STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Tech & Opportunity: lessons for making technology happen in rural schools

Juan Cristóbal Cobo

When the middle school closes inStockbridge, Michigan, the district wants one thing to stay constant amongst all the changes to come. The school district's new effort to integrate technology into learning, something that can be more difficult for rural schools than others.

Leading the way in this initiative is Jim Kelly. Right now he's the principal at Heritage Elementary, but after this summer he'll be in charge of technology and curriculum for the district. 

Let's repeat that: technology and curriculum.

This is a unique position because, as Kelly observes, "technology isn't stand alone." There are increasing demands on schools to ensure kids are digitally literate and tech-ready for competing in an information economy. But, as we saw with our documentary on high-stakes testing, schools are still under pressure to hit the basics. Economic inequalities across school districts are making universal access to tech and basic skills difficult to achieve.

To make this happen, school districts have varying advantages and disadvantages in the hardware, software, and "people-ware" (tech support, teaching support) available to students. Getting those to balance out is tricky.

Take infrastructure, for example. Wiring a rural districts, just like building internet-ready infrastructure in urban districts can have a high-price tag if you've got to update antiquated or non-existent grids. Stockbridge has an advantage here. Unlike a lot of rural districts, it's part of a fiber optic system for high-speed internet.

Kelly says that more and more kids have access to mobile devices at home, but for kids who don't, internet access at school is crucial. That's a plus in Stockbridge's column.

But, what about the people-ware: the human resource necessary to support students and teachers in effectively using technology in the classroom? Kelly points out that it's difficult to find a balance between technical support to keep things running and helping teachers teach using technology. Stockbridge doesn't have an IT department. They have a part-time curriculum administrator due to retire soon. Technology, as we all know, doesn't run itself.

Nonetheless, Kelly is optimistic about his role handling both technology and curriculum. The way Stockbridge approaches integrating technology into the classroom should be reassuring to those who worry about kids having too much screen time. 

Educational apps and tablets are fine as reinforcing activities and classroom lessons. Still, Stockbridge educators want their students to thinking critically about technology as a tool in two ways.

One, they want to instill information literacy. Much like how previous generations were taught "consider your source" when it comes to old media, new media brings an huge new range of sources that need to be considered---for authenticity and for evidence.

Kelly also wants  students to realize they still have a choice when it comes to technology as a tool. Why make the choice to use hardware or software when, as Kelly says, "sometimes it's better to use a pencil?" 

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