For students heading back to school this month in Kodiak, it's anything but "class as usual." Because at Kodiak Island Borough School District, 400 miles from Anchorage and accessible only by airplane and ferry, ConnectED investments in high-speed internet and new technology have transformed the student experience — with remarkable results.
Walking through Kodiak High School offers a glimpse at the transformative role education technology is playing in rural America. In one classroom, students use videoconferencing technology to connect with teachers and students from across the island — expanding their horizons through virtual field trips and never-before-available courses like music and civics. Math offerings, once limited to algebra, now include online and distance-learning courses all the way up through calculus. And before and after school, high-speed connectivity allows teachers to tap into interactive professional development and training to customize student learning based on individual needs.
The district is seeing real results. Students participating in Kodiak's distance-learning math program outperformed their counterparts of the previous two years — who didn't have access to distance learning — by 22 percent. Graduation rates district-wide have increased from 55 percent in 2008-2009 to 85 percent last year.
Recognizing the promise of digital learning, in 2013 President Obama announced the ConnectED initiative, a bold effort to connect 99 percent of America's students to next-generation broadband by 2018. Since then, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and federal agencies like USDA have taken important steps to build high-speed digital connections to America's schools and libraries, including making available billions of dollars in additional funding and introducing new policy allowing districts to use federal funds to build their own networks if it saves them money.
Through programs like USDA's Community Facilities and the Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant program, rural school districts like Kodiak Island can purchase essential equipment to facilitate distance learning and teacher professional development.
Since 2009, USDA has provided more than $235 million to support more than 700 distance learning grants nationwide.
Kodiak isn't alone. A 2015 report by EducationSuperHighway found that 20 million more students now have access to high-speed internet in the classroom. Perhaps most encouraging, rural and low-income districts have shared in that progress — improving not just the in-school experience for students but the quality of life and vibrancy of rural communities.
In Piedmont, Alabama, high-speed internet and free devices such as laptops have helped schools adopt a blended learning model for students to learn and explore at their own pace, and an online platform allows teachers to quickly track student progress through online quizzes. Today, ACT scores have surged above the state average and the percentage of graduates needing remedial help in college has declined by one-third. What's more, parents use the laptops at home to search for jobs and take online courses.
At Tse' Yi' Gai High School, a ConnectED partnership with Apple is bringing connectivity and digital literacy to rural Pueblo Pintado, New Mexico, and Navajo Nation. Since a program was adopted to provide every student with a laptop and offer professional development empowering teachers to use technology in their lesson plans, attendance and graduation rates have increased 10 percent and incidents of disruptive behavior have declined. And through ConnectED, the school is using iPads at nearby Navajo Chapter Houses to share information and better connect and engage the community on local issues.
Despite all our progress, much work remains. Twenty-one percent of rural schools lack fiber connections, compared to just 5 percent of urban schools, and affordability and Wi-Fi adoption remains a challenge in some districts.
We know this is worth fighting for. From Kodiak, Alaska, to Piedmont, Alabama, rural communities are showing the promise of digital learning. Together, we can empower teachers, customize learning and ensure that all kids have the chance to compete and thrive in the global economy.
Thomas J. Vilsack is the U.S. secretary of agriculture.
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