Community Colleges | Feature

The Community College as a Portal to Everything Else

A Q&A with Tim Kirk, SouthArk CC CIO

Community colleges have always served their communities beyond traditional academic programs and course offerings. Here, a CIO talks about his opportunities to influence the future of broadband access in his region.

Mary Grush: You've said that community colleges provide much more in their service areas than academic and degree programs. Could you give me a few examples?

Tim Kirk: Sure. Here at SouthArk, for example, as a local state agency charged with doing more for the community than just our educational mission, we are the stewards for the South Arkansas Arboretum… We are also the manager for the City of El Dorado Conference Center… The college also opened up an entrepreneurial incubator, which is essentially a small retail center for new businesses and the creators of new products… These are all somewhat "outside the box" compared to our more traditional degree programs and course offerings.

Grush: Does the college offer IT support or resources to the surrounding communities?

Kirk: Yes, and there are many examples of this. By setting up remote classrooms and interactive video services, we facilitate the development of the local workforce. And within our broader service area, some sixty miles from or campus, we maintain remote classrooms to offer classes in a very poor and underserved portion of the state. It's completely impractical for students in these areas to come to us--so we go to them. We are currently expanding the reach of this high-impact program. Besides grant seeking, South Ark is aggressively seeking partnerships with the city and with industry to make sure this happens.

Grush: Does the college do anything in the area of broadband?

Kirk: In terms of broadband, we in El Dorado are part of the state network. So if you live within the city, you can get good broadband services. But, as soon as you get 15 miles beyond the city boundaries, you quickly lose service. You are in Rural Arkansas. There, a large number of students and the population in general just don't have good connectivity. Your interactive device is only as good as its connection, and the digital divide out there becomes omnipresent.

As a result, we have a large proportion of campus "library users" just coming onto campus to access our WIFI. Roughly, community users like these make up fully a third of our network users. It's part of the college's outreach--it's something we have to plan for. As long as it doesn't interfere with the students in our academic programs, we support this as part of our mission to serve the community.

Grush: What about the idea of finding partnerships or building consortia to help drive better broadband access into these remote areas? Is there a need for a better model for the community college to help promote better broadband use in the region?

Kirk: The challenge is, how do you push the technology into these underserved areas? Commercial cell phone providers, for example, do not yet consider it cost effective to provide coverage in most of these areas. But long term, I know we'll have water, electricity, sewage,  and broadband access as basic, required utilities. We have to find a way to encourage the utilities to say, "We want to go to these areas with broadband."

As the local community college, we can help by showcasing all the technologies that change the way we approach knowledge, and build the demand and the political will to provide them widely--either through commercial companies' perceived opportunities in the private sector, or through funded efforts by the public sector. It's our job to make sure that the future is visible to citizens to the point where they will support the public sector moving forward. It's too important for the future of education in this country not to have access to these technology tools. And we can't abandon rural America to 19th and 20th century technology.

Through the college, we provide access where we can, but maintaining the future vision is what's critical. Part of my job is to keep reminding local leaders just how exciting these technologies are. Day to day, it's easy to lose sight of what an interconnected world could mean, and just how transformative these technologies can be.

Grush: It sounds like the community college has an important leadership role, serving almost like a portal to new opportunities for the community…

Kirk: The community college by its very nature is surrounded by and embedded in the community. We are so integrated with the community that, beyond providing traditional education programs, we are part of the community's workforce and economic development engine. So yes, we are pleased to act as a change agent and serve as a portal to everything else--and to the future.

About the Author

Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.

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