Innovation, Technology, and Rural Schools

According to Washington elites, rural schools’ greatest challenge is finding and keeping teachers. Ask the inside-the-beltway crowd for a solution, and, considering all the buzz over blended learning and innovation, they’ll probably shout, “technology!”

One small problem: Rural superintendent don’t consider teacher recruitment and retention among their biggest challenges…and mixing rural schooling and technology is more complicated than you might think.

Hmmm.

Thank goodness for “Technology and Rural Education,” by Bryan C. Hassel and Stephanie Dean of Public Impact, the latest paper from Bellwether’s rural-education project, ROCI.

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Image from Northfield Community Primary and Elementary School

The report begins as you might expect, arguing that technology holds great promise for rural schooling. “It can give students access to great teachers…enable them to tap into resources they would never find in a school’s media center…help them personalize their learning…open doors to forge networks with other students across the world.”

But unlike many tech-focused reports, it also recognizes the special characteristics of rural schools, especially as they relate to educators.

Many rural teachers are happy to spend an entire career in a single school, and many people born in rural America find that teaching is one of the few careers “that will allow them to remain in the place they love.” Though rural communities can offer unusually tight social connections, they can lack other amenities that might attract young teachers, such as cultural diversity and proximity to entertainment venues. Low salaries (compared to many suburban and urban areas) can be an obstacle as can the limited employment opportunities for non-educator spouses.

Recommendations related to educators are placed in this context. For instance, communication technology (like live streaming and two-way video conferencing) enables a geographically isolated but highly effective teacher to reach students anywhere. This is especially important in difficult-to-staff areas, including high-level, foreign-language, and credit-recovery courses; indeed, recent data showed just 55 percent of rural students had access to AP courses in their schools. Effective teachers can also be leveraged by utilizing paraprofessionals to supervise students engaging in digital work.

Advances in digital learning resources also have much to offer. Software gains have created interactive activities that are delivering on the big promises of “personalized learning.” Idaho has a statewide initiative to make available Khan Academy’s web-based instructional videos and practice exercises. WiFi hotspots can be created on school buses and other nontraditional learning environments to enable students to continue their work just about anywhere.

Technology can also be used in admittedly less glamorous ways that nonetheless help low-budget and understaffed rural schools in material ways. Automation can be used to take attendance, place lunch orders, enter student-assessment data, and purchase supplies..

But to make all of this happen–to “re-envision school” as the paper puts it–some structural changes are needed. States, districts, and schools need more robust hardware and software infrastructure. The connectivity challenges of rural America are real: 70 percent of the 26 million Americans without access to high-speed Internet live in rural areas. The U.S. Department of Education found the average school’s connectivity is equivalent to the average home…but serving 200 times the users. Only 40 percent of rural adults owned a smartphone in 2013.

To make the most of the most effective educators, significant upfront work will be required. States need systems for selecting the courses for online instruction; making state-district-school financial arrangements; and then identifying, recruiting, certifying, and compensating master teachers.

States also need to modernize their accountability systems. This includes moving away from end-of-year summative assessments (so students can prove mastery at any point during the year), assessing content providers in addition to schools, and developing tools to rate digital programs.

If you’re interested in ed tech and/or want to learn more about the intersection of innovation and rural schooling, give this paper a read.