New Keeping Pace/Foundation for Blended and Online Learning study looks at how digital learning can address rural education needs

During the summer of 2017, the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning (FBOL) approached Evergreen about creating a study looking at the ways in which digital learning can help schools tackle rural education needs.

My initial response was that the topic didn’t strike me as all that interesting. Weren’t most rural education advocates aware of online and blended learning, and was there much to add to the conversation?  

But after digging a bit further I realized that the folks at FBOL were right, that there would be value in such a study. There is, in fact, a surprising lack of knowledge about digital learning among many rural education organizations and resources. We felt that a study would address this gap.

The result is the just-published report, Digital Learning Strategies for Rural America: a Scan of Policy and Practice in K–12 Education. Our preliminary findings, which validated the benefits of the study, are explored in the introduction to the report, which I paraphrase here:

Rural American has always held an outsized influence on how we see our country, from the earliest days of our nation, with its founders’ focus on farmers, to the influential role of the western frontier in the country’s development. In recent years, the common narrative around rural America has shifted from being largely positive, to a greater emphasis on the challenges of rural regions, including the lack of economic opportunity for rural residents. The shifting economy’s ever-decreasing reliance on physical labor is a current topic, as rural regions are bearing the brunt of economic forces beyond their control. With the economic shift in rural areas towards jobs that require greater levels of learning, education is increasingly seen as part of the problem, and a necessary part of the solution, to increasing economic and social opportunities in rural regions.

Among advocates for rural people and regions, technology is often seen as a driving factor that is shifting economic activity and power from the rural heartland to urban and coastal areas. Perhaps this is a reason that the power of technology to address rural education challenges has been too often overlooked by many rural advocates.

Technology in the form of online and blended learning has been helping students and schools in many ways. Although many educators understand this, the role of technology has not been front and center in discussions about how to improve rural education, and how to advance the college and career prospects for students attending rural schools. Instead, many reports on rural education give little attention to digital learning. At most, they tend to note either infrastructure needs or the potential of remote course access, with little focus on instruction, outcomes, or exemplars. See, for example, the Section 5005 Report on Rural Education, Preliminary Report, December 2017, by the U.S. Department of Education, or Leveling the Playing Field for Rural Students, November 2017, by The School Superintendents Association and the Rural School and Community Trust.

The FBOL/Keeping Pace report intends to begin correcting that imbalance by connecting the dots between rural regions, rural education, and digital learning.

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