Rural schools have a number of advantages, including smaller class sizes and greater community involvement. Historically, however, they have also had more financial and logistical challenges than urban schools and have been less equipped to offer a broad range of classes and enrichment activities. With their higher per-pupil operating costs, less dense populations, and stretched budgets, rural schools often find it hard to compete with their suburban and urban counterparts. They simply lack the resources to offer the full array of opportunities afforded to larger schools with bigger budgets and greater access to teacher talent.
This gap can potentially put rural students at a significant disadvantage, limiting their education, their college paths, and their professional choices. However, educational technology and other tools are beginning to bridge this gap, bringing a wider variety of educational resources to rural communities. More and more often, rural school districts are partnering with companies like Clear Touch Interactive to leverage technology in the classroom in order to provide a more thorough education for their students while still offering the strong community support that makes these schools effective for the populations they serve.
Technology in the Classroom Boosts Rural Education
Here are just a few innovative ways that technology can improve the quality of education in the rural classroom:
1. Wider Variety of Course Offerings
Rural schools often have smaller teaching forces to go along with their smaller student populations. Smaller faculties necessarily limit a school’s ability to offer specialized content, schedule a larger variety of class subjects, or incorporate more on-site talents and skills. Enter virtual learning. No longer boring, static videos, virtual learning has grown up and matured. Online classes are often live and interactive, with direct communication with and support from the remote instructor. Most can be accessed through a range of devices—smartphones, laptops, tablets, and more. These programs allow schools to expand their offerings and fill curricular gaps. Rural schools can offer more world languages, more specialized, higher-level programs like STEM classes, and more extensive Advanced Placement courses. iTunesU is one simple, smart (and free!) place for rural schools to get started offering an expanded course schedule. Of course, online courses and other remote learning opportunities become even more engaging and interactive on a large flat-panel with 20 points of simultaneous touch. With our educational software suite, students and classroom facilitators can easily participate in surveys, annotate lessons, share their screens with the class, and screen capture the lesson for future reference.
2. Expanded Library Access
Rural students typically have less access to books in their schools and through their public libraries. Public libraries in rural areas are hard-pressed to compete with their peer institutions in more densely populated areas. Many rural counties have only one small library. Staffing is limited, often with only one Master’s level librarian. Hours of operation are restricted and actual resources are limited. And even when a rural area has a vital public library, the children and adolescents it serves may find it near impossible to get there due to limited transportation or family schedules. Providing internet access and devices along with sites and programs like Google and Google Scholar equips students to read hundreds of thousands of texts and to research specific queries. Students in rural areas do not have to be scholastically compromised by the limited hard-print resources their schools may have. Information is at their fingertips.
3. Simulated Laboratories
The use of virtual laboratories have several key advantages over traditional laboratory learning. Access can be flexible. Students can engage with the experiment at the time that best fits their schedule, or when they learn best. Another valuable advantage is the ability to redo an experiment. In a more traditional lab, the cost and availability of supplies often means that practically, there may be only one opportunity. Whereas with a virtual lab, if a student makes a mistake, they can learn from it right away by redoing the experiment. Virtual labs make it possible to always have access to leading-edge equipment. Lab equipment is expensive and most schools could never afford to replace their equipment as regularly as more advanced equipment becomes available. But since virtual labs are shared by so many schools, and because they are in competition with each other, they have the flexibility and incentive to stay up-to-date. Several colleges and scientific organizations offer free and low-cost virtual laboratories, including the University of Colorado Boulder’s PhET Interactive Simulations Project, learningscience.org, labster.com, and The American Chemical Society.
4. Blended Learning
A greater percentage of rural districts are appreciating the benefits of blended learning, where students participate in a combination of online, distance learning and traditional brick-and-mortar classes. Not only does blended learning expand course offerings, but it creates much-needed flexibility in the students’ schedules and can save critical budget dollars. The correlation between rural districts and lower income families can mean students often have the added responsibility for contributing to family income or helping to care for younger siblings. Blended learning creates possibilities for students to adjust schedules to accommodate these other responsibilities. It can also facilitate a student’s need to be at home for stretches of time due to illness or family obligations. Schools also benefit from the added flexibility. When students can accomplish part of their learning outside the walls of the classroom, schools can actually consider three or four-day weeks, saving many thousands of budget dollars on bus transportation and hours per week of kids on the road.
Internet access in rural areas can be a challenge, with many rural students having no ability to get online at home. Furthermore, economic circumstances can mean kids do not have computers or other devices at home. Some districts are finding ways to fund countywide wireless networks in rural areas in order to better support student learning—and some larger corporations are finding creative solutions to the problem as well. For example, Google’s Rolling Study Hall is expanding to offer Chromebooks and Wi-Fi on school buses to thousands of rural students across the country to let them optimize learning during long commutes.
5. Virtual Field Trips
Rural schools, by their very nature, are more isolated geographically, and tend to be less affluent as well. This can result in fewer enrichment opportunities for their students. But through virtual field trips offered by programs like FieldTripZoom and Discovery Education, rural students can experience the whole world’s wonders. Harvard researcher Robert Putnam has done extensive research on problems caused by isolation and has concluded: “One of the most promising applications of technology in our public schools is the use of technology to transcend the physical classroom and combat this growing isolation.”
Virtual field trips allow students to get a sense of the world’s museums, explore the rainforests, the arctic, or connect with students of the same age from another culture on the other side of the world. While a virtual experience is not as enriching as a real-life encounter, it can certainly spark a sense of wonder and possibility. It may open a door for a child in a remote, rural community that she eventually walks through as an adult.
Not only do rural students benefit from educational tools and increased access to information and resources, but they grow and mature from the networking and connectedness created by technology. A world of global and diverse friendships is opened to them, expanding their horizons and vision of who and what they can be.
Improving and increasing the use of technology in the rural classroom is an ever-changing and ever-expanding field. There are still plenty of challenges imposed by funding and underdeveloped internet networking, but the future looks bright for rural schools. School districts are problem-solving and increasing the ways in which they incorporate technology into the rural classroom—and recent studies show that a greater number of rural students are graduating and pursuing higher education degrees than ever before.