More than half of school districts and about one-third of public schools in the United States are in rural areas. Rural districts have unique challenges, ranging from poverty (23.5 percent of children in rural areas were poor in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture) and vast distances (many rural children ride the school bus for long periods each day) to a lack of affordable internet access.
The Consortium for School Networking convened two focus groups of rural school district CTOs and superintendents to ask them what their challenges and opportunities were. Each group consisted of 10 to 15 leaders and met via conference call. Here are their insights:
4 Ed Tech Challenges in Rural Districts
1. Broadband access:
For rural districts, internet access is the most pernicious obstacle to taking the digital leap. Even if the school itself has internet access, many students live far from school, and it’s not cost-effective for telecommunication providers to lay fiber to the remote areas where they live. Satellite is an alternative, but it is too slow and expensive to really allow students to do their work.
Even when broadband is available, it is often unaffordable in remote areas. Some districts try to address the gap by offering hotspots for students to check out and take home, but this only works in areas that have cellular coverage. A few districts have put up cellular towers to provide coverage for their most remote students, but this is an expensive option that’s out of reach for most schools.
This issue of digital equity is a crucial one for rural students. Without ubiquitous access to broadband services, they can’t participate in educational opportunities from home, including class discussions, research and interactions with classmates. They also lose access to student portals, parent portals and more that contain vital daily information.
Students without broadband also can’t take advantage of distance learning for circumstances that prevent them from attending class in person, which leaves them even further behind.
Rural districts are often funded from a smaller tax base, and because of their small size, a larger percentage of their per-student spending goes to overhead costs such as transportation. In rural districts, students usually need to be transported much farther than in urban or suburban districts and are often on the bus for one to two hours each day. When enrollment goes down in smaller schools, it has a greater proportional impact on their budgets.
Rural districts often have a difficult time recruiting staff, substitute teachers and support personnel. A remote lifestyle may not appeal to teachers coming from college towns or other schools, especially if they can make more money elsewhere. As a result, extra courses such as advanced placement classes may not be offered, and existing teaching staff may have to teach courses that are outside of their specialty.
Staff issues are not limited to teachers. Rural districts are fortunate if they have even one person in charge of their technology, and that person must be a jack-of-all-trades. It isn’t realistic to expect one person with limited expertise to manage all elements of a district’s infrastructure and devices expertly. Often, rural districts and rural tech leaders can combine expertise and experience to help each other.
4. Understanding the ‘why’:
Finally, some rural communities may be skeptical of the role of technology in their schools and their communities, according to the CoSN focus groups. In some communities, people are protective of their small-town way of life and don’t want to see that disrupted.
Consequently, it often takes very clear and compelling communication to make the case to rural citizens that technology has a meaningful role in their public schools.
3 Opportunities for Digital Innovation in Remote Schools
1. Smaller size:
Because rural districts are smaller, they often are more nimble, and district leadership has greater ownership of the schools. This lack of entrenched bureaucracy makes it easier to effect change. It also makes it easier to envision change as holistic; where new initiatives are usually seen as an add-on to existing programs, taking the digital leap changes everything.
In a small, close-knit district, it is easier to see how old programs fit or don’t fit as part of the shift to digital. It is easier to remove programs that are no longer relevant and to repurpose resources to new goals and approaches.
Also, relationships are often stronger in smaller districts where everyone knows each staff member and student. Districts can leverage their size advantage by including stakeholders in developing a clear vision that drives their digital transformation, then using that vision to make holistic rather than add-on changes.
Rural districts often have terrific community involvement. Schools are often the center of small towns and have the support of their neighborhoods and local businesses. This creates opportunities for student internships, mentorships and other programs involving the community. Rural districts find that schools are the heart of their community, bringing parents and community members to school for sports, events and school activities.
Although rural districts may have trouble attracting teachers, they have an excellent track record of retaining teachers who grew up in or have adopted the small-town way of life, CoSN focus group participants said.
Technology helps students prepare for academic opportunities by teaching them to use it for learning and by offering more educational opportunities, such as AP classes, via blended learning. Technology also makes it easier for students to return to and prosper in their small towns. Some small towns have improved economically due to technological advances, and there are more jobs available that allow remote working or that don’t require a specific geographic location.
Despite their unique challenges, rural districts hold great promise to deliver 21st-century skills with access to the internet, as well as access to current hardware and software, and the trained personnel necessary to employ all of it effectively.