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Rural Education’s Digital Disadvantage
August 3rd, 2016

Rural Education’s Digital Disadvantage

Bill Gaskill

"Financial decisions of telecom companies have put rural students at a disadvantage, leaving some without basic digital abilities that many in America take for granted. Federal regulators are working...

“Financial decisions of telecom companies have put rural students at a disadvantage, leaving some without basic digital abilities that many in America take for granted. Federal regulators are working toward a fix for these out-of-reach of schools, but it’s unclear to what extent these efforts will solve the problem.”


The Washington Post published the April 2016 piece, “At Schools with Sub-Par Internet, Kids Face a Poor Connection with Modern Life,” spotlighting Monroe Intermediate, one of the eight percent of Alabama schools without high-speed internet service. Author Chico Harlan follows students Tatiana Flowers and Cedric Garner Jr. to see firsthand what education is like without good internet connectivity and service.

Towns like Lower Peach Tree, Alabama, the location of Monroe Intermediate, are left behind by telecom companies who don’t profit from connecting poor, rural regions. Armed with 29 iPads, but lacking stable WiFi required to make those iPads educationally valuable, Monroe’s 60 students will graduate without a firm grasp of basic computer skills, including online research and completion of colleges applications.

Today, when schools in affluent areas have enough funds to provide each student with a personal laptop, Monroe Intermediate may seem like an unfortunate anomaly. However, thousands of such schools exist across the United States, leaving countless students ill-equipped for the digital age.

An ongoing problem

A forward-projecting 1998 national study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress focused on four factors of computer usage: access in schools, access and frequency of use in homes, teachers’ computational ability, and ways in which students and faculty use a computer. Researchers found that race and community status had a significant impact on all four points of use. Rural students were ten percent less likely to use computers at school, but interestingly, more likely to own computers at home.

Moving beyond 1996, the problem shifted somewhat from using technological equipment to being connected. (This 2012 Pew report provides an update.) Mary Keegan, Professor at the University of Illinois’ School of Social Work, cites many reasons why being connected is critical to a child’s future success. Among these are: securing employment, being aware of opportunities, and engaging with civic rights.

Children left behind

Schools like Monroe Intermediate are located in poor, rural areas, where a digital gap only compounds existing problems. Few Monroe Intermediate students seek a post-secondary degree, intimidated by the technological skills their peers have acquired and they lack. Many States perform standardized testing on computers which is detrimental to students without basic computer skills. Poor test scores and limited computer skills are a red flag in today’s educational and employment arenas. The digital gap between urban and rural keeps impoverished areas poor.

Even if rural schools can provide modern technology for their students, long commutes for rural students as well as a lack of technology at home—Amanda Brown, at Everton High School in Missouri, still handwrites her papers—disrupt the continuity of a digital education and lower student productivity. A 2010 report by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) states only 50 percent of rural residents have high-speed internet.

Possible solutions

Steps are being taken to counter the rural-urban digital gap. Communications director for the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, Wendy Mann, describes how small, rural telecom companies have stepped in to “connect the school, the library, and your home.” These same companies also purchase computers in bulk and sell them to cash-strapped rural schools at discounted rates.

Cash is another problem. Rural schools lack the funds to make significant technological upgrades. Executive Editor of The Hechinger Report, Sarah Garland, states “Most federal funding for schools has remained flat and one major funding stream specifically intended to boost education technology, the $700 million Title II-D Enhancing Education through Technology program, was eliminated.” On July 1, 2016, the FCC will allow rural, unconnected schools to “hire their own outside companies to build their fiber connections, partially using federal funding, if the local telecom company won’t.” Although taxpayers will cover 80 percent of the $1 million needed to connect Monroe Intermediate, the school district still cannot afford its share, $200,000.

Final thoughts

The great American social reformer Horace Mann said, “Education…is the great equalizer of the conditions of men.” Schools like Monroe Intermediate suggest there is an additional factor, access to and application of reliable technology. Development organizations such as the World Bank push for technology in schools in emerging countries, yet many rural communities in the United States are still not adequately equipped.

Gradual steps are being taken to close the digital gap, but only time will tell if it will happen in time.

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