Tucked in the Ozark Mountains, Ava, Mo., is home to the only high school in Douglas County. Students spend up to three hours each day on a school bus, mostly traveling along dirt roads. Cell phone service in the area is spotty at best, and an Internet connection is hard to come by.
But within the walls of Ava High School, students use netbooks and iPads, have access to computer labs, and use production equipment and editing software to produce multimedia projects.
"Technology has become such an integral part of educating students," says Brian Wilson, superintendent of schools for the Ava R–1 school district. "For us to be competitive globally … we need to give them the resources to be successful."
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Despite the school's efforts to integrate technology into the classroom, the majority of Ava's students become disconnected the second they step outside the school's doors.
"When they're here at school we do our very, very best to service them and to provide them [with technology]," Wilson says. "But when they go home, dial-up is just not the same Internet. You just cannot work on some of the same projects at home."
Only 50 percent of people living in rural areas of the United States have high-speed Internet, according to a 2010 report by the Federal Communications Commission. Geography, low population density, and high costs are key factors preventing rural homes from gaining digital access, says Wendy Mann, communications director for the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, a nonprofit comprised of rural telecoms.
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Those same factors are what make connecting rural students paramount, say Gary Funk, coordinator of the Rural School and Community Trust's Center for Midwestern Initiatives, a nonprofit organization supporting education and rural development.
"We really need stronger technology connections in places where kids are often on buses for an hour and a half than we do in suburban communities," Funk says. "The lack of connectivity is exacerbated in places where kids are having to spend so much time getting back and forth between school."
While keeping students connected at home and at school is ideal, educators can only control what happens at their facilities. If the school's technology is not up to par, both the students and the school suffer, says Albert Bryant, a new math teacher at Missouri's Everton High School.
Missouri's adoption of the Common Core State Standards, a state-led initiative to set a consistent bar for student achievement across the United States, means students will complete their national standardized tests online, and some questions require that students have prior knowledge of basic computer skills, says Bryant, who graduated from Everton in 2007. If students score poorly on the exams, the school's funding is impacted, further hindering its ability to invest in technology, Bryant says.
Unlike those in Ava, the 55 high school students in Everton share a computer lab with elementary and middle school students. The computers are the same ones Bryant used when he attended the school, and leave a lot to be desired, says Austin Bryant, Albert's brother, and a senior at Everton.
"Two words: slow and unreliable," Austin says, describing the school's computers and connection. "It kind of has mood swings: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."
The times when the connection doesn't work are especially frustrating for Austin, who uses the computers daily for an online history class. When he loses his connection, he often loses his work and the time he spent on it.
Austin is fortunate to have a laptop, smartphone, and Wi-Fi connection at home, so he can make up lost work, fill out online college applications, and Google anything he doesn't understand. Even more basic, he can type his research papers. His classmate, Amanda Brown, writes her papers by hand, and then tries to find time before or after school to type them on a school computer.
"It's time consuming," Brown says. "I have to fit it into my already busy schedule at school."
With everything from driving tests to job applications available online, high schools that fail to prepare students to live in a digital age are setting them up for failure, Albert Bryant, the Everton teacher, says.
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"It would be like today, instead of offering a computer applications class, we offered a typewriter class," he says.
Recognizing the need to close the digital divide, rural members of the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association partner with the schools in their area to ensure students are connected while they learn, says Mann, the NTCA communications director.
To connect students at home, many of the small, rural Internet providers are also taking on the role of equipment providers, purchasing computers in bulk and selling them to community members at a discounted rate, Mann says.
"Most rural telecom companies view their role as the glue that holds the community together," Mann says. "If they can connect the school, the library, and your home, they can open the whole window of the world in a rural community."
See U.S. News's coverage of Technology in the Classroom.