Personalized Learning Could Help Save Rural Schools, If We Let it

Personalized learning is all the rage right now for those of us who speak education. The idea is basically that teachers can use educational technology to tailor a students’ learning experience to focus on their abilities, interests, or prior knowledge in ways that traditional teaching methods simply can’t.

So, if a student already has a pretty solid understanding of a topic, the teacher can move past the skill-and-drill stuff and have students tackle the content from a different, more complex angle. And for the kids who aren’t quite getting the material, they can just hop on any number of virtual programs that breaks the content down more slowly or gives them extra questions. The concept is easy, but of course, putting it into practice is harder.

That’s especially true in rural schools like mine, where resources are scarce and teachers often have multiple roles. Schools in rural areas face unique situations and needs, and coincidentally, that’s exactly why some argue that personalized learning could unlock a lot of potential in rural schools. I tend to agree, but I think we have some work to do before we can get to that point.

Unique Learning for Unique Needs

We wear a lot of hats for our kids: we’re counselors, mentors, tutors, confidantes, and so much more. As rural teachers, we understand that our students have unique needs, and we try our best each day to help them grow to their fullest potential. What we’re able to offer isn’t always enough, though - the achievement gap is still way too stagnant in rural areas, and we can definitely improve our graduate rates.

It’s no secret that rural schools face their share of challenges, but personalized learning could help with that. Having technology that differentiates assignments and virtual projects based on students abilities and interests could ease the workload of rural teachers, who are often juggling these different roles in their schools. With material and assignments tailored to match what students are interested in, we might also see a decrease in the huge number of kids who aren’t sticking it out to graduation day. And of course, we could also see a boost in access to specialized classes and advanced coursework, which I suspect would go a long way in helping the overall quality of education our rural schools are providing. Personalized learning certainly has a lot of potential in rural schools.

We Still Have Work to Do

With that said, it’s important to recognize that rural areas still face some crucial obstacles to implementing personalized learning in schools. It could be revolutionary for rural schools once it happens, but getting there is the hard part.

One of the major issues is simply that way too many rural students lack access to broadband Internet, which is basically a necessity for implementing personalized learning. Having an Internet connection at school helps, but it would be better for students to have an opportunity to take their work home and finish it, if need be. And obviously, rural schools aren’t exactly swimming in funds, so any school wanting to get plugged in to the personalized learning movement will need to make sure it has access to the technology and virtual resources that students will need.

Another major issue is simply that rural areas have trouble attracting and keeping effective teachers. Sure, personalized learning presents a great opportunity to let students take more responsibility for their own learning; however, like every other great innovation in the education world, we still need great teachers working behind the scenes. (And we’ll need to give them the training and support they’ll need to make personalized learning work, too.)

Despite the obstacles, personalized learning looks like it could have a pretty big upside in rural school. As one recent report suggested, “Personalized learning helps to transcend many of the limitations confronting rural students such as geography and limited course opportunity and access… Districts that have embraced personalized learning have seen success by focusing on opportunity and the needs of students, instead of barriers that in the past have limited access to quality academic programs.” We still have some steps ahead us, but personalized learning should give rural educators something to be excited about.


Photo by US Dept. of Education (Flickr), CC-Licensed.

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