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3 ways technology should be reinventing rural education

Author: By Bryan C. Hassel and Stephanie Dean

For rural schools, technology is a solution but also another challenge

rural-technology[1]Technology makes it possible for each of us to do more, learn more, and be more connected. That’s true for education in general, but its potential seems particularly compelling for rural schools, which struggle to offer an array of learning opportunities, to transport students to a central facility, and to get the best combination of teachers from small candidate pools.

Technology in education sounds terrific: It can bring the world to a classroom. It can give students access to courses and resources they might not otherwise get. It can inject engaging fun into the classroom, as students learn through games and create in a digital medium. Technology seems like a shiny tool that will build a bridge across the achievement gap.

But technology’s power, like any tool, depends on how it is used. If a builder buys a new skill saw and wants to get the full value from his investment, he will place it in the hands of his best carpenter, and will charge that leader with training the other carpenters to use it effectively.

Likewise, efforts to use digital tools in education gain new potential when paired with efforts to give more students access to the best teachers. Schools in several states are doing just that, by developing new staffing models that break out of the traditional one-teacher-per-classroom model. They extend the reach of their top teachers using technology and team leadership. These teacher-leaders help their peers orchestrate in-person and online activities to maximize student learning. They use flexible student groupings and scheduling to meet each student’s needs while coaching teams of teachers toward excellent instruction.

Most rural schools, including districts participating in the Idaho Leads initiative, the Idaho P-TECH network, Khan Academy in Idaho, and other efforts, are already forging ahead with integrating technology into their work. But to tap the full potential of technology, students, communities, educators, and policymakers will also need to re-envision the traditional paradigm: particularly the notion of education delivered within classrooms of 20 to 30 students led by a single teacher.

Next page: 3 ways to use technology wisely in rural schools

In a paper funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation and developed with the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho (ROCI), we offer a set of recommendations to overcome challenges and capitalize on the potential of technology to serve rural students, particularly those in Idaho, including:

Expand broadband access to schools lacking it, and give students broadband connectivity outside of the school building. Many visions of digital learning in rural environments involve students accessing online learning resources outside of the school setting, whether at home, in learning hubs based in community centers or churches, or on Wi-Fi-enabled school buses. Idaho should make broadband access a priority, moving it past the woes of the Idaho Education Network.

Create an elite corps of proven teachers who can digitally teach students across the state, with a focus on teachers of classes needed for college and courses that allow high school students to earn college credit. Students do not need access to just any teachers, but to excellent teachers who can help them surge ahead in their learning. Public or philanthropic funds could catalyze the creation of an elite corps of proven excellent teachers who would then be made available to students across a state or a multi-state area. This would require certification and licensure issues to be addressed for out-of-state teachers who have shown themselves worthy of entering the elite pool of online instructors.

Provide districts and schools with the flexibility to develop new models of staffing and technology use and to spend current funds to achieve the needed combination of personnel, facilities, and technology. One of the biggest constraints districts face in states such as Idaho is funding tied to specific position types or other input categories. With more control over funding, schools and districts could reallocate their dollars to pay excellent teachers more and buy the technology those teachers need to extend their reach to more students. Many districts could fund a “digital conversion” by reallocating funds that are currently being used for non-essential staff positions, textbooks, and other purposes.

To read the whole paper, click here [2]. Annotate this on

Bryan C. Hassel is co-director of Public Impact [3], a national research and consulting firm that aims to dramatically improve learning outcomes for all children in the U.S. He is a member of the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho [4]. Stephanie Dean is vice president of teaching and learning policy at Public Impact. A version of this piece first appeared in the Idaho Times-News.

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DMU Timestamp: April 10, 2015 19:32

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