Boy using a laptop sits on hay

Closing the K–12 Network Connectivity Gap for Rural Schools

28 Nov 2017 by Debbie Malone

With the proliferation of new devices on the market, from tablets and laptops to smartphones and smartwatches, the world is becoming more connected. But some places are being left behind, and it’s impacting one of our most valuable resources: our future workforce.

All across America, school districts in rural communities are struggling to bridge the network connectivity gap. This hampers their ability to support technology in the classroom and digital learning initiatives — and leaves students without equal access to the wealth of digital resources their urban peers enjoy.

How big is the digital divide?

According to the 2016 Broadband Progress Report from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), approximately 41% of schools do not yet meet the FCC’s short-term goal of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff. Those schools represent 47% of students in the United States.

The FCC report also shows that access to high-speed internet isn’t just a problem for rural schools. About 39% of Americans living in rural communities — 23 million people — don’t have access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service, compared with only 4% of urban Americans.

That means even if students can access the internet at school, they may not have access at home — a problem often referred to as the homework gap. In the Consortium for School Networking’s (CoSN’s) 2016 Annual Infrastructure Survey, 42% of district technology leaders say addressing the lack of broadband access outside of school is a very high priority.1 However, 63% of respondents have no strategy for how to provide off-campus connectivity.

The root of the problem

Affordability is one of the biggest hurdles for both schools and families. The CoSN survey reveals 43% of schools pay between $5 per Mbps and $49.99 per Mbps a month, with 23% paying more than $50 per Mbps a month.

These high prices are partially due to a lack of competition in rural areas. More than half (54%) of rural schools report having only one internet provider to choose from. And in 2016, 40% received only one or no qualified proposals for broadband services.

A second mitigating factor is the need for fiber infrastructure to support high-speed connectivity. But installing infrastructure in rural and remote areas can be highly cost-prohibitive, which is why schools rely on E-rate funds to help make up the difference. Unfortunately, in recent years, many rural districts have faced funding denials and delays that have jeopardized infrastructure projects.

The cost to students

In a study published by the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, researchers discovered “47.2% of rural districts have no secondary students enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) courses, compared with only 20.1% of town, 5.4% of suburban and 2.6% of urban districts.”

The lack of high-speed connectivity creates a barrier to digital learning and distance education opportunities that could help close education gaps for K–12 students in rural areas. It also hampers their ability to develop the digital literacy skills necessary for college and careers. And with most secondary educational institutions requiring applications be submitted online, the network connectivity gap even hinders students’ ability to apply to colleges and universities.

In fact, a study of national college progression rates by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that 59% of rural high school graduates enroll in college the subsequent fall, compared to 62% of urban and 67% of suburban graduates.

The classroom experience suffers as well. Teachers largely agree education technology keeps students engaged with course content and enhances the learning experience in a variety of ways. As shown in Figure 1, which outlines the benefits of classroom technology according to educators in the United States:

  • 79% of teachers say education technology makes learning more interesting.
  • 76% say it allows students who have mastered a topic to move on.
  • 74% say it provides learning opportunities outside the classroom.
  • 73% say it allows students to work at their own pace.
A bar graph depicting the perceived positive difference of classroom usage of technology, according to educators in the US in 2016
Figure 1

Newer teaching methods that incorporate online learning, such as flipped classroom, blended learning and virtual learning models, also enable instructors to give individual students more attention when they need it and personalize the learning experience.

According to a 2016 survey by the Speak Up Research Project for Digital Learning, 61% of teachers using a flipped classroom model feel technology enables them to provide their students with more individualized attention, compared with 35% of teachers using traditional models.

What can schools do?

Overcoming the connectivity gap in rural schools and remote communities will require the participation of all stakeholders, from parents and constituents to school districts and states. But as rural districts continue to work toward solutions, you can take immediate steps to help close the network connectivity gap based on recommendations from the 2017 State of the States report by EducationSuperHighway:

  1. Plan at least three years ahead before signing new contracts with providers. Be sure upgrades will serve future demand, as well as current district needs.
  2. Expand options on your Request for Proposal (RFP) or Form 470 to maximize bids and interest. If needed, get external support with forms and follow-up.
  3. See what deals other districts in your area are getting. Price transparency has reduced broadband costs by 78% since 2013. There’s a good chance you can increase your broadband without raising your budget or switching providers.
  4. Stay open to the possibility of switching providers, especially if your current plan isn’t meeting your needs.
  5. Prioritize funding for broadband infrastructure. A total of $2.35 billion in E-rate Category 2 funding remains unspent — and will expire in 2020.

1 Consortium for School Networking. (2016). CoSN’s 2016 Annual Infrastructure Survey. In partnership with the School Superintendents Association and MDR.

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