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"Personalized Learning" Guidebook Geared to Rural Districts' Needs

From setting up blended classrooms to crafting curriculum playlists, more districts and states are turning to "personalized learning" in attempts to engage students and improve academic outcomes.

A new guidebook from Future Ready Schools explores how this trend could benefit rural students specifically, and offers implementation strategies tailored for rural districts. The framework addresses technical concerns, like infrastructure and data privacy, but also gives advice on building human networks, covering professional development and community partnerships.

Future Ready Schools, a project of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national advocacy organization for K-12 students, supports and provides resources for districts implementing personalized learning programs.

The guidebook was released in partnership with AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and the National Rural Education Association. It is an adapted version of the Future Ready Framework, a general personalized learning guide for districts. Generally speaking, personalized learning refers to efforts to customize lessons to meet students' individual academic needs and interests. Many districts are aggressively pursuing that goal, as are technology companies eager to convince them they have the products capable of delivering it. 

"A lot of times, rural schools would really like to do something like this, but just didn't have the infrastructure or the manpower," said Allen Pratt, the executive director of the National Rural Education Association, in an interview. "A guidebook or a playbook to help this process is very important."  

Rural districts face significant challenges in implementing personalized learning. Rural school broadband connections can be slow, and purchasing devices is often expensive for small districts, the guidebook points out. 

Students in rural areas are also less likely to have high-speed internet at home. Only about half of all students in rural schools have home broadband, compared to 67 percent of students in urban communities and 70 percent of students in suburban communities, the guidebook reported. 

All of this can create barriers to e-learning.

To secure affordable high-speed internet for students, the guidebook suggests districts make use of Federal Communications Commission subsidy programs like the Schools and Libraries Program, also known as E-rate, the Connect America Fund, and the Lifeline program.

"E-rate is vital," said Pratt, adding that E-rate and Lifeline have helped rural districts, especially in the Southern and Western parts of the country, move forward in technology implementation. These federal programs are crucial to the success of personalized learning in rural districts, said Pratt. 

Though progress has been made, he said, technology gaps persist for rural schools.

Devices and hardware updates can also cost more per student in small rural districts than in large urban ones, which can get better deals on large volume purchasing, the guidebook noted. Rural districts can get around those obstacles by arranging to use consortium-based pricing, said Tom Murray, the Future Ready Schools' director for innovation, in an interview.


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