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Program Uses Webcam, Free Technology to Reach Rural Schools

One question lingering after a recent summit in Washington exploring how rural schools can use technology to expand student learning was who might take the lead. (Read Ian Quillan's coverage of the summit on the Digital Education blog.

Here's a story that highlights one way a university in North Carolina is taking the lead and using technology (Skype and iChat, which are free) to connect with rural classrooms in four states to target a specific need. (Be sure to watch the video—there's great back-and-forth between a teacher and a child.)

The $5 million Targeted Reading Intervention program, paid for with public and private money, has allowed literacy consultants at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to work with teachers and teach struggling readers in kindergarten and first grade in Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas and North Carolina—via webcams. The focus is on students who aren't learning to read using regular classroom instruction, said Lynne Vernon-Feagans, Ph.D., principal investigator on the project and the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Education in Chapel Hill. The program is considered a national model for delivering professional development to rural schools via webcam technology, she said.

"We have great evidence for the effectiveness of using webcams," Vernon-Feagans told the Rural Education blog. "We actually think they are better than face to face."

Using free applications also makes this a cost-effective way to deliver professional development to remote rural schools. Such partnerships are particularly important for small schools where the resource pool is limited and there isn't always know-how (or a tech-guru) to get things set up. Nor is there funding in many rural schools that serve high-poverty communities to pay for the hardware, software, and gizmos needed to make an impact.

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