Answers are closer than you think for rural schools

The future is on the line: Distance-learning technologies can raise student achievement (and regional prosperity) around rural school districts, according to Harry Aurora.
By HARRY AURORA //

The value of an education cannot be overstated, but not all schools are able to provide students with opportunities to reach their full potential.

Serving nearly 20 percent of the country’s K-12 student population, rural schools face particular hardships, with budgets, transportation, staffing, healthcare and distance from students’ homes being of particular concern.

Fortunately, technology can greatly impact access to education, allowing students facing the challenges of the rural education system to enjoy a wider variety of learning opportunities. This is important not only to their own education, but to an entire generation’s future economic stability.

Education is a key indicator of future economic stability, even when comparing rural areas with each other. In a 2011-15 study cited by the U.S. Economic Research Service, rural low-education counties averaged poverty rates of 24 percent, versus 16 percent for all other rural counties. The ERS also found that, since 2007, rural counties with low levels of education have unemployment rates roughly 2 percentage points higher than other rural counties.

Distance learning technology can stop this trend by increasing access to educational resources in low-income districts. And the tech can take on many forms, helping students discover new and more advanced subjects, receive extra help and enjoy new experiences – ultimately, positioning them for greater success.

Harry Aurora: Going the distance.

In the Lower Kuskokwim School District in Alaska, students were displaying a 5 percent proficiency in math across the board. The district partnered with GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), a national competitive grant program that aims to increase the college and career readiness of low-income students, with 78 students participating in a six-week enrichment program spearheaded by iTutor’s Academics Team.

Data compiled at the conclusion of the program indicated students had gained an average of three months’ worth of school-year learning. They were learning at more than twice the rate of the national grade-level cohort.

Students living in rural areas are less likely than their peers in urban and suburban areas to attend college. There are a number of factors for this, including lack of access to more rigorous academic instruction and Advanced Placement courses. Research has shown that scoring a 3 or higher on an AP exam is an indicator of success in college, and distance learning technology can afford rural students access to courses not available in their school’s traditional classroom setting.

In some cases, today’s students are the first in their families to attend college. Advanced courses and online mentoring programs can help them navigate the application process and help them improve their social skills, giving them greater confidence when they matriculate to an institution.

This helps students to not only seek out higher-education opportunities, but to complete them. Rural students are more likely than their peers to drop out of college between their first and second years, due in part to the overwhelming differences between small-town life and the day-to-day rigors of a larger institution. College preparation via distance learning technology can help mitigate these statistics.

Tutoring technology can have a significant and positive impact on not just students, but on the surrounding area. Community buy-in is important and the overall benefits to the school district are widespread. Small, rural school districts may also be uniquely positioned to quickly and effectively adapt new learning technologies, as a smaller bureaucracy means that local officials have greater ability to quickly affect change.

An article published in the October 2018 issue of AASA’s School Administrator suggests that schools can also serve as a repurposed community center when opened to after-hours events, helping to integrate the district with the often-aging tax base. This has helped increase support on various school budget initiatives. And a school doesn’t need to spend additional resources training in-classroom teachers if it has access to distance-learning technology.

In some cases, residents in rural school districts also face a lack of affordable Internet access. Increasing connectivity within the classroom, while opening schools to the wider community after-hours, can have an immense benefit for local residents, helping to provide resources like adult literacy instruction and career services.

Ultimately, providing students greater access to a wider range of academics through the phenomenon of distance learning can help schools meet every students’ individual need. From test prep to a more challenging course load, technology through distance-learning platforms helps supplement the educational resources available in rural schools – and can set students up for success later in life.

Harry Aurora is the founder and CEO of Jericho-based digital-education innovator iTutor.