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'I hope to see more states learn from Oregon's success and its unwavering commitment to equity...'

COURTESY PHOTO - Tonya DrakeOregon's stay-at-home order heightened the awareness of the widening gap in technology access, commonly referred to as the digital divide, and its stark consequences. Now more than ever, Oregonians are experiencing the critical impact broadband access has on learning, working, socializing and seeking healthcare from home.

In recent years, cities across the country have been working toward publicly owned, open-access fiber networks and the pandemic is reigniting those conversations. The Portland metro area is blazing the trail to make internet access a public utility, and its progress has been touted nationwide in comparison to other cities looking to solve this issue.

While efforts to establish a common ground on municipal broadband continue to evolve, the need for fast, affordable, reliable internet is ubiquitous. Communities such as the city of Hillsboro and those throughout Multnomah County are making significant strides, but the digital divide remains. Research found that 15% of Portland-area households do not have internet access at home.

Social distancing has compounded the socioeconomic disparity. It accelerated our use of and reliance on technology to connect us in a time when the majority of our daily activities have shifted to online interactions. Individuals who were already disadvantaged are struggling to access schoolwork, job listings, unemployment benefit applications and telemedicine. Without strong, reliable broadband, working and going to school from home isn't an option.

Before the economic fallout of COVID-19, 64% of Oregon jobs required some form of education beyond high school. Based on the Great Recession, we can expect that people with a postsecondary credential are more likely to see their earnings bounce back. Education can help people reskill and re-enter the workforce, and affordable, online education is one way to quickly do so.

Even though many of us are comfortable shopping, banking and communicating through our phones and computers, completing education online can seem like an uncomfortable leap for some. But many learners are discovering that advances in technology have helped higher education do a better job of personalizing learning to individual students. It's also helping them complete their degree programs faster and more efficiently.

As anyone who's sat in a college classroom can tell you, the basics of higher education have remained more or less the same for decades. Online learning has a way of cutting through what can seem like a vast tangle of out-of-date requirements.

While going to college online is often just as rigorous and challenging as attending a more traditional school, students earning a degree online don't face the same kinds of time and space restrictions. For example, a competency-based education (CBE) model measures a student's ability rather than time spent in a classroom and allows students to draw on knowledge and skills they have gained from previous experience and education. Instead of waiting on the end of a term or semester, students can complete courses as soon as they've shown that they have mastered the material.

Technology makes this streamlined style of learning possible for working adults. With round-the-clock access to online learning, students have the flexibility to learn at their own pace whenever and wherever it works for them.

Furthermore, local, regional and national leaders must work together to ensure broadband infrastructure is built to support online learning for individuals from both rural and urban communities.

As infrastructure advances in Oregon, the state will see a positive impact to its workforce as more residents are able to leverage online education, gain work-ready credentials and contribute in more ways to the local economy. One Microsoft study found, for example, that counties with the highest unemployment also have the lowest broadband usage — the same can be said of the reverse.

The need for broadband for hospitals, healthcare providers, schools, local governments, public safety and businesses is paramount — more than ever before. As these efforts continue to progress and reach more of our most vulnerable populations, I hope to see more states learn from Oregon's success and its unwavering commitment to equity and the importance of providing broadband access to all.

Tonya Drake is regional vice president of Western Governors University and chancellor of WGU Washington.

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