The Unsung Heroes of Technology in Rural Minnesota

by Cindy Lee Olson, Executive Director of RMIC Region II, Arrowhead Regional Computing Consortium (ARCC)

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Cindy Lee Olson Executive Director of RMIC Region II Arrowhead Regional Computing Consortium (ARCC)

 Arrowhead Regional Computing Consortium (ARCC) is a Regional Management Information Center (RMIC) authorized by state statute and organized as a Joint Powers entity. ARCC’s region covers the seven county Arrowhead of NE Minnesota. We serve 31 public school districts, two special education cooperatives, and a number of joint powers entities.

Our smallest public school district serves 55 students and our largest serves just over 4,000 students. Our smallest district geographically covers 42 square miles and our largest covers over 4,200 square miles. In the sparsest district you would need to cover 3.33 square miles before you found one public school student (on average). Sixty-one percent of our member districts serve between 228 and 944 students.

Our region has five of the 10 oldest public school buildings in the state. Our oldest school building in Ely is 93 years old, the second oldest is Chisholm at 92 years old. Think about that…… At the time those schools were built, electricity was only in about half of all houses in the nation. About a third of all houses didn’t have flushing toilets and over half of all households still heated their homes with coal.

Many of our member districts don’t have a grocery store in their town and have to drive over an hour one way to get groceries. There are spots along the way that even the two largest cellular providers can’t reach, and spots where the only way to get internet to your house is with a “dish” on your roof and no precipitation in the air.

By now you can tell that I am a numbers person. Statistics and facts fascinate me, and I felt it was important to paint a picture of rural Minnesota for those who may have visited, but never lived there.

Small schools can’t hire a network engineer, and a software specialist, and a hardware repair specialist, and a wireless specialist, and an integration specialist, and a help desk person… their budgets are limited to one, maybe two people with very limited amounts left for equipment and technology services.

A recent survey of Technology Coordinators/Directors in our region showed that they are responsible for normal technology items like the network, servers, switches, network filters, firewalls, wireless access points, management of Chromebooks and iPads, repairs of Chromebooks and iPads, smart boards, printers, 3D copiers, active directories, backing up data, and help desk staffing. But in small schools they are also responsible for applying for E-Rate funding and Telecom Equity Aid funding, for the phone system, fire alarm, digital signage, bell system, security cameras and doors, intercoms, auditorium lights, broadcasting emergency alerts, library staffing, library systems, state testing coordination, student information systems, staff development technology, e-sport coaching, shoveling sidewalks, HVAC systems, and boilers. Yes boilers. Keep in mind we are talking about one, maybe two people.

Oh, I forgot to mention keeping your network safe from, or recovering from, ransomware attacks, phishing schemes, and other malicious hacking.

Beyond the day to day work they do, we see some pretty amazing things happening in rural Minnesota, for example:

  • Elementary STEM Makerspace.
  • Students creating History Day Documentaries.
  • Media production classes (think kids with green screens).
  • Robotic teams.
  • High school e-Sport teams.
  • Telepresence classes to share foreign languages, advanced math classes, PSEO classes, and electives that aren’t financially possible in small schools.
  • A Spanish class taught by a teacher living in a southern state.
  • Intern programs where juniors and seniors have the opportunity to learn technical and customer service skills AND earn credits towards graduation.
  • Help desks staffed with students.
  • Evenings where the community comes in with their technology questions and devices to get free technical assistance. These events are staffed by student interns.
  • Neighboring districts technology staff stepping in to help each other when there is a crisis (think ransomware).
  • Regularly scheduled TUG (Technology User Group) meetings. Technology coordinators and directors from the region meet six times a year. They share what works and ask for advice. They research products together, coordinate staff development for the group and negotiate group pricing on technology related items.

I am amazed at each TUG meeting to see what they have done in their district to help staff and students succeed. You will find rural technology coordinators and directors spend more time on the “other tasks as assigned or apparent” in their job description than most.

So, if you can access your technology in your rural school without problems, if your students are successful at navigating technology, and if your teachers are fearless with technology, you should thank your Technology Coordinator/Director. They are the unsung heroes of technology in rural Minnesota!

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