Ed-Tech Policy

Ed-Tech Expansion Slowly Takes Shape in Rural District

By Sean Cavanagh — June 29, 2015 3 min read
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We in the media, and much of the sprawling education technology community assembled here, tend to spend a lot of time examining the digital adventures and misadventures of big-city districts like Los Angeles, and not without reason.

After all, those districts can buy tens of thousands of devices at once, at costs running into the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. And their experiences, whether good or bad, tend to shape the ambitious or cautious designs of school officials around the country contemplating ed-tech purchases.

But what about all the Pontotocs out there?

The 3,500-student Pontotoc County school district in rural Mississippi has dug deep into its budget and devoted many hours in buying iPads and Chromebooks and upgrading its internal wireless connectivity.

Its relatively cautious, yet challenging tech expansion is almost certainly far more representative of what the vast majority of the nation’s schools are going through than are the experiences of L.A., Miami, or even Guilford County, N.C.

Nearly three-fourths of U.S. districts are even smaller than Pontotoc—serving 2,500 or fewer students.

On Monday, Pontotoc, and by extension, rural districts like it, had their moment at ISTE. Pontotoc officials spoke about the experiences of gradually implementing new technology in a session titled “Rural and Relevant: Chromebooks, iPads, and Limited Budgets.”

About two-thirds of Pontotoc’s students qualify for free or reduced price lunches. Many of their parents are employed in the furniture industry, but have little disposable income, district officials explained.

Less than half of families have home Internet access. Few of them have phones capable of connecting to the Web.

For those reasons, implementing a “bring your own device” strategy would have been virtually impossible, said Melanie Kidd, the district’s tech director.

So the district has moved in phases. It spent about $130,000 recently upgrading its schools’ internal wireless infrastructure, paying for the work in installments, Kidd said. It bought about 600 Chromebooks over the past year, far short of what would be needed to implement a 1-to-1 strategy, but enough for teachers and administrators to have them, and for the devices to be shared among students via mobile carts.

The district secured outside money to help cover those costs, from both federal Title VI funding, and from a grant from Toyota, noted Jason Varnon, a tech facilitator for the district.

The district has coped with many of the same hurdles that come up in bigger districts—such as trying to help teachers and administrators who feel overwhelmed by the new technology use devices appropriately.

“It’s a big step for them,” Kidd said. “We’re only as successful as they let us be.”

Gradually, the work has begun to pay off, Varnon says. Teachers and students are staging discussions and sharing academic information via Google Drive; students are creating and sharing more documents via technology.

“It’s not just [the addition of devices],” said John Harlow, an information and communication teacher in Pontotoc. “We’ve got teachers collaborating, we’ve got kids collaborating.”

And improvements in wireless connectivity have held up under pressure, Kidd said. The district’s early experiences with common-core online tests did not breach the system’s capacity, she said.

The advantage to making ed-tech decisions in a small K-12 system is that decisions can get made quickly, Kidd said. The obvious downside: She and other administrators and district leaders don’t have a vast team of staff to guide them through those critical choices.

Those decisions, she said, tend “come through my desk.”

See also:

Hard Lessons Seen in L.A. iPad Initiative
Ark. Gov. Pushes to Add K-12 Schools to State Broadband Network
After Ed-Tech Meltdown, a District Rebounds

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