Report: Rural schools outpace urban, suburban peers in access to technology

Data on school characteristics can help drive policies that improve student outcomes, researchers say.
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Rural schools are ahead of their suburban and urban counterparts in several measurements of tech proficiency, a new study of data from more than 8,500 K-12 schools across the nation has revealed.

While students who attend rural schools still have difficulty obtaining devices and internet connectivity at home, they actually outpace their suburban and urban counterparts in access to technology and the internet at school, according to a comprehensive analysis by BrightBytes, a data management and learning analytics firm.

Researchers used the CASE framework, which evaluates technology across four domains, to analyze more than 180 million data points from a national survey designed to gauge technology access, utilization and effectiveness.

The four domains encompassed classroom use of technology, including teacher and student integration of technology for communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity; support for technology implementation around areas for professional learning for teachers and the extent to which school policies, practices and procedures support the use of technology; student and teacher access to technology at home and at school; and student and teacher perception about the use of technology in the classroom.


By comparing the characteristics of the top 5 percent of schools and the bottom 5 percent of schools evaluated under the framework, researchers were able to extract critical insights into the relationships among school characteristics, such as geographical setting and successful implementation of technology.

“Looking at factors such as access at home and at school, policies, procedures and practices, and professional development needs, we have been able to uncover insights that equip educators and policymakers with specific, data-driven recommendations on how to tailor edtech plans to the needs of individual schools,” said Genevieve Hartman, vice president of research at BrightBytes.

Hartman noted, for example, that rural schools were disproportionately represented among schools scoring in the top 5 percent for access at school, while suburban schools were disproportionately representing in the bottom 5 percent. However, suburban schools were disproportionately represented in the top 5 percent for access at home. This finding suggests that suburban students are more likely to have devices of their own and could benefit from policies that let them to bring their devices to school, she said.

On the other hand, non-rural schools with high rates of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch have more limited tech access at home, reflecting “obvious social-equity differences,” researchers said.

“If we implement polices to allow these students to take home the devices they have in their hands at school, it begins to close that equity gap,” Hartman told EdScoop. “Access at home allows for increased opportunities for blended learning.” Such tweaks in policy, she added, “can have a really big downstream effect.”


BrightBytes researchers also found that schools with high rates of free or reduced-price lunch scored lower across all domains of analysis — except professional learning, “indicating that teachers have the freedom to influence their own professional development regardless of their school characteristics,” the report said.

Hartman suggested that fully understanding the reasons behind some of the findings — geographic discrepancies in access, for example — will require additional research.

“The fact that student populations in rural schools are much smaller is going to make it a lot easier for a school to achieve a one-to-one ratio in the classroom,” she said. “Obviously, it requires digging into additional data to really understand it and maybe interviews with some of the key rural schools. But I think [the survey] is our first pass at understanding the scenario.”

The most valuable takeaway from the study, Hartman said, is that the aggregate data from the research confirms that there are many characteristics that hinder or enable the success of high-performing or low-performing schools.

These insights can help offer a way forward for the use of technology in schools, whether rural, suburban or urban, and guide school administrators to adopt policies necessary to improve student outcomes, she said.

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