Voices from the Idaho EdNews Community

Putting technology to work in rural schools

Bryan Hassel

Technology makes it possible for each of us to do more, learn more, and be more connected. Need to pay your bills and register your kid for swim lessons while locating a recipe for dinner? Jump online. Want to learn more about something you just overheard while in line at the grocery store? Type it into a search engine. Wonder what your former little league teammates are up to? Check your Facebook newsfeed.

Bryan Hassel
Bryan Hassel

Imagine what we could do for education if we maximized the potential of technology for teachers and students. Technology’s potential seems particularly compelling for rural schools, which struggle to offer an array of learning opportunities, to transport students to a central facility, and to get the best combination of teachers from small candidate pools.

Technology in education sounds terrific: It can bring the world to a classroom. It can give students access to courses and resources they might not otherwise get. It can inject engaging fun into the classroom, as students learn through games and create in a digital medium. Technology seems like a shiny tool that will build a bridge across the achievement gap.

But technology’s power, like any tool, depends on how it is used. If a builder buys a new skill saw and wants to get the full value from his investment, he will place it in the hands of his best carpenter, and will charge that leader with training the other carpenters to use it effectively.

Likewise, efforts to use digital tools in education gain new potential when paired with efforts to give more students access to the best teachers. Schools in several states are doing just that, by developing new staffing models that break out of the traditional one-teacher-per-classroom model. They extend the reach of their top teachers using technology and team leadership. These teacher-leaders help their peers orchestrate in-person and online activities to maximize student learning. They use flexible student groupings and scheduling to meet each student’s needs while coaching teams of teachers toward excellent instruction.

Most rural schools, including districts participating in the Idaho Leads initiative, the Idaho P-TECH network, Khan Academy in Idaho, and other efforts, are already forging ahead with integrating technology into their work. But to tap the full potential of technology, students, communities, educators, and policymakers will also need to re-envision the traditional paradigm: particularly the notion of education delivered within classrooms of 20 to 30 students led by a single teacher.

In a forthcoming paper funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation and developed with the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho (ROCI), we offer a set of recommendations to overcome challenges and capitalize on the potential of technology to serve students, particularly Idaho’s rural students, including:

  • Expand broadband access to schools lacking it, and give students broadband connectivity outside of the school building. Idaho should make this a priority, moving it past the woes of the Idaho Education Network.
  • Create an elite corps of proven teachers who can digitally teach students across the state, with a focus on teachers of classes needed for college and courses that allow high school students to earn college credit. Students need access not just to any teachers, but to excellent teachers who can help them surge ahead in their learning.
  • Provide districts and schools with the flexibility to develop new models of staffing and technology use and to spend current funds to achieve the needed combination of personnel, facilities, and technology. With more control over funding, schools and districts could reallocate their dollars to pay excellent teachers more and buy the technology those teachers need to extend their reach to more students.

Bryan C. Hassel is co-director of Public Impact, a national research and consulting firm that aims to  improve learning outcomes for all children in the United States. He is a member of the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho. Stephanie Dean is vice president of teaching and learning policy at Public Impact.


Bryan Hassel

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