One of the limitations many rural students face is a lack of the same educational opportunities to learn as students in larger school districts. Small school districts typically offer fewer Advanced Placement classes as well as limited opportunities to connect with real-world projects. Part of the reason for this is scale: a school with fewer students and teachers can’t always provide high-level language and STEM classes. But one way small and rural districts can close this gap is by offering a robust 1 Mbps per student Internet connection that can serve as the backbone for a myriad of opportunities through technology. Over a third of America’s smallest school districts are already meeting the FCC’s 1 Mbps per student Internet connection goal for 2018, according to our newly released 2018 State of the States report.
One of these districts is in Williamsfield, Illinois, a town with 300 public school students. When Superintendent Tim Farquer was faced with replacing some of the district’s outdated textbooks, he knew he couldn’t buy new materials and supply his 300 students with laptops. Backed by a 1 Mbps per student Internet connection, the school leader decided it was time to try using open educational resources (OER), a set of free materials that could be curated just to meet his students’ needs. The decision to be an early adopter of OER put the one-school district on the map, earning a visit in 2015 from then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
But Williamsfield’s successes didn’t stop there. The district, pushed by its enthusiastic students, has continued to expand learning opportunities in a variety of ways. High school students are poised to gain valuable engineering skills using augmented reality as they learn how to use an $80,000 precision Computer Numeric Control tool to create prototypes for their solutions to agriculture challenges. Others are leveraging distance learning to take community college courses without having to spend the time or money to travel 35 miles to campus. “The money we save on transportation and textbooks, the district is now investing into the kids themselves,” the superintendent said. This means Williamsfield’s graduates can leave with an associate’s degree as well as a high school diploma.
Technology is also helping with teacher recruitment. When the district had three teacher openings it received many more applications than expected. “Recent college graduates want to work in an environment like this, they don’t want to go into a classroom with technological restrictions,” the superintendent said. The teachers he ended up hiring had multiple offers but chose Williamsfield due in part to the district’s approach to technology. “That’s a byproduct I didn’t plan for,” Farquer said.