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Technology in Rural Schools: Addressing Digital Equity

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 complex issue given the challenges within rural schools and systems.

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 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 connect within the school.

Running internet cables across rivers and 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 students’ digital equity school districts want.

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 community’s priorities.

Austin explains that many parents in her community struggle with finances and 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 the internet at home. One of Wisconsin’s struggles 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 use 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 outside of their school building to solve 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.

Originally Published: eSchoolNews
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Published inDigital DivideDigital Equity

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