventually for those that only have dial-up. Part of the consortium’s goal is to create a map of the bright line, the boundary between where there is service and where there isn’t, he said. Smith said he can’t identify those areas until the mapping is completed, but said he remembered there were some residents from the Foresthill area that attended the meeting and said they are still not served by broadband. Smith said having access to broadband is just one factor that keeps people from having high-speed Internet. Others include earning a lower income and not having computer hardware that is current. In addition to identifying areas of need, the Sierra Economic Development Corporation is getting commitments from residents who say they will sign up for the service if it is offered and attempting to find Internet service providers for the rural areas. To supplement the cost, it is offering small business loans and connecting service providers with financial partners. He said for businesses and residents of rural areas, having broadband access is one key to economic development. “The number of possibilities with these broadband connections is increasing exponentially,” Smith said. “That is our challenge. That is our motive.” Reach Sara Seyydin at saras@goldcountrymedia.com, or follow her on Twitter @AJ_News.