Technology in rural schools: Addressing digital equity

Digital equity is a challenge across the nation, especially in rural schools--but efforts are underway to increase connectivity

The goal of digital equity is to ensure that all students have access to devices, high-speed internet, and opportunities to learn both in school and out.

While digital equity is a challenge for all school districts, Dr. Beth Holland, CoSN’s digital equity and rural project director, points out that it becomes a very complex issue given the challenges within rural schools and systems.

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In a recent edWebinar, Holland, along with Jennifer Austin, CETL, instructional technology coordinator at Lac du Flambeau Public School in Wisconsin; Michael Flood, vice president of strategy at Kajeet; and Tammy Neil, a computer science teacher at Suwannee Middle School in Florida, discuss the unique challenges rural districts face when providing students’ online access to their education.

Flood explains that when students don’t have equal access to devices and high-speed internet, it prevents them from having the same kinds of learning opportunities as their more connected peers.

Challenges

Usually located in rugged terrains, near rivers, and wooded areas and surrounded by mountains, rural school districts like Suwannee Middle School and Lac du Flambeau Public Schools struggle to have connectivity within the school.

Running internet cables across rivers and through rocky terrain can be impossible feats, resulting in limited dedicated internet connections. Having to rely on service providers whose coverage can be unreliable and nonexistent in parts of the community does not ensure the digital equity school districts want for their students.

Socioeconomics also plays a huge role in digital equity for rural districts such as the Florida and Wisconsin school districts. Lac du Flambeau’s student population of 93 percent Native American with 100 percent of students on free and reduced lunch affects the priorities of the community.

Austin explains that many parents in her community are struggling with finances and must prioritize food over the internet. In Suwannee, it is the case of the “haves and have-nots,” with both affluent and high-poverty areas within the district.

Neil sees the impact this has on the school community and is challenged to ensure digital equity when 25 percent of students don’t have internet at home. One of the struggles in Wisconsin is digital learning days, where students with limited or no access to Wi-Fi at home cannot access their education.

Solutions

While socioeconomics, district location, and availability of reliable and consistent Wi-Fi access may seem insurmountable, rural districts, along with CoSN and companies like Kajeet, are committed to both digital equity and digital equality.

Providing families with used school-issued Chromebooks, adding access points outside the school buildings, and collaborating with community partners on projects such as youth centers and public libraries give students and the entire community access to technology.

Pioneered by Google in partnership with Kajeet, rural districts in more than a dozen states are using rolling study halls. Buses equipped with Wi-Fi devices turn normally unproductive time on school buses into homework time.

Even more widespread in school districts are LTE hotspots. Through a school library’s checkout program, these low-cost mobile devices provide students and households in need with secure, reliable, and safe access to the internet. Districts in remote areas where it is impossible to establish internet connections such as a wilderness educational facility in Wyoming are installing LTE routers on the outside of their school building as a solution to their connectivity issues.

Accelerators and hurdles

CoSN’s Driving K-12 Innovation report addresses this challenge of digital equity regarding how school districts ensure that students experience innovative, creative, and engaging learning experiences.

The presenters all agree that there are many hurdles–especially in a rural district–to meeting the digital equity challenge. However, the accelerators, including providing personalized learning opportunities for students, building community partnerships, and adopting more cloud platforms in school districts, are worth the hurdles they face to ensure digital equity for all students.

About the presenters

Jennifer Austin, CETL, serves as the instructional technology coordinator at the Lac du Flambeau Public School in Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin. She has been with the district since 1999 as both a teacher and the technology coordinator.

Michael Flood currently serves as Vice President of Strategy at Kajeet. In his role, Michael leads strategy addressing equity and scalability of mobile technology in the education market while focusing on technology’s transformative role in education. Michael also serves on the Board of Directors for the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) as well as CoSN’s Emerging Technology Committee, Digital Equity Committee, Leadership for Digital Learning initiative, and Independent, Charter, and Parochial Schools committee. Additionally, Michael serves on the Leadership team for ISTE’s Digital Equity PLN and volunteers with many other non-profit and leadership organizations in the education community. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Georgia Tech and Emory University, respectively.

Tammy Neil is a computer science teacher at Suwannee Middle School in Suwannee County, FL. She teaches grades six through eight in the growing CTE program at the school. Outside of the classroom, she is the lead organizer for Edcamp Suwannee and also co-moderates #FLedChat and #RuralEdChat each week on Twitter. She is a Google Certified Trainer and has presented at several conferences on the power of connections through social media.

About the host

Dr. Beth Holland serves as Digital Equity and Rural Project Director for the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). Over the past 20 years, she has taught in K-12 classrooms, served as Director of Academic Technology in a PS-8 independent school, designed professional learning programs for schools around the world, and developed leadership programs to support systemic change. Additionally, she is a prolific writer, researcher, and speaker. Dr. Holland holds a Doctorate of Education (Ed.D.) in entrepreneurial leadership in education from Johns Hopkins University, a Master of Education (Ed.M.) in technology, innovation, and education from Harvard University, as well as a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree in communications from Northwestern University.

Join the community

Tech for Rural Districts is a free professional learning community on edWeb.net for school superintendents, district leadership, and aspiring district leaders that work in rural school districts.

This edWeb broadcast was co-hosted by CoSN and edWeb.net. The recording of the edWebinar can be viewed by anyone here.

About the Author:

Eileen Belastock, CETL is the Director of Academic Technology for Mount Greylock RSD in Williamstown, MA, and also works with edWeb.net to write articles on their professional learning edWebinars. You can follow Eileen on Twitter @EileenBelastock.

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