5 Things City and Suburban School Districts Can Learn from their Rural Counterparts (and how EdTech will help you get there…)

There’s a lot of discussion about the urban-rural divide in education. Rural districts often struggle to keep pace as their counterparts in city and suburban public school districts, funded by larger tax bases, can offer their students and teachers more resources. But there are a few key areas where rural school districts really shine. We’ll take a closer look, then we’ll discuss five areas where educational technology can help all school districts achieve some of the same benefits.

Agility.
Larger school districts are more likely to have well-entrenched systems and bureaucracies that make it a lot harder to “turn the ship” to accommodate new technologies and innovative methods. Smaller, rural districts tend to have fewer hoops to jump through, giving leaders the ability to change course in response to needs and new opportunities. Being smaller makes it easier to gather input from all key stakeholders, make quicker decisions and get new programs off the ground. This is particularly true when it comes to technology decisions – often smaller school districts are the “early adopters” of educational technology.

Newer technology.
For larger, more urban districts, technology decisions and purchases were often made years ago, so anything new is either an add-on or requires some degree of overhaul in order to keep up with the latest technology. Smaller districts that are starting fresh with technology have the benefit of hindsight and lessons learned from their urban counterparts. They can make their decisions based on what works, and they can start fresh with the latest technology.

Many rural districts still struggle with broadband internet access, if not for the schools, then for the students who may not have reliable and affordable internet service to their homes. But, through expanded cellular networks and rural high-speed internet grant programs, the internet is getting out there. According to the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) 2018-2019 infrastructure survey, nearly all school districts (92 percent) fully meet the Federal Communications Commission’s short-term goal for broadband connectivity of of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students for all their schools.

Increased access is opening up new opportunities for rural schools to explore the use of digital technologies that weren’t previously available to them – everything from simple online file sharing and collaboration tools like Microsoft OneNote and Teams to flipped classrooms and remote teaching capabilities that allow schools to keep their doors open during inclement weather when rural school busses aren’t running.

Community.
If you’ve ever lived in a small, rural community, you know that the community raises the children. (Ask any small town kid, it’s tough to get by with much when all the parents know all the children!) This close-knit, community involvement extends to schools, which are often the hub of the community. Parents and other family members are more likely to become actively involved in the local schools, supporting extracurricular activities, sports and educational opportunities. If there’s a problem, the parents know the teachers, they know the administrators, they communicate freely and they have a vested interest in keeping their schools strong.

Teacher retention.
While city and suburban schools generally have an easier time attracting new teachers, they can also have a faster revolving door. According to focus groups conducted by CoSN, rural school districts have an excellent track record of retaining teachers who grew up in or have adopted the small-town way of life.

Rural school districts that invest in the latest technologies can help level the playing field when it comes to attracting teachers and administrators. A well-equipped school, where teachers have more flexibility and autonomy and are supported by a close-knit community, becomes an asset for recruiting. Technology is also enabling some smaller districts have both the need and the agility to offer teachers benefits like the ability to teach from home when they aren’t able to get to school.

Embracing virtual and blended learning.
Due to their smaller staff, rural schools are also turning to technologies like virtual learning, filling hard-to-hire roles such as teachers for STEM subjects, world languages and Advanced Placement (AP) courses. This allows rural districts to offer the same caliber of education as larger school districts while still keeping costs manageable. Studies show students are very engaged in online learning, and this enables schools to blend teaching methods to address different learning styles.

The Top 5 Ways EdTech Can Strengthen ALL School Districts

1) Agility. While larger school districts may have a harder time making changes to entrenched processes and technologies, it’s time to take a good, hard look at what’s entrenched. Is it flexible enough to adapt to change? If not, then your best investment may be in more agile, flexible software that requires less IT support, fewer upgrades and lower costs over time. For example, does your LMS work the way most popular productivity and business software programs work? Or do your teachers and staff have to learn multiple different technologies and switch apps multiple times throughout the day? Does your technology support modern technology expectations like messaging, digital whiteboarding and collaboration without having to switch between systems? If your current technology (or lack thereof) is keeping your district from being as agile as it could be, then that should be a major factor in your decision to change to a new technology platform.

2) Newer technology. Nobody except the best-endowed schools and districts can afford to keep up with every technological advance. But there are ways to invest in technology that is always up-to-date. When you use a cloud-supported technology like the Skooler LMS, which integrates with Microsoft Office 365, you always have the latest versions of the software your teachers and students use every day. If activities like collaboration and parental communication are challenging or complicated to do with your current technology, then it’s time to rethink your technology.

3) Community. You may not have the close-knit community of a rural school district, but technology is the 21st century community-builder, bringing people together around subjects that are relevant to them. This requires both communication and collaboration. Collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams help you build a digital community and facilitate greater collaboration among teachers. (A small but growing body of evidence suggests a positive relationship between teacher collaboration and student achievement.) For students, having the ability to use shared OneNote notebooks and other online Office applications fosters a community of collaborative learners. And parental communication tools allow teachers to keep parents engaged and informed about their students’ progress.

4) Teacher retention. While it’s easier for some than others, retaining good teachers is essential for every school district. Many teachers are already feeling overwhelmed, and having too many different technologies or the wrong technologies can be part of the issue. Teacher retention is another area where supporting collaboration is key. According to studies conducted by Susan Kardos and Susan Moor Johnson cited in District Administration, “School leaders who foster collaboration among novice and veteran teachers can improve teacher retention and teacher satisfaction. According to Kardos and Johnson, “New teachers seem more likely to stay in schools that have an ‘integrated professional culture’ in which their needs are recognized and all teachers share responsibility for student success.”

5) Embracing virtual and blended learning. While necessity may be the mother of invention for rural schools, all districts can benefit from exploring the many ways digitally-enabled learning can support their educational programs. Embracing online and blended learning can create more enriched teaching and learning experiences. Let’s use the flipped classroom as an example. When students learn their basic lessons online – the content that’s easily re-usable and can be done as “homework” – then valuable classroom time with the teacher can be spent on more creative and experiential learning opportunities, facilitating discussions and coaching students one-on-one when needed. This type of human connection and engaging interaction between teachers and students is what many teachers wanted when they decided to become teachers, and it helps students build important real-world skills like critical thinking, cooperation, metacognition and self-regulation.