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Broadband (or high-speed Internet) access has become increasingly important in today’s economy. Rural towns without a good internet connection often struggle to attract residents, grow small businesses or improve the health care services available to their residents. 

 

Brian Whitacre, a professor in agricultural economics, studies what broadband access and use can mean for rural communities. He looks at broadband data that already exists and uses a variety of other socio-economic data – like racial characteristics, what industries are present, education levels and careers – to uncover relationships between them.

 

“What we’ve found is that it’s not just getting that line out by someone’s house, but it’s whether people actually adopt it and use it,” Whitacre said of his research. “We shouldn’t just be getting broadband use out in rural communities, but we need to help people adopt it. There’s a difference between simple availability and adoption, meaning I paid for an Internet connection, and I’m doing something productive with it. It’s not just availability that matters.”

 

Whitacre has started a partnership between OSU and 24 rural libraries in communities with populations of 2,500-7,000 to provide mobile handheld “hotspot” devices that use cellular networks to offer broadband connections for up to 10 devices. Library patrons can check them out and take them home to have an internet connection wherever they go.

Map of library lending programs in Oklahoma.

 

“We try to get survey results from everyone who checks out a hotspot, and my favorite part is reading about what people use it for and how it has helped them. We have all kinds of success stories with people helping their kids with school, earning extra income, even finding jobs,” he said.

 

Along with partner agencies, OSU provides the broadband service for the first year. Of the original 20 libraries, 18 still participate due to high demand from the local community.

 

More recently, Whitacre’s research has emphasized state-level policies that can be put into place to improve broadband ability. For example, state laws prohibit municipal governments from building their own broadband services, and this is something that could have lesser restrictions. This research has recently gained national attention as some states have begun to lessen restrictions in this matter.

 

The Rural Renewal Initiative (RRI) is designed to encourage the renewal of rural communities through interdisciplinary research, student mobilization and community engagement.

 

As associate director of the RRI, Shane Robinson is now studying a volunteer-led youth leadership program called Big Topics in Frederick, Oklahoma, in which high school students are challenged throughout the school year to think critically about political, historical and economic issues and to write about and find solutions to those issues by using empirical evidence, logic and reason. A similar program, Bomber YELL (Youth Engaged in Leadership and Learning), at Frederick Middle School, is a five-week summer program in which middle school students receive mentoring to think critically and become civically engaged community members. Through the program, students visit local businesses, discuss potential careers and learn about how local government works.

 

“The Big Topics and Bomber YELL programs are developing human capital in the purest sense,” Robinson said. “I refer to them as enrichment programs. We have other youth leadership programs like 4-H and FFA, but Big Topics and Bomber YELL have a different feel and purpose to them. They epitomize hope for the future by investing in the people, who will soon become the decision-makers of these communities.”

 

In his research for the Department of Agricultural Education, Communications and Leadership, Robinson uses human capital theory (education, talents, skills and experiences) to assess the employability skills of undergraduate and graduate students. He focuses on teaching delivery methods and motivation necessary for optimizing student engagement, learning and long-term retention of knowledge.

 

Robinson’s research has led to the integration of various student-centric delivery methods within Oklahoma State University classrooms. Such methods include inquiry-based teaching – helping students ask about what they are learning as opposed to passively receiving information – and project-based learning in which students are provided with authentic problem sets and asked to work in teams to complete projects and assignments.

 

This research provides opportunities for human and community enhancement by strengthening the economic status of rural communities. It just one example of OSU Ag Research projects happening at the university that are changing Oklahoma and the world for the better.

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