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How the internet is failing America’s rural school districts

When it comes to expanding the reach of education technology in schools, are we putting the cart before the horse?

From a purely economic standpoint, ed-tech as we know it is booming. The market cap reached a reported $8.3 billion in 2013, and continues to rise. Across the country schools are buying—and buying in to the promise of classroom technology.  To bridge the gap between innovation and learning, school leaders are insisting on increased collaboration between educators and on-staff technology experts.  Even the Obama administration has gotten into the act, encouraging schools to consider a shift from pricey textbooks to free digital resources.

Sounds great. But it’s hard to ditch textbooks when your school’s internet access is too slow—or, worse, nonexistent.

For the nearly 21 million K12 students without access to high-speed broadband, the promise of education technology is more akin to a myth.

Slowest internet in Mississippi
Pam Odom, an elementary teacher in Calhoun County, Miss., knows first-hand the effects limited online connectivity has on students. “These are rural children. Most of them have not been outside Mississippi,” she told Education Week and PBS Newshour in a video special report. ”There’s a large portion of them that have never been outside a 60-mile radius of this town. And if our technology is slow, I can’t expose them to anything.”

Calhoun County, which has the unenviable distinction of having the slowest internet service in Mississippi, embodies the struggles of many rural school districts across the country. Some internet service providers have refused to replace outdated copper cables in far-flung locations, dubbing the overhaul too expensive. The result? Slow, and often-times no online access.

That lack of speed and connectivity means that students in Calhoun County and other places can’t get the same real-time access to online learning and research that students and teachers in other districts now take for granted.

Thankfully, for Calhoun County and others in similar predicaments, help is on the way.

Last year, the FCC, the government agency that oversees the federal e-rate program, the long-running technology grant created to connect needy schools to the internet, rewrote parts of the program to focus on providing better coverage and faster broadband access.

One important change provides more leeway for school districts to negotiate internet infrastructure improvements. The FCC hopes this edit will incentivize local service providers to offer cheaper access—that, or risk losing business to outside competition.

For more on Calhoun County and its connectivity struggles, watch the full video report:

How do you use technology to improve the student experience? What roadblocks stand in your way? Tell us in the comments.

Want some input into how students and parents view your ed-tech strategy? Start by opening up a dialogue with your school community.