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Broadband Offers Opportunities, Poses Challenges for Rural Schools

Insufficient broadband coverage is a problem for rural schools nationwide, and that only will continue to worsen if nothing changes.

That's the premise behind a new white paper, "Broadband and Rural Education: An Examination of the Challenges, Opportunities, and Support Structures that Impact Broadband and Rural Education," from ICF International. The Fairfax, Va.-based consulting firm relied on available research to produce a solid primer on why broadband is important to rural schools.

The report's authors are Caitlin Howley, Kellie Kim, and Stephen Kane.

One-fourth of the nation's students attend rural schools, and that figure is growing faster when compared to any other geographic area. Many rural schools are either under-served or unserved by broadband providers, and that's becoming a bigger issue as more "bandwith intensive material" such as educational videos, video conferencing, interactive learning tools, are moving online.

"Without adequate high-speed internet infrastructure, rural schools and the students they serve will be left behind," according to the paper.

The infrastructure to install broadband service can be expensive for large rural areas with few residents, and the cost to residents also can be high.

But broadband benefits rural teachers and students by providing access to professional development and courses, respectively, that otherwise wouldn't be available. The report offers a list of federal, state and private foundations that help connect rural communities, and that might be a helpful resource for districts looking for solutions.

The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news organization that does in-depth education journalism, also published a report last week on the same issue. "Bridging the digital divide in America's rural schools" by Sarah Butrymowicz highlighted Edison, a rural Yoder, Colo., school that's made technology a priority and found a way to provide almost as many computers as it has students (a $10,000 grant from a Denver-based foundation).

The article says some states have created programs to provide technology to rural schools. In Maine, that means giving a laptop to every student, and in Alabama, it's requiring districts to offer Advanced Placement courses through distance-learning technology.

Bob Wise, a former West Virginia governor who now heads a national education advocacy group, is quoted as saying technology will be what preserves rural schools.

"We're encouraging every district to develop a systematic strategy for employing technology," said Wise, who leads the Washington, D.C.,-based Alliance for Excellent Education. "My guess is you will see a number of rural schools actually saved and renewed as learning centers."

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