Can Personalized Learning Work in Rural America?

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Rural schools have received little attention in national conversations around education reform—even though they serve nearly 1 in 5 students in America.

In rural districts, children and youth face profound obstacles—geographic isolation and long bus rides to school, frustratingly slow internet connections, limited course options, and low college-going rates. Specifically, only one-third of rural students matriculate in college compared to nearly half of urban students. And when it comes to teachers, the human capital pipeline runs relatively dry. For example, national data from the past 15 years shows that rural schools are more likely to have STEM teacher vacancies than urban or suburban schools.

Could personalized learning and the use of technology fundamentally change rural student outcomes? Perhaps, but there’s a problem. Although personalized learning is gaining momentum around the country, investment opportunities and school systems leading the charge have largely been concentrated in urban communities. One explanation is that charter schools have been at the forefront of personalized learning—they typically have more appetite for innovation and the autonomy to make large-scale changes. And because charter schools have largely been an urban phenomenon, it makes sense that personalized learning efforts have focused on cities.

In a new report from Bellwether Education Partners, Principal Jennifer Schiess and I argue that there is an opportunity for rural schools to explore how personalized learning can help resolve rural education’s challenges. We offer several policy solutions and recommendations for rural school and district leaders, based on our interviews with early adopters in rural Maine, Alabama, and Wyoming. But before you read the paper, let’s discuss how implementation could look in rural schools—and why it would look different from that of urban environments.

How It Could Help

For one, personalized learning could drive improved outcomes at the student level in rural communities. More flexible learning environments—including technology-based ones—can expand learning options for rural students beyond the four walls of a traditional classroom.

For instance, online or blended learning options enable students to take specialized or advanced coursework not offered by their school. Low or no-tech options such as project-based learning and community internships can create effective learning experiences, capitalize on the strong community relationships rural schools often enjoy, and deepen connections between schools and local employers—helping students develop the skills they need to be competitive in a changing rural economy.

Take Deer Isle-Stonington High School, off the coast of Maine, as one example: Students participate in credit-bearing projects with local fishermen and boat builders to gain academic and practical skills and to better understand Deer Isle’s thriving lobster industry. And because the lobster industry props up the whole Deer Isle community, these types of partnerships are particularly important for the region’s future economic health and sustaining its human capital pipeline.

In addition, personalized learning may help rural districts develop creative solutions to longstanding systems-level problems, like physical isolation and teacher shortages. For instance, flexible learning environments can address transportation issues common across the rural landscape. When students learn partially through internships or online coursework, their presence may not always be required at school, and they can spend less time commuting.

More flexible learning environments also entails a shift in staffing and the role of educators. While some fear that technology will replace teachers, personalized learning models can actually help the best teachers serve more students and extend their “reach.” Students working in an online or blended learning environment for part of the day can guide themselves or receive light-touch support from paraprofessionals or other non-certified staff—freeing up the time of certified teachers to focus on instructional activities where their expertise is most needed.

Don’t Use Urban Communities as the Exemplar

Although personalized learning can benefit rural schools, the design and implementation of these new learning approaches should be responsive to local needs—and not simply mirror what’s happening in urban communities. On top of that, there are a number of barriers to implementation that are specific to the rural context:

  • Limited staff capacity: Many rural districts already deal with chronic human capital constraints, but designing new learning environments will take significant staff capacity. School and district leaders have to figure out how to measure student outcomes under a personalized learning model, find the right tools for their students in a confusing edtech market, and train and support teachers.
  • Community resistance: Redesigning learning environments, traditional bell schedules, and the role of the teacher can cause backlash in rural areas where schools play a very central role in the community. Keara Duggan at Education Elements—a technical assistance provider for districts implementing personalized learning—notes: “Many rural families have attended the same schools for generations, and we’ve seen pushback from parents who don’t understand why school is changing for their kids.”
  • Broadband access and infrastructure: Connectivity in rural schools has improved significantly in recent years with the help of the federal E-rate program. However, many of these schools do not have fiber-optic cable—the only technology that can keep up with growing technology needs. Additionally, many students don’t have Internet access at home or outside of school, limiting their ability to do homework or connect with those outside of their community.

Personalized learning is no silver bullet solution, but it does hold great promise in rural America. Implementing personalized learning at scale in rural schools will require significant resources, stakeholder commitment, and tailoring to the rural context. With that, rural schools can tackle some of their most enduring challenges and accelerate student achievement.

Carolyn Chuong (@ChuongCarolyn) is currently pursuing an MBA from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. Carolyn was most recently a consultant at Bellwether Education Partners.

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