Lack of Tech Access Hampers Rural Student Outcomes

Many students who live in rural areas believe that lack of access to high-speed internet is holding them back. According to results from a pair of surveys of students who took the national ACT test last year, rural students were 10 percentage points less likely than non-rural students to call their home internet "great" and almost twice as likely to consider their broadband access "unpredictable" (16 percent versus 9 percent). They were also more likely to have access to only a single device at home (24 percent versus 11 percent). Rural students make up almost one in five K-12 students in the United States.

In "Rural Students: Technology, Coursework and Extracurricular Activities," ACT Center for Equity in Learning researchers Michelle Croft and Raeal Moore suggested that rural students are "often overlooked" when it comes to education policy reform. As a result, those students tend to have lower scores on standardized high school tests, too little access to "rigorous coursework" and lower college attendance rates. And more specifically, the lack of access to certain forms of technology also impede their ability to take online courses or gain opportunities for personalized learning.

The data came from two student surveys, one with questions about access to and use of technology with 6,000 responses, and the second one covering what courses participants were enrolled in that could result in college credit, with 5,600 responses.

In the area of course-taking, the report noted that rural schools are smaller, which means "they may lack sufficient staff to teach additional or advanced courses." As an example, a 2009 study found that just half of students in rural areas and small towns attended schools with at least one advanced math course. In the more recent survey, 50 percent of the rural respondents said they were taking a course that awarded college credit, compared to 60 percent of students in non-rural areas.

Lack of Tech Access Hampers Rural Student Outcomes

The quality of internet access by geographic area. Source: Rural Students: Technology, Coursework and Extracurricular Activities from the ACT Center for Equity in Learning

The report pointed out that any improvements in these areas will require investment in resources for delivering access to technology, such as broadband and devices. "Access to technology is important for education, not only because there is a plethora of technology-based resources for learning, but also to teach students the basic computer skills that are important for many careers," the authors wrote.

In fact, they suggested, the need is even greater for rural students than their non-rural peers because they may have no other way than online to take courses not offered at their school, including participation in online dual enrollment classes.

ACT offered several policy recommendations:

  • Increasing access to technology both at school and home, through a continuation of E-rate funding along with "state and local interventions."
  • Boosting the number of opportunities "for rigorous course taking" and urging states to raise their graduation requirements to cover, at a minimum, four years of English, three years of math, three years of science and three years of social studies.
  • Expanding access to personalized learning, which could provide a route to advanced coursework.

The report is openly available on the ACT Center for Equity in Learning website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.