X

Want to take a Self-Guided tour?




July 27, 2022

Rural broadband to Connect Rural Schools and Communities

The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch. The Broadband Bunch is sponsored by ETI Software.

Joe Coldebella:

Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Broadband Bunch. I’m Joe Coldebella and we are at the SRC Live. This event is hosted by the NTCA- The Rural Broadband Association. Joining me is the Executive Director for the National Rural Education Association, Allen Pratt. Allen, welcome to the Broadband Bunch.

Allen Pratt:

Hey, thanks for having me. This is a great opportunity to be at an event that I’ve never been to before and with folks I’ve not been around, but it’s really good to be with rural broadband providers. I think we’re brothers from another mother if that makes sense.

Joe Coldebella:

No, absolutely. The SRC Live event that these folks have put on, a lot of energy, and a lot of great conversations. I know that you were just on a panel and it was a really informative thing and it’s one of those things where you just watch the audience and everybody was listening to all of the folks on the stage. And that’s always gratifying that you know that what you’re saying is really connecting with people.

Allen Pratt:

Yeah, for me, this is great, because there’s no pressure for me because no one knows education in the audience. So I can be the expert in the room.

Joe Coldebella:

Yeah, well, but it’s also one of those things where, especially in small rural communities, education is one of the pillars, one of the most important things. Before we dive into the conversation, I would love it if you could give a little bit of background on yourself and then about your organization.

Allen Pratt:

So NREA’s been around since 1907. We were part of NEA originally and broke off from them in the ’80s. We’re a nonprofit 501(c)(3) located in Chattanooga, Tennessee. And we’re on the campus of the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. I’ve been on the job for six years. We represent all 50 states, 44 state affiliates, rural schools, rural colleges, rural students, and rural communities across the country. So if you’re listening and you’re in a rural community, probably a good chance we’ve had some impact or some connection to that community.

Joe Coldebella:

When I was first brought here from the NTCA, our conversation started that you guys connected with the NTCA for the pandemic. And I know that you guys did a joint letter. Could you talk about that in terms of how that relationship started and then just in terms of what you guys were trying to accomplish with that?

Allen Pratt:

Well, first Shirley is Unbelievable. She did the main outreach to me and when she first reached out, I was like, “Well, what is going on? I don’t know much about their work,” but it’s become a great relationship and there are some partnerships, but we just felt like at the time the letter was important to let people know rural communities have to be together, have to stick together. And if we don’t, no one’s going to help us. So we have to help each other.

Joe Coldebella:

I couldn’t agree more. It’s one of those things, especially now that having a unified voice, especially in Washington, is so critical because the world is in flux right now. And so you need that sort of unified voice.

Allen Pratt:

I would agree. Unified and nonpolitical.

Joe Coldebella:

Absolutely. I actually had a guest on earlier today and that was one of her main points too, is that we need to tackle the broadband problem as a nonpartisan issue because it affects everybody. And broadband is just going to be accelerating in the next 5, 10, 15 years, it’s going to be part of our lives. And we need to make sure that everyone moves forward in the cities, as well as in the rural communities.

Allen Pratt:

I would agree. And it’s not a big D or a big R beside anyone’s name, broadband, it’s poverty, it’s equity, it’s what we can do to the community. And broadband’s a vital part of how we help all in our communities.

Joe Coldebella:

I can’t echo those sentiments enough. If rural communities and rural schools are to excel, rural broadband is going to have to be part of the equation. Could you talk about the importance of it is for all levels?

Allen Pratt:

Well, every aspect of education changed at the pandemic level. We were obviously connected at the school level, but now we know it’s very important to have the home connected as well. And it’s an equitable issue, where some parents can’t afford it, or some households can’t afford it. We have to have it to move forward. We have to have it to educate our children and we have to have it to prepare them for the workforce. It’s vital.

Joe Coldebella:

I couldn’t agree more. And it’s one of those things where broadband was definitely on the back burner. And then the pandemic hit, virtual learning. I guess my first question would be, as we’re coming out of this, hopefully, we’re moving forward. Where do we see virtual learning? Where do we see broadband working with the rural schools?

Allen Pratt:

So I think a hybrid approach and how we educate children that we don’t have to be in the building five days a week. We can be in a blended learning environment, where virtual is important. It’s not the only way we do it, but it’s a part of it. That’s number one. Number two, I think school is not for every child to be in an environment classroom. Some kids learn better out. Some kids learn better in. Some kids learn better with a mix of in and out, meaning a hybrid approach or blended approach, or a flipped classroom. I think that’s the other aspect that we can reach more children. The third aspect, it’s workforce training, it’s a connection to jobs. It’s a way we prepare for our future tech industry employees that are sitting in a high school that some don’t want to go to a four-year school, some want to go into trade, some want to be industry certified and want to work.

Joe Coldebella:

Well. And that’s so true in the sense that there’s a real workforce opportunity for folks as well. There’s over $40 billion entering the space over the next few years, things are going to be needed to be built. There are going to be customer service reps. There are going to be all types of jobs available. And I think that it’s important for us to shine a spotlight on that because I think that there’s a real opportunity for folks not to just get a job, but to have a career.

Allen Pratt:

Yeah. And you’re also gaining customers for life when you employ them in high school or middle school, or you’re working to train them, they become loyal customers.

Joe Coldebella:

And they become the best advocates for sure.

Allen Pratt:

You’re right.

Joe Coldebella:

Hey, so you said something that I thought was really interesting and I think that it’s the important evolution of broadband and classrooms, and that’s the blended classroom. So if let’s say a student was to go to school for four days, what would that fifth day, I don’t know, how do you see that evolving?

Allen Pratt:

So they could be on the job, far as mentorship, or internship. They could be doing projects in the field, in the community, or working with the county, or city government. They could be doing AG work. So that’s number one. Number two, I think when you come to the classroom, it can be a facilitated moment where you’re not getting a lecture. You’re getting instructions on how to work and how to work through certain things. That’s the key. The way we learned in the past is not the way we need to learn now.

Joe Coldebella:

Absolutely.

Allen Pratt:2

So your teacher needs to be a facilitator or a discussion guide to get deeper project-based learning to make things better for education.

Joe Coldebella:

I couldn’t agree more. And I think also what I would hope that people would understand is that what broadband is doing is, it’s hitting on three points. It’s giving us access to information, which is vitally important in a world that is ever more connected. It’s giving us access to opportunities. And then finally, it’s giving us access to technology. So someone who might be in a rural area could excel, but in the past, they didn’t have access to that. With broadband, schools have an opportunity to really give students an opportunity to reach their heights.

Allen Pratt:

Well, I’m going to hit a couple of points. Our students today, feel like they’re identified with their access to technology, their identified personality is connected to that access to technology, access to high-speed internet. Their devices and their connectivity is a reflection of them in their social world.

Joe Coldebella:

Okay.

Allen Pratt:

It’s very important. I mean, it really is. We got to take that in education and understand, that it’s really important. So how do we use that tool to learn? How do we use that tool to problem solve? Because we’re going to learn better when we’re problem-solving, not from a lecture or anything, it’s got to be hands-on, touching and doing the work.

Joe Coldebella:

That’s a great point because it’s one of those things where I think you’re exactly right. It’s the evolution of education when you can bring a Harvard professor into a small school. And then once that speech is or that lecture is heard, then you have the proctor bring that discussion. It’s one of the great opportunities that we have before us.

Allen Pratt:

Yeah. And I think another point on that is the fact that if you’re a broadband provider, you could video into a classroom and how you use math, how you use science, how you use engineering on the job and relate that to the math the students are learning every day.

Joe Coldebella:

Exactly. It’s one of those things where everything is a story. And when it’s more relatable, it’s easier for kids to get excited. And that’s ultimately what we need to do because, during the pandemic, Zoom fatigue was real. And for students, it’s one of those things where I think that there was definitely, it was hard for educators.

Allen Pratt:

Yeah. They’d never been trained to really do what they needed to do.

Joe Coldebella:

100% right. That’s so true. It’s like, they’re used to having 15, 30, 35 students in the room and they understand the dynamic, but when you’ve got 20 students and they’re all single-dimensional, to keep their attention, I never really thought about it. It’s like they’re taught one way. And it’s like, all of a sudden, they’re saying, “Oh, listen, now you have to teach virtually.” They did an incredible job, but it’s one of those things where I hope we take the blended approach as opposed to an online approach.

Allen Pratt:

Well, and teachers, as they become more versed in how to do this, it’s going to change how we educate children. You’re going to get people that’ll leave the profession, which we don’t need, but we need a turnover in certain cases sometimes. And when we get the newer folks or folks that have adjusted and adapted, we’ll be better off.

Joe Coldebella:

Absolutely. Well, so we’re at this SRC Live event for smart, rural communities. There are government officials here, there are ISPs. If you were to issue a challenge to both groups, what’s something that you would say, “Hey, listen, this is something that moving forward, this is what we need to do if we’re going to progress in our community.”

Allen Pratt:

So I think number one is you probably have a leader that’s leading in charge in that rural community or that rural region, make sure you have a succession plan. Meaning you have someone being groomed to take over. Because we’re only on this world, this earth, we borrow time. We’re a timeshare, basically. So you need other people to step up. That’s number one. The other second part is I think you really integrate everything you do in that smart, rural community into that K12 environment, train these elementary, middle, and high school folks that they’re needed and they’re going to be the future leaders of that program.

Joe Coldebella:

That’s a fantastic point because in these small communities it’s so vital because the school is one of the linchpins and it would be great for them to get educated. And also, I think also, teach others. We’re living in a connected world and let’s face it, the younger folks have a better grasp than us. And so it’s one of those things where it would be awesome if there’s some type of program that maybe students would go to a senior citizen center or other areas just to make it a more connected community.

Allen Pratt:

Yeah. And they could train, they can teach, they can help. And this hit home for me. My son who’s 16, was working on something and he kept going from his room to his iPad or the computer at the time. And I go, “What are you doing?” He goes, “I’m on YouTube.” I said, “What are you doing?” He goes, “I’m fixing my gaming system.” And I said, “What do you mean you’re fixing?” He said, “Well, something come off and I Googled it and I YouTubed it and now I know how to fix it.” Now, we’ve eliminated me sending that off to be repaired. He actually fixed it.

Joe Coldebella:

Right. And that’s great.

Allen Pratt:

And that’s a child. So why can’t we do that in other parts of the community where these students are at the high school, 8:00 to 3:00, and they can work and help each other out, but also help the community?

Joe Coldebella:

And that’s another great thing about broadband is that the amount of information that’s available is limitless. I almost look at it as we have a collective brain and it’s an opportunity for smaller communities to see how other folks do it. And it can only be beneficial. So it’s great talking to you and all the other folks, but you have a podcast as well. And I would love for you to tell the audience in terms of what was the genesis behind that and…

Allen Pratt:

So I got a colleague at the university and he’s a podcast guy. So I went in his office one day and he goes, “You want to do a podcast?” And I said, “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

Joe Coldebella:

Right, right.

Allen Pratt:

But he said, “We need to do one.” And it really grew from us having a sandwich at his desk talking to having a buddy of mine that co-hosts with me. And it’s really grown into something that’s a major aspect of what we do. And it goes back to connectivity. It goes back to reaching an audience that we wouldn’t have met or reached out to. Podcasts are really fun and it’s telling stories. That’s why I love doing it.

Joe Coldebella:

So, this is my take on it, is that in the past, it used to be, if two people were talking about it, a third person was writing about it. They were doing a journal. And I think that this is just the digital evolution of that, is that now, if two people are talking about it, another person is podcasting about it because it’s one of those things where podcasts have definitely seeped into the world because it’s an opportunity to get educated in a way that you’re not heavily invested. You can listen in the background or you can bang out five or six in a day and really get a lot of knowledge in terms of a certain subject. I listened to a few episodes and I think you guys do an awesome job-

Allen Pratt:

Thank you.

Joe Coldebella:

… of touching different touch points. I know that you touch on serious issues. Like there was a New York Times article that wasn’t flattering of rural communities. And then you also highlight teachers who are really doing the important work. And so if folks want to listen to that, where would they need to go?

Allen Pratt:

So they can go to our website, NREA.net, NREA.net. And you’ll scroll down, there’s a button for podcasts. And you just click on it and you can find our episodes. But I will say what we learned, when you go back to your original question, to have a conversation like you’re sitting at a bar, drinking a beer, is the best podcast. The infomercial is not what you need to do.

Joe Coldebella:

Right. No, and it’s very true where, when we do our podcast, our whole thing is to tell stories, because stories are relatable and it allows the listener to say, “Oh Hey,” they might not directly relate to it, but they can gain some insights from it.

Allen Pratt:

I agree. Storytelling is the best part. And if your guest is comfortable, it makes your podcast roll.

Joe Coldebella:

All right, Allen. So as we begin to wind down, one of the things that we like to do is we like to ask all our guests, our two standard questions because our first question is the back to the future question. So I’m going to give you the keys to the DeLorean. If you could go back in time, 5, 10, 15 years, and whisper in your ear or someone that’s in your field, if you could whisper something that may have made the journey a little bit easier now, what’s what you would say?

Allen Pratt:

I would say that focus on your area, and your community, focus on the work, and focus on telling your story. It’s not about what the government’s doing or the state level, it’s about your work in changing lives in those communities. It’s taken me a while to get to that point, but I really don’t care. I mean, I work in that area and I do what I can, but if we get rural regions doing the right thing, we’re good. And I think the funding from the Feds or the funding from the state’s going to be icing on top of the cake, but the work is the key, making those connections. Go ahead.

Joe Coldebella:

No. And I was going to say, and that’s the great thing about SRC event because that’s so true. Rural folks, keep their nose down and they get things done. But also I think that what the NTCA does, is it allows them to be a cheerleader and say, “Hey, listen, we’re doing these great things.” So no, that’s awesome. Awesome. And then obviously, I would like to ask the crystal ball question, the converse question. Where do you see us in 3 to 5 years or 10 years, in terms of where we see education?

Allen Pratt:

Well, I think if we don’t adapt, stay innovative and do what we learn coming out of the pandemic, meaning to take the good of the pandemic and move it forward, we’ll have some places that won’t survive. So the future is how innovative we can be and how we meet the needs of students. And focus on what we can do with broadband, how we can help broadband, and how broadband can help us.

Joe Coldebella:

I think that’s great because it can’t be all-consuming, but it needs to be part of the school system and the community. That’s an awesome point. When folks want to learn more about your podcast, what are some of the places they can go in terms of getting information and getting connected with you?

Allen Pratt:

Go to our website, it’s got all of our social media information. It has my contact information. I may be one of the few directors that put my cell number on our website. So if you want to text me, do it. We want to help you out. And then every state affiliate is there to help as well. So go to our website, you can find all the information and we’re happy to do anything we can to help.

Joe Coldebella:

Well, and just to double down on that is that, when you were speaking today, you were like, “Hey, listen, if I don’t know somebody, I probably know someone who knows someone, so reach out to me and that’s how we’re going to solve these problems, is through working together for being one voice.” So really appreciate all that you do. It’s really important stuff.

Allen Pratt:

Hey, this is the best part of my conference. I love doing podcasts. So thank you.

Joe Coldebella:

Awesome. This has been a fantastic visit. Can’t thank you enough. And hopefully, in a year or so, we can meet here again and see where the progress is.

Allen Pratt:

You put me down on the calendar, I’ll be here.

Joe Coldebella:

Awesome. All right. For Allen and everyone with the Broadband Bunch, thanks so much. And we’ll see you next time.