Last fall, Rural Tech Project entrants from across the U.S. proposed new technology education programs that address real student, community, and industry needs. Over the last six months, Rural Tech Project finalist teams have developed thorough plans for novel, competency-based technology programs. How did these diverse communities rally the needed resources in such a short time? The short answer: not alone.
Rural Tech Project donors have helped teams prepare on three key fronts: developing an engaging curriculum of interest to students and employers, preparing educators, and creating the right infrastructure. In this first of two posts highlighting our donor support, we will examine insights shared by the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) on how to activate rural community members to meet local technology education needs and grow rural digital economies. While teams are designing resilient programs that can be successful regardless of outside support, they are also pursuing partnerships that can make an outsized difference. Below are key partnership engagement questions; CORI and the Rural Tech Project teams have explored different approaches to answering them.
When offering a new technology career pathway, how can schools approach partnerships?
Rural communities can take the first step toward creating tech opportunities on their own, but partnerships will help programs go further and make a greater impact. Mark Rembert, Head of CORI’s Rural Innovation Network, identified two paths to rural economic growth — entrepreneurship and industry partnership — and offered examples of how rural communities have pursued them.
On the entrepreneurship path, rural communities have the opportunity to tap into remote work opportunities, as illustrated by Traverse City, Michigan. Traverse City’s 20Fathoms tech incubator serves as a resource, training, and community hub for local entrepreneurs. Partners in the form of mentors and teachers can significantly boost success rates for new entrepreneurial ventures.
On the industry partnership path, communities have the opportunity to surface latent demand for technology support, as exemplified by Springfield, Vermont. Springfield’s Black River Innovation Campus has worked with small businesses to diagnose their needs and educate business owners on how to take advantage of tech talent trained by their program. Partnership comes in the form of businesses engaging in discussion and creation of tech employment opportunities. After demonstrating the potential impact of tech on their businesses, CORI then supported employers in creating job descriptions, developing pay scales, scoping projects, and crafting proposal requests.
What are the greatest opportunities for tech program partnerships with nonprofits or government?
Technology education depends on access to connectivity and devices. The concentrated costs and dispersed benefits of providing both make nonprofits and government natural partners for supporting these tech infrastructure needs. Alex Kelley, Head of Broadband Deployment at CORI, highlighted successful public-private partnership (PPP) examples where each partner shares financial risk and reward. For example, Westminster, Maryland, and Ting Internet partnered to extend the fiber network beyond city limits. PPPs can be as simple as a municipality providing expedited permitting or as involved as a municipality registering pre-subscriptions to attract financing. Effective partnerships align incentives by both providing capital and servicing debt.
Communities that build broad support involving elected officials, local internet service providers, and other community supporters can also spread the responsibility and sustain the planning efforts long enough to succeed. As an added bonus, building relationships with nonprofits and governments can pay dividends later; these leaders and their organizations may lend their support for experiential learning or provide access to additional career exposure opportunities.
How do you cultivate and sustain a shared vision with community members?
A lot of initiatives have a great first meeting, but often the energy can fizzle out. CORI discussed a few strategies for gaining momentum and building lasting partnerships.
First, ensure that tech program designs are responsive to local needs. Every community is different and will need some custom considerations. Tools like the Tech Talent Tracker provide local industry data and demand trends that communities can use to decide how to orient their tech growth efforts.
Second, start with a low-stakes request to get employers invested in your program. The RII Community Toolkit offers a strategic planning framework for understanding strengths and weaknesses — and can double as a discussion tool with local businesses. Asking for advice provides an easy entry point and sense of immediate impact for potential partners.
Third, involve local employers in tech program design and delivery. Ideally, educators would gain employer input and buy-in to curriculum prior to recruiting employers to deliver program content. Ask an employer for volunteers to mentor a teacher, teach a class, or review curriculum. This opens the door to bigger requests in the future, like hiring students or offering funding. For example, by involving employers early, Cape Girardeau, Missouri, was able to fold four weeks of project-based learning with employer partners into a 16-week startup bootcamp.
How the finalist teams are applying these ideas
There is no one way to design a tech program. Rural Tech Project teams are creating plans that are responsive to student interests, as well as local and national employer needs. Each team held community convenings with supportive stakeholders to refine their program plan and build a supportive network. And these successful meetings have emboldened teams to continue expanding their networks of supporters, including employers with latent demand for tech talent. All have identified mutual benefits with partners, be it for expanding connectivity or growing tech talent career pathways.
This post builds on insights shared by Ford Next Generation Learning and Aurora Institute experts in our webinar on building and maintaining partnerships in rural areas. In our next post, we will explore how teams are equipping and preparing their teams to launch their new tech programs.