Bridging the Opportunity Divide

How Technology Can Level the Playing Field for Rural Towns in America

January 8, 2015
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How Technology Can Level the Playing Field for Rural Towns in America
One Alabama town is making strides to help its kids and its community.

The sleepy town of Piedmont, Ala., sits at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, about 15 miles west of the Georgia border and what seemed to be dozens of miles from the edtech phenomenon that’s transformed communities and classrooms across the country.

But that changed in 2009 when Piedmont first began its foray into embracing technology and when the district adopted a one-to-one laptop program for older students. Since that point, the school district has been adding online courses, and in 2012, rolled out a wireless network blanketing the entire town. But unlike many school districts that have adopted similar high-tech learning strategies, Piedmont is not only aiming to help its children, but also hoping to revive a fledgling town that has seen the closure of several factories — leaving many without jobs. More than 9 percent of locals are unemployed and 25 percent of adults age 25 and older have less than a high school diploma.

“That’s always been the bigger picture,” says Matt Akin, superintendent of Piedmont City Schools. “What can we do to revive a community?”

With just 4,800 residents, the town’s median household income sits at about $33,000, which is about $20,000 lower than the national average; almost 37 percent of Piedmont’s children live in poverty. Which is why Akin and other community leaders are hoping embracing high-tech learning will attract more people to see the town as a great place to settle down.

As research shows, access to technology and the Internet in rural areas has the potential to close critical information gaps and helps residents access higher education and scholarship opportunities, online courses and other educational resources.

“Technology allows people in rural areas to reap the benefits of a rural lifestyle, while not sacrificing access to learning opportunities,” says Karen Cator, president of Digital Promise, a classroom technology advocacy group.

Though Piedmont educators have embraced technology in the classroom, they quickly realized that students were unable to translate the tech into their home lives with out access at home. Students were forced to sit outside the school to access the network in order to download videos or assignments, according to Piedmont Middle School principal Jerry Snow.

After receiving a federal E-rate grant to set up a wireless network in late 2011, Piedmont leaders moved on to resolve the next problem, which was a lack of technical experts or IT staff to help locals adapt. District leaders then began welcoming more student teachers to assist educators with technology, as well as partnering with local colleges.

Students laptops have also helped engage parent involvement, including helping them pursue their own opportunities, according to Akin. Parents use the wireless network and laptops to take their own online or GED courses, apply for jobs and access other resources. These types of outcomes are exactly what Akin was working toward.

But now he’s also expanded his goal to include addressing academic needs across the school district — including personalized learning approaches that test individual students and measure progress. Now, teachers vary between group lessons and monitoring individual work and students are assessed by online programs and also receive online lessons based on their academic levels.

“They can work at their own pace now,” Snow says.

While it’s still too early to tell whether Piedmont’s push for a more tech-savvy community will transform the entire town, some parents have seen improvements in their children’s grades and attention span in school. But Akin believes the multi-year effort will pay off in the long run.

“We just want kids to have the same opportunity that kids in other places have,” he says. “The opportunities that our kids have, and the opportunities that any kid has, shouldn’t depend on where they live.

 MORE: For Kids That Struggle with Reading, Digital Literacy Programs Show Promise

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