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Bemidji State Connects to Provide Education to Rural Communities

A Bemidji State University-led consortium of higher education institutions has won a grant to expand distance learning and telemedicine opportunities

A Bemidji State University-led consortium of higher education institutions has won a $500,000 grant from the U. S. Department of Agriculture to expand distance learning and telemedicine opportunities for rural northern Minnesota residents.

The grant will allow schools in the BSU-led Aazhoogan (Bridge) Consortium, which includes Northwest Technical College, Leech Lake Tribal College, Red Lake Nation College and White Earth Tribal and Community College, to build a network of high-definition video connections linking the five institutions. The Native colleges currently have no existing or functioning interactive distance learning equipment. The network will give students on those campuses access to industry-driven certification training, bachelor’s degrees and specialized associate’s degrees not available at their home colleges.

Dr. Anton Treuer, executive director of Bemidji State’s American Indian Resource Center, says the grant is part of a broader strategic initiative by members of the consortium to increase collaboration across a broad spectrum, including course delivery, sharing of institutional data, recruiting and retention, and improving students’ ability to transfer from the tribal colleges to Bemidji State or Northwest Tech.

“This grant really is designed to build some of the physical capacity for delivering and exchanging information,” Treuer said. “We have had faculty exchanges in person, and now we will be able to do it through this new technological capability. We’re looking for lots of ways to grow our connection and work together. Ultimately, we’re working together to serve the same students.”

The grant is part of a funding package totaling nearly $16 million that provides support for President Obama’s ConnectED initiative. In June 2013, the president announced an effort to connect 99 percent of America’s students to broadband Internet by 2018. Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has provided support for more than 3,300 educational institutions receiving distance learning services to help rural children get an education that is as good as that of their peers in cities.

The Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program provides both educational and health care opportunities in rural communities through grants that finance advanced telecommunications technologies. The focus is on using the unique capabilities of telecommunications to connect rural areas to each other and to the world, thus overcoming the effects of remoteness and low population density.

The program began in 1993 and has funded more than 1,400 projects totaling $512 million.