Personalized Learning

Barriers Persist for Rural Schools Implementing Personalized Learning

By Sarah Schwartz — October 23, 2017 4 min read
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Personalized learning could have the potential to transform rural schools, providing level-appropriate content in small, mixed-age classrooms and offering students access to a diversity of courses and instructors that may not be available within the school building.

But online resources, the driving force behind many personalized learning models, can be difficult to access in rural areas. Consistent broadband access isn’t a reality for many districts.

These were the main takeaways from a panel Monday on personalized learning in rural schools, part of the State Educational Technology Directors Association 2017 Leadership Summit & Education Forum.

The panel highlighted some success stories. Vermont, a mostly rural state, has seen a “sea change” in teaching, learning, and assessment after passing legislation promoting personalized learning, said Sigrid Olson, the personalized learning coordinator at the Vermont Agency of Education.

In 2013, the state passed the Flexible Pathways Initiative, which phased in personalized learning pathways for all students in grades 7-12. The law also altered graduation requirements, adopting a proficiency-based system rather than the traditional metrics of test scores and time spent in class.

Though the shift to personalized learning was a statewide step, Vermont is funding grants that enable localities to develop their own ground-level programming, said Olson.

“We do have a lot of schools and districts that are acting on their own and really moving forward on implementing personalized learning through different access points and different lenses,” she said. Vermont has “a tradition around progressive thinking in education,” Olson added.

But not all states with large rural student populations have accountability systems that explicitly promote competency-based measures.

Schools and teachers in these states may fear that shifting focus at the local level to personalized learning could penalize them in a test-driven environment, said Allen Pratt, the executive director of the National Rural Education Association.

If these states are serious about wanting to implement personalized learning, he said, it’s up to educational leaders to clearly convey the message that districts have some flexibility, and to explain what local education officials’ options are.

And even when state leadership is on board, connectivity issues can present a barrier for rural districts.

Federal programs “haven’t gone far enough” to ensure broadband access in rural areas, said John Windhausen, Jr., the executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, a broadband advocacy organization.

Universal service programs—including the E-rate, which subsidizes internet access for schools and libraries, the Lifeline program, which supports low-cost home access, and the Connect America Fund, which prioritizes broadband development in underserved rural areas—don’t “sync up” with each other to provide truly universal coverage, said Windhausen. “We don’t really have a comprehensive rural broadband strategy in this country yet,” he said.

For states looking to support educational broadband expansion, the E-rate does provide an opportunity, said Windhausen. In 2014, the Federal Communications Commission overhauled the E-rate program, expanding the annual spending cap, prioritizing schools’ access to broadband and WiFi, and encouraging the build out of fiber optic cables. If a school district wants to invest in fiber optic networks and the state funds 10 percent of the cost, the E-rate program will also contribute an additional 10 percent, said Windhausen.

But slowdowns in the approval process have hindered connectivity efforts, he said. “Some states have been going to the good effort of putting up their 10 percent,” said Windhausen, “only to find that [Universal Service Administrative Company] is rejecting their application.” Earlier this year, Education Week reported that the FCC has been slow to respond to rural districts’ proposals to build faster networks.

Windhausen encouraged state education leaders to work with Congress to put pressure on the FCC to clarify and speed up the approval process.

He also highlighted the possibility of upcoming infrastructure legislation as an opportunity for connectivity expansion, and said that the SHLB Coalition was working on a plan to promote broadband funding in any proposed legislation. (The Trump administration has voiced its commitment to an infrastructure bill, but further details and timeline for the legislation have not yet been released.)

“There’s a significant opportunity here to shape that broadband component so that it’s directed at connecting these rural schools and other anchor institutions, to get them the fiber connectivity and wireless connectivity that they need to engage in [personalized learning],” Windhausen said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.