Tech Goes Rural
What's the best tech investment for rural school districts that want results? Ask Greene County, North Carolina
Greene county, in eastern North Carolina, is a verdant, agricultural community of less than 20,000 people. Jobs are scarce. Close to a third of the population under the age of 18 lives below the poverty line. Roughly three quarters of the 3,300 K–12 students in the district receive free or reduced-price lunches.
Five years ago, the district’s school officials, such as assistant superintendent Pat MacNeill, took notice of how the farming region was starting to change. “To some extent, our agricultural community was dying,” MacNeill says. “We decided we needed to reinvent ourselves.” They decided to create a different future for the districts’ children with a one-laptop-per-child program. Every teacher and some 2,000 students in grades 6–12 were issued Apple MacBooks.
A technology initiative may not seem to be the most practical option for a poor, rural district. Equipment, software, wireless access, teacher training—none of these things are cheap. But Greene County, like many other rural districts across the country, found a way to afford it all, largely through careful budgeting and grants. “The superintendent’s finance officer went line-item by line-item,” says MacNeill, and the laptops were obtained through a lease-to-own agreement with Apple.
Greene Goes Wireless
Students may take their laptops home with them to continue their school work, but when the initiative first started, few families had wireless access. To solve the problem, Greene County’s board of education approached the county commissioners, who applied for a Technology Opportunities Program (top) grant. At the same time, it provided Internet access for the rest of the community. Now schools, libraries, community hubs such as fire departments, and even local restaurants have wireless access.
Students were enthusiastic about the laptop program from the start, but getting teachers comfortable with the devices was challenging, says MacNeill, especially when many teachers did not start out with strong computer skills. “It’s very threatening for some teachers,” MacNeill says. “We tell them that it’s okay for students to know more than they do. Kids grew up with tech; they don’t fear it.”
For teachers who grew up before the age of the Internet, it’s an ongoing learning process. Greene County school officials provide full-time instructional technologists at each of its five schools for teachers and students. They also provide formal staff development twice a week. “It takes a lot of time working with teachers,” says MacNeill. “It’s not like you give a kid a laptop, and all of a sudden everything changes.”
But one thing did change quickly: the sense of disconnection—of isolation from society—that many poor, rural students and teachers feel, slipped away. “It used to be that you’d come to school and you’d feel disconnected from the world. That’s the way it was for us,” says MacNeill. No longer. “With technology, our students are now connected, they’re networked,” says MacNeill. “That’s their world.”
New Mexico Follows Suit
Many school districts in New Mexico recognize that sense of isolation. About half of the state’s school districts are rural, and 33 of those 46 districts have less than 500 students. About a dozen districts have 100 students or less. Kids in rural schools often did not enjoy the same opportunities as kids in big cities such as Albuquerque and Santa Fe did. If a student in a tiny New Mexico town wanted to take an ap physics class, for example, he’d be out of luck.
To tackle the problem, Governor Bill Richardson announced a statewide distance-learning initiative in 2006 for K–12, higher-education, and government agencies. The program launched as Innovative Digital Education and Learning in New Mexico (ideal-nm) last year. Jim Holloway, the assistant secretary for rural education for the New Mexico Public Education Department, helped develop the program. He made sure that the K–12 aspect would not be competitive with the existing school districts by creating a separate “virtual” school—a pitfall other states had fallen into. “School districts earn their state monies on student count, and I didn’t want a virtual school pulling students out of these districts,” he says.
Here’s how it works: New Mexico schools communicate their class needs to ideal-nm, who put the district together with an appropriate online class. Individual districts then provide a pro-rata share of the online-class teacher’s salary—about $200 for each student that is taking the distance-learning course. These courses cost schools far less per student than hiring a face-to-face teacher would. ideal-nm developed many of the online courses in New Mexico, using New Mexico teachers trained at New Mexico State University.
As of January 2009, ideal-nm offered 36 courses, up from 19 the previous year; by September 2009, it expects to offer 55. So far, more than 800 students in the state have been involved in distance learning programs. (A course tour is available)
Timothy Snyder, the executive director of ideal-nm, says that the program has been a lifesaver for districts with pressing needs. He talks about Cuba, New Mexico, population 600, whose chemistry teacher was unexpectedly called for a semester’s worth of overseas duty. “It was extremely problematic for a school to recruit a chemistry teacher for a three-month contract on short notice,” says Snyder. “The school called us and asked if we could teach online chemistry to 44 Cuba high-school students. We did, and it worked out very well.”
As Snyder and his colleagues developed ideal-nm, they worked to fill holes for underserved groups, including many homeschooled children in isolated areas. If a homeschooling parent wants his child to take an online course, he pays the local school district the pro-rata fee. If the parent enrolls the child in three online courses, it counts as an official enrollment. The school then increases its rolls, which helps the school get more funding. “It’s a win-win,” Snyder says.
“Students from small schools just did not have the same opportunities as their peers at larger schools,” Snyder adds. “This program has certainly served as an equalizer, and reduced that gap in opportunity.”
The Arkansas Solution
the arkansas department of Education is using online courses to support its teachers in a different way, through an online portal called Internet-Delivered Education for Arkansas Schools (ideas). It’s part of the state-funded Arkansas Online Professional Development Initiative, which receives about $4 million annually.
The state of Arkansas requires all teachers to complete 60 hours of professional training each year to retain their license. For teachers in far-flung rural areas, traveling back and forth to cities for face-to-face seminars can be difficult; the schools, meanwhile, have to go without staff for short periods of time.
To help address these issues, the Department of Education recently partnered with the local pbs television station, AETN, to provide online teacher training. Teachers use online discussion boards to get their assignments and interact with other teachers. The portal currently offers 35 free courses on instructional strategies, using technology, and teaching math, language arts, and science, each of which takes 30 to 45 hours to complete. Some are taught by instructors, while others are self-directed, with an assessment test at the end of the course. The Department of Education limits the size of the site’s video clips to make sure that they can be accessed via a slow dial-up connection—often the only option in rural areas.
Deborah Coffman, the associate director of professional development at the Arkansas Department of Education, says the main advantage for teachers in rural areas is that they can take courses when it’s convenient, without leaving town. “They can go through a little faster, on their own time—so they can be in their classrooms more,” she says.
One-to-One in Skowhegan
Skowhegan area middle school, in the hardworking rural town of Skowhegan, Maine, uses its one-laptop-per-child program to give back to its community. Laura Richter, the technology integration specialist at Skowhegan, had previously taught history for 16 years before earning her master’s degree in technology. When the MacBook one-to-one laptop program began in 2003, she trained teachers all over Maine to use the devices. As in Greene County, North Carolina, many teachers were initially nervous about integrating technology into their classrooms. Richter worked to get them comfortable as quickly as possible. “We asked them to think in a more interdisciplinary way—to think about learning that really has an impact and that goes beyond the school walls,” she says.
The students took to the laptops without blinking. One of the first projects they worked on was a history project, in which they collaborated in researching town and state history and scanning primary-source photographs and documents. They created podcasts and historical brochures, using iMovie, GarageBand, and photo-editing software. This led to the school receiving funding from the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust, which underwrote what became the Skowhegan Revitalization Project. The initial step in the project was to meet with town officials. “First, we asked, What does the town need?” says Richter. “The town members had never really sat down with teachers before. It was quite revolutionary.”
The students met one-on-one with the farmers at the local farmer’s market, and asked if they wanted their own Web pages, which students then created using Dreamweaver. They even provided the farmers with more hands-on help. “There was one farmer there who said, ‘I have a lot of corn, and I can’t harvest it,’” says Richter. “So one day, about 100 kids went on a field trip to the farm and pick all the corn.”
In February 2008, Apple named Skowhegan a Distinguished School for “implementing a 21st-century vision of education and technology integration in an exemplary way.” Apple gave the school $2,000 worth of iPod Nanos, including ten iPods loaded with student podcasts for the Chamber of Commerce. “Tourists visiting town pick up the iPods, put on the headphones, and learn all about the community,” Richter says. (View student projects at the Skowhegan website ).
Richter receives calls and e-mails from foreign countries, from Australia to the Netherlands, inquiring about the students’ projects and use of technology. “I always pass that on to the students,” she says. “I say, ‘Look! See what you’ve done! You’re not just publishing for your mom or your dad or your teachers—you’re publishing for the world.’”