It’s Time to Provide Equitable Access to Quality Learning in Our Rural Schools

Everyone knows how easy it is to get caught up in the hoopla of a big announcement or event. We’ve all done it. We get swept up in the global consciousness of a political or sporting moment. We join the mass hysteria related to a movie or concert. We go crazy over a new piece of technology.

Take yesterday’s foldable phone announcement by Samsung, for example. Some are already heralding the new foldable display as the “future of smartphones.” It’s a phone. It’s a tablet. If we tilt our imaginations just right, we can see our future selves passing foldable digital notes in a classroom behind the teacher’s back.

Yes, it’s easy to be carried away by the sights and sounds of these announcements. They come with talented spokespersons, impressive video presentations, and plenty of loud music. Cue the applause,

Unfortunately, however, such “news” serves as the patter that distracts us from real, immediately important issues.

For example, while everyone is busy being hypnotized by the lights and sounds of another new technology announcement, it’s easy to miss something of more immediate import, like ACT’s recent report that many rural students in the U.S. are still lagging behind when it comes to technology access.

Even though one in five students in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools live in a rural area, they are more often overlooked when it comes to education technology policy reform than their peers in non-rural communities, concludes a report by nonprofit organization ACT.

The ACT report found that rural students were almost twice as likely (16 percent to 9 percent) as non-rural students to describe the internet access in their home as “unpredictable,” and 36 percent of rural students described their internet access as “great,” compared with 46 percent of non-rural students.

To my way of thinking, this is a present reality that merits our full attention. To be clear, technology can be a game-changer in the quest to improve the world through education, but only if it is part of a plan that is focused on equitable access by everyone to high-quality learning.

This has been on my mind increasingly of late as we launch our program of affordable dual-enrollment courses with college credit to rural school districts. One of the primary drivers behind this program is to provide this kind equitable access to postsecondary programs in rural areas. While we will learn plenty of lessons and make a good number of adjustments in the coming years, I think we have a solid set of high-level outcomes to guide our work.

We categorize our four major outcomes in terms of the challenges we see facing many rural high schools.

1. Access to affordable postsecondary education opportunities — Schools and the families they support must have access to highly affordable postsecondary education programs. We define highly affordable as “requiring no loans or presenting any financial burden for families.”

2. Access to high-quality learning curriculum in flexible formats that allow every student to succeed — The curriculum and courses should take advantage of the power and flexibility provided by digital delivery but must also be available in print formats to support connectivity or other technical shortcomings.

3. Access to high-quality learning materials and/or instructional resources — Learning materials, instruction, activities, and feedback must be rigorous, well designed, and prepared and delivered by qualified experts. Rural students should receive as good or better learning opportunities as their urban and suburban counterparts. The curriculum must support local teaching resources and also allow schools to address potential areas of instructional need.

4. Access to a curriculum that addresses local educational needs and opportunities — The curriculum and courses must address the professional aspirations of students as well as local workforce opportunities.

We believe that, by addressing these outcomes, we can provide something that will have a real impact and lead to transformative changes in our society.

Rob Reynolds, Ph.D.
Executive Director, TEL Library

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