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Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District: Sparking Broadband Interest in the UP

In September 2010, Jason Kronemeyer and Michelle Ribant of Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District (EUPISD) received the news that they had been waiting to hear for over a year. A grant application that the two had initially submitted in August 2009 for funding from the broadband appropriations of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), and then reworked for a second submission in March 2010, was selected for an award through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP).

Their application was awarded under BTOP’s Sustainable Broadband Adoption (SBA) category. The funded project, entitled “Sparking Broadband Use in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan” will provide 3,500 netbooks and software to EUPISD students in grades 7 – 12. The students are encouraged to take their netbooks home in the evening, over the weekend, and even over the summer.

Jason Kronemeyer, director of technology at EUPISD, explains the thinking behind the Sparking Broadband Use project:

“The goal of the project is to increase awareness and adoption rates in the area,” he said. “The idea is to get more people in the community to subscribe to broadband, increasing and demonstrating the demand for broadband, which ultimately will increase and improve coverage in the area.”

The netbooks will accomplish one major goal of improved, modernized learning in the classroom. Allowing students to bring them home and share them with their families accomplishes another important goal: enabling households new and improved access.

Community Training Events

With help from the grant, the project will also provide community training events throughout Chippewa, Luce and Mackinaw Counties. EUPISD anticipates that as many as 10,000 residents will receive training related to computer skills and broadband over the life of the project.

The first series of community training events are offered to parents of EUPISD students, focusing on the equipment students have received and the expectations and responsibilities that accompany the use of the netbooks. Over time, the meetings will address the larger community, providing information on accessing the Internet and what you can do with broadband.

“The Internet enables users with incredibly important tools that are essential to economic development and education, but it can be difficult to use those tools without broadband,” Kronemeyer said.

“For example, many community members are interested in finishing degrees,” he said. “Today, every university in Michigan offers some kind of online degree component.”

“These community training events will be important to help explain the importance of the resources broadband can offer, and how to take advantage of those resources,” he said. “The idea is to help parents and community members understand the value of using broadband to support career building, government services, health, finances and education.”

As part of the project, qualifying households receive discounted monthly service rates from Lighthouse.net, a local Internet Service Provider (ISP) in the Eastern UP area, for participating in a workforce and computer training program that was created in partnership with Michigan WORKS! and the Tri-County Economic Development Agency.

Another set of training events administered through the grant provides EUPISD teachers direction on integrating the netbooks into their everyday curriculum. In addition to explaining the basic capabilities of the hardware their students will have access to, these training sessions help teachers conceptualize what is possible in their classroom with the new technology.

The training sessions cover topics such as online content and collaboration tools like Moodle, paperless classrooms, and tasks that prompt students to use their netbooks to do homework, problem solve and conduct research.

‘One-to-One’ Computing and Freedom to Learn

In addition to helping to bring broadband into the home and increasing access and awareness in the community, the Sparking Broadband Use project also establishes a true one-to-one computing environment in EUPISD school classrooms.

One-to-one means one computer per one student. One-to-one education allows students to learn at their own pace and ability levels. Students receive highly-personalized instruction because teachers can spend less time teaching large groups and more time coaching individuals. In the process, students naturally improve their technology skills that will be essential for life in the 21st century.

Though impressive, technology integration and one-to-one education is nothing new for EUPISD. In 2004, Eastern Upper Peninsula ISD was selected as a pilot site for the State of Michigan’s Freedom to Learn initiative (FTL), Michigan’s first one-to-one computer initiative. As a FTL participant, EUPISD received an educational package that included a combination of Palm pilot devices and wireless notebook PCs. Schools received a specialized curriculum aligned with the students’ use of the new technology. The program is credited with improving grades, motivation and discipline in classrooms across the state.

“Our participation in the Freedom to Learn initiative proved to be successful for our students and teachers, but it was not as cohesive as our Sparking Broadband Use project” he said. “The Freedom to Learn was strictly educational. It didn’t strive to include the community or consider the big picture of general Internet access in the community the way our BTOP project does.”

“Sparking Broadband Use is not Freedom to Learn, but we used the lessons we learned from FTL to plan this project and write the grant,” he said.

As an example: four months into the Freedom to Learn pilot at EUPISD, the IT staff and teachers encountered many broken laptops and hardware. So when planning their BTOP project, Kronemeyer made sure that the netbooks would be covered under a warranty that includes accidental breakage and anti-theft protection.

The Sparking Broadband Use project allows students to use the netbooks for anything they want on their own time-whether it be for homework or entertainment. They are also encouraged to share the use of the netbooks and Internet access with their friends and family.

“There is the perception that students and their families don’t access the web,” explained Kronemeyer.

He went on to tell the story from early in the Sparking Broaband Use project. At the time, roughly 1,000 of the 3,500 netbooks had been issued to students, but they were encountering an issue with the netbook agent that would break webforms, making it impossible to surf the web.

“At Sunday at 4:00 PM, we issued a patch,” he said. “And by Monday morning at 8:00 AM, 500 of the 1,000 who had been issued laptops had already downloaded it.”

It’s one sure sign that the project is off to a great start.

Anytime, Anywhere Access

Kronemeyer and his team are committed to enabling true “anytime, anywhere” access for EUPISD students and their families. One major component of the Sparking Broadband Use project is the build out of a cloud computing infrastructure.

“In order to support computer usage at home, the cloud is a necessity,” Kronemeyer explained.

The EUPISD team chose Stoneware as their cloud platform. Kronemeyer and his team are in the process of building a district-wide cloud. When it is complete, students will be able to access their files stored on the EUPISD cloud 24 x 7. They will be enabled with a single sign-on with a password vault for automated access.

The students are given administrative access to the netbooks. Of course, to keep students and other users safe, EUPISD runs a filtering agent on each netbook. They have also set up stations in various school locations that perform automated maintenance. When there is a software glitch, all the students need to do is plug into one of the stations and it automatically performs the necessary tasks to fix the error.

Unique Geography

One challenge for the Sparking Broadband Use project, and a fact that makes their effort all the more compelling, is the vast and sparsely populated geography of the Eastern Upper Peninsula.

Eastern Upper Peninsula ISD remains the largest geographic intermediate school district of the 57 in Michigan. The EUPISD area also has less than 2.0 students per square mile. As an added characteristic, schools located on three islands also make the EUPISD unique.

The areas of Chippewa, Luce and Mackinaw Counties that EUPISD serves together make up just under 4,000 square miles. To get an idea of the breadth of the territory EUPISD and Kronemeyer’s team covers, that’s three times the size of the state of Rhode Island. If you transposed the three counties that make up EUPISD onto the geography of the Lower Peninsula, it would cover an area that encompasses from Lansing to Detroit.

“It makes for a lot of windshield time getting computers into the hands of students,” Kronemeyer said.

Right now about 1,500 students of the 3,500 students in grades 7-12 have received their netbooks. Kronemeyer and his team feel that they are making good progress.

“We were aggressive in our timeline that we provided in the grant application,” Kronemeyer said. “But there are a lot of logistics and considerations that do not always get factored into timelines when planning.”

“For example, each netbook we give out takes roughly thirty minutes,” he said. “Inventory, loading the image and filtering agent, and then explaining to the students how to use it.”

For another school district thinking of launching a similar project in the future, Kronemeyer recommends ensuring that the staff is in place ahead of time. He also preaches patience. Issuing RFPs (Request for Proposals), getting school board approval and superintendent sign-off can taking longer than anticipated.

REACH-3MC and Sparking Broadband Use Collaboration

The Sparking Broadband Use in the Upper Peninsula project was planned in coordination with Merit’s own REACH-3MC BTOP grant project. Each project referenced the other in their respective grant applications. The idea was to create synergies in Federal investment to maximize the benefit for Michigan. And to the benefit of our state, both projects were awarded funding.

The Merit REACH-3MC project will complement the EUPISD Sparking Broadband Use project. Merit will provide direct fiber connections to some of the EUPISD schools through REACH-3MC. And as a middle mile project, REACH-3MC will provide much-needed backhaul to the region. With the infrastructure in place, local ISPs (Internet Service Providers) will be able to connect to the REACH-3MC infrastructure and in doing so reduce their own costs for backhaul, creating cost savings that can then be passed on to homes and businesses in the Eastern Upper Peninsula area.

More About EUPISD

Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District became a Merit Member in 1998. EUPISD and Copper Country ISD, through REMC#1 (Regional Educational Media Center) collaborate to purchase services, which allows them to cut costs and provide more to their students and teachers.