Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Rural schools struggle to bridge the digital divide

Rural schools have long been leaders in distance-learning and online education. "To offer a full slate of courses to their students, they’ve had to be. Some states, fearing a divide between rural and urban communities, have developed statewide initiatives to provide technology to rural schools," Sarah Butrymowicz writes in The Hechinger Report. Maine, she points out, gives every student a laptop, and Alabama requires all school districts "to offer advanced placement courses through distance-learning technology, where students video-conference with teachers. (Edison School in Yoder, Colo.; Butrymowicz photo)

In 2010, only 57 percent of rural households had broadband Internet access, compared to 72 percent in urban areas, according to a November 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Teachers in rural settings don't require students to go online to complete assignments and have to be flexible about staying after school so students can work on the computers. “The Internet can give them library resources that they might otherwise not have,” said Aimee Howley, senior associate dean in the College of Education at Ohio University, who studies technology integration in rural schools. Technology can also be used for simulations of things, she said, that “you just can’t do on site."

For schools facing shrinking budgets and consolidation, technology could be rural schools’ saving grace, said Bob Wise, a former governor of West Virginia who now serves as president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., that has studied the challenges facing rural schools. “We’re encouraging every district to develop a systematic strategy for employing technology,” he said. “My guess is you will see a number of rural schools actually saved and renewed as learning centers.”

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