Helping rural towns rebuild

May 15, 2003, vol. 27, no. 2
By Carol Thorbes

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Several departments and programs at Simon Fraser University are involved in an unprecedented project that could be a life preserver for economically adrift, rural communities across Canada.

SFU, through continuing studies, is administering a $2.9 million, three year project called Bridging the Divides: Using Learning Technologies to Support Community Economic Development in Rural and Remote Communities of British Columbia.

The project will help those rural communities hit hard by declining resource industries to rebuild their economies.

Joan Collinge (above), the director of SFU's centre for distance education in continuing studies, and other members of a team have secured the commitment of a dozen partners to the project.

They are: SFU (continuing studies, Chief Dan George centre for advanced education, centres for community economic development, distance education, tourism and policy and research, school of resource and environmental management); North Island college; Greater Trail community skills centre; Canadian Community Economic Development Network (CCED Net), a national non-profit organization; University of Victoria; Pacific Foundation for Community Learning; Kootenay Columbia school district 20; Sierra Club of Canada, B.C. Chapter; Kootenay Boundary regional district; Kootenay Association of Science and Technology; Telus; and the B.C. government.

Their in-kind and cash contributions of $1.6 million more than match $1.38 million in funding from the federal government's office of learning technologies (OLT).

Telus will provide or upgrade high speed internet connections in the participating communities.

The company will also provide audio-conferencing and networking consultation services for the duration of the project.

Other partners will use their combined expertise in telecommunications, online distance education and community economic development to help the Mount Waddington (near Port Hardy) and Kootenay Boundary (near Trail) regional districts rebuild their economies.

The Port Hardy and Trail regions were chosen as test sites largely because of community efforts already under way to rejuvenate their economies.

An architect of the plan and the CCED Net's executive director, Rupert Downing says that these communities are already tackling their lack of digital and online learning technologies. The shortage deepens their separation from economically thriving communities.

Continuing studies has hired Downing to work collaboratively with the test sites to implement and evaluate the plan and disseminate its results.
Downing believes this project will achieve sustainable revitalization of rural communities, where other internet access and distance learning programs have failed.

“Internet access and distance learning, on their own, are limited tools for community development,” says Downing.

“What's needed is the development of applied community-based approaches to learning and community economic development that use internet distance learning as one resource within a comprehensive strategy to revitalize communities.”

Doug Larsen, coordinator of education and training at North Island college's Port Hardy centre, is enthusiastic about the project's potential to enhance intercommunity cooperation.

Community-based groups and individuals, along with academic researchers, will evaluate the project.

“Yearly and cumulative evaluations will assess changes in the communities based on their economic development plans and desired learning outcomes,” says Collinge.

“They will also look at the project's ability to identify and bring about desired change in consultation with the participating communities. Ultimately, we hope this evaluation will lead to the creation of nationally useful information for affecting change in economically disadvantaged rural communities.”

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