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Rural Ala. Residents Receive Free Internet From School District

For my latest story for The Hechinger Report, I take a look at how a rural Alabama school district is attempting to use technology to not only improve academics, but also to revitalize a community and make the area more attractive for families and employers.

In Piedmont, Ala., the district's technology program is more than just a classroom-based, one-to-one device program and its motivation is not strictly rooted in academics. Instead, Superintendent Matt Akin said the goal is to expand opportunities for all residents, and turn around a dying town. "That's always been the bigger picture," said Superintendent Akin. "What can we do to revive a community?"

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In 2011, the district received money through a federal E-rate pilot program. Instead of only connecting its schools and libraries, the district built a wireless network throughout the community to provide high-speed Internet for all residents. The program then expanded to include digital devices for students. By 2013, all students in grades 1-12 had access to an iPad or laptop, and last year, the district expanded iPads to the kindergarten classes.

Many families in the district have never had Internet before, let alone fast and dependable wireless access. Several students I spoke with said they either have never had a computer, or their computer at home was a desktop "dinosaur." With the new network and laptops, which  students are allowed take home, access has also expanded for parents. Some adults in the community have used the district's technology to take online courses, apply to jobs, and pursue their GED.  

The technology has also increased course offerings. Students are taking online courses like Latin, which Akin said the district would never be able to offer in school, as well as online summer school courses. Piedmont High School has been able to launch a computer-science course and a robotics program, both of which utilize the new technology. When I visited the district, the high school guidance counselor told me that students are applying to a wider range of colleges than ever before because they have more access to information on colleges outside of Alabama or even the Southeast.

Nationwide, an estimated 70 percent of schools lack a high-speed Internet connection and a disproportionate number of those schools are in poor urban and rural communities, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Last week, the FCC voted to increase spending on the E-rate program, which means more schools and libraries may get connected in the next few years.

Akin said that for students growing up in this rural area, it's also important to provide exposure to non-academic content, like social media and entertainment. As I toured the district's three schools during my visit, I noticed that students spoke freely about using their technology to play games at home or watch movies. Educators and administrators didn't seem to mind that the technology wasn't being solely used for school. Akin later explained that he wants students to be exposed to the same opportunities and distractions as students in more urban, or more connected, areas. "We have to teach them how to use technology responsibly," Akin told me.  

That means that students are encouraged to use the technology to explore their interests and hobbies outside of what's available in the district or in the town of Piedmont and surrounding counties. Indeed, students in the district told me that they've used the computers and free Internet at home to pursue hobbies like learning how to crochet, designing video games, and playing instruments or listening to music.

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When I spoke to Karen Cator, the president of Digital Promise, a nonprofit that helps schools integrate technology and has worked with Piedmont, she emphasized the idea that technology is important to build experiences for rural residents. "If you're in a rural area, it doesn't mean you have less varied interests than students in other parts of the country," Cator said.

Across the nation, a handful of school districts have pooled funds or applied for grants to build wireless networks, especially to prepare for new common-core-aligned online assessments. For more, check out Benjamin Herold's story from earlier this year here.

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