Kickstarting the Digital Heartland

A Future Tense event recap.

Four people sit in white chairs on a stage.
Kevin Carey, Rodney Petersen, Tracy Van Grack, and Carrie Billy at New America.
Narmada Variyam/New America

As the digital revolution continues to transform education and business, rural and underserved regions across the country are at risk of being left behind because of geographic and demographic barriers. At a Feb. 5 event called “Kickstarting the Digital Heartland,” Future Tense, the publication Issues in Science and Technology, and New America’s education policy and cybersecurity programs convened experts to discuss how Americans in the heartland can access to the same kind of digital education and opportunities as their fellow citizens on the coasts.

“There is a crisis of money in the Midwest,” Mark Hagerott, chancellor of the North Dakota University System, said at the event. He argued that the current lack of cyber opportunities in rural America results from a serious lack of resources, both in terms of human capital and in funding. In response, he has proposed a radical idea: Using the 1860s land-grant university system as a model, he would have the federal government fund the building of hybrid university campuses in rural states to teach the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed in a 21st-century knowledge economy. Just as the original land-grant universities educated students about new innovations in agriculture and technology, this new digital land-grant university system would cover new advancements in digital literacy and cyber technology. Hagerott said he hopes this approach would draw both online and in-person students and new educators from outside the traditional academic structure, and attract philanthropists and business to invest in these schools and their students.

One other major challenge to the idea of a “digital land grant university system” is the lack of existing infrastructure. Carrie Billy, president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, urged the audience to think of a cellphone signal coverage map. The gaps in coverage, she said, are what one would call “Indian country.” Any attempt at building a digital land grant university system in rural America would have to close those gaps, which are a significant factor in the lack of opportunity in those regions. “We need this kind of bold idea because we know the talent is there, but the opportunity is not,” Billy said. She went on to add that a new cyber landscape is one way to achieve a kind of equality, for not only American Indians and Alaska natives, but also all of rural America. Rodney Petersen, the director of the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education, pointed out that building capacity and improving broadband connectivity is something educational institutions to assist with. As an example, he pointed to the University of Maryland’s role in investing in internet infrastructure.

Without prior investment in education and industry in many of these regions, new startups and investors will avoid setting up there, which can further isolate communities. Tracy Van Grack, the senior vice president of communications and public policy at Revolution LLC, hopes that a digital land grant system could bring communities together, which “can do so much for an entrepreneurial community in terms of getting them access to partners, customers, and mentors.”

Billy agreed with Van Grack, arguing that tribal communities, which often lack partnerships or relationships with industry, would benefit from “in-person time” with investors, technologists, and entrepreneurs. “Bringing industry, tribal colleges, the tribes, the local governments together to figure out what plan works for them is extremely important,” she said. “And it takes someone who can bring them together—they won’t naturally come together.”

Overcoming geographic barriers to give all equal access to cyber education and tech investment is a mammoth challenge. But as New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter said, “Even when compared to the Progressive era, we are living in an era of immense upheaval, driven by technology, and exactly because of that we need sweeping change, and we need to believe it’s possible.”

Watch the full event on the New America website.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.