WSU Breaking Down Digital Divide with Innovative Programs

PULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University is helping rural and low-income state residents bridge the digital divide with a number of innovative programs run by WSU extension offices, Bill Gillis, director for the WSU Center to Bridge the Digital Divide, said Wednesday.

Some of those innovations include developing infrastructure for Internet access in rural areas, providing technology education, creating high-tech high schools and bringing telecommuting jobs to rural areas.

Gillis, along with extension program officers, appeared on “Extension Engaged,” a monthly satellite broadcast series produced by WSU and moderated by Scott Fedale, chair of the College of Agriculture and Home Economics’ information department.

Technology is more than “fiber optics, satellites and computers on people’s desks,” explained Gillis. “Those are the tools of technology but they are of no value if it doesn’t improve people’s lives.” Bridging the digital divide is making sure no one is left behind because of where they live or their income, he said.

One program run by the WSU Cooperative Extension Energy Program encourages employers to hire rural employees who can telecommute full-time from struggling timber and agriculture communities.

The program pumps up the local economy by creating living-wage jobs. It also helps employers by providing an expanded workforce and reduced operating costs, said Dee Christensen, director of the Rural Telework Project, which is run by the Extension Energy Program. For example, the Washington Dental Service recently agreed to create 30 jobs in Colville.

A lack of infrastructure and education in rural areas can limit business development and diversification, said Dan Fagerlie, chair of the WSU Cooperative Extension in Ferry County.

“We see the digital divide and its effects everyday,” Fagerlie said. “A lot of people living in this area don’t have telephone service, let alone a computer or access to the Internet.”

In response, the extension office set up a technology center with high-speed Internet connections and provided workshops educating residents about technology.

Other projects include a 4-H literacy program that educates children and then encourages them in turn to explain computers to their families. It has been a particularly effective approach, Gillis said.

“Grandma and grandpa are sometimes threatened by technology but when the grandkids explain it, it’s okay,” he said.

A mobile computer training van, too, will take technology education to places around the state where broadband Internet may be difficult to access.

The WSU Center to Bridge the Digital Divide is funded by a combination of grants and donations from private donors and corporations, with initial support and funding from WSU Cooperative Extension.

The program can be viewed via video streaming on the Internet at