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Using Technology to Overcome the Challenge of Place and Space in Rural Education

February 19, 2021

SRI International
   Rebecca Anne Schmidt, REL Appalachia

elementary student learning remotely

Educating students in rural contexts poses a wide variety of unique challenges. One of the most enduring is the physical distance between students, schools, and districts. Rural districts' geographic isolation can affect education leaders' ability to carry out a variety of basic functions from preparing, recruiting, and developing rural educators to supporting diverse learners and families. While technological solutions to these challenges have been introduced in many urban and suburban contexts, technology often poses challenges in rural areas without the infrastructure to support high-quality implementation. Nonetheless, with the sudden move to virtual and hybrid learning due to COVID-19, many schools, districts, and researchers have had to work together to develop creative solutions to the barriers to using technology.

At the fall 2020 National Forum to Advance Rural Education (NFARE), a number of researchers shared studies leveraging technology to mitigate the challenge of physical distance in rural districts. Plewa and colleagues1 reported the results of a study of the UPSTART2 program, which delivers a personalized online curriculum to 3- and 4-year-olds to improve their readiness for kindergarten. In a region of northern Utah, where only 73 percent of rural families had access to broadband internet, the intervention provided not only the computers and the connectivity required to complete the activities but also training to caregivers on how to use the technology, including dual language supports. Rural caregivers in the study reported that they appreciated the flexibility of the program, which allowed them to complete activities within their schedule, and a randomized controlled trial of the intervention showed positive, statistically significant impacts on students' literacy skills, across parental education and poverty levels.

At the other end of the learning pipeline, Clark and colleagues3 shared an innovative approach to distance learning for teacher preparation programs using “telepresence” robotics that allow teachers to travel around school spaces as a tablet mounted on a robot. In the study, the technology supported a place-bound prospective teacher to complete her preservice teaching placement, including engaging in co-teaching and co-reflective practices with her cooperating teacher. Clark's study acknowledged that successful use of the technology depends on several factors, including ensuring that the in-person and virtual partners work together to design the physical classroom space, using creative approaches to interacting with students, and finding ways to share materials between the two teachers. The authors also brainstormed several future applications for the technology, including virtual field trips, collaboration during professional development, and broader educational opportunities for homebound students.

Both studies presented at NFARE show the promise of using technology to connect rural schools, teachers, students, and families across wide distances, as well as the importance of preparing for and addressing the infrastructure challenges endemic to rural areas. Before COVID-19, many rural stakeholders struggled to draw attention to the longstanding issues with using technology in their contexts, contending with a rising belief in society that technological advancements are the easy cure-all to all educational ills. While in many ways the pandemic has intensified this belief, it has also plainly displayed, at a national level, both the challenges in using technology and the need for solutions, particularly in rural contexts. Realizing the benefits of technology will require recognition and fulfillment of the specific needs of rural places and students, including improved Internet access and technological resources. The huge advancements we have seen in educational technology in just the last decade, including personalized virtual learning platforms and telepresence robotics, have the potential to transform rural education by allowing greater connection and collaboration across physical distance, while maintaining the close-knit and personalized character of rural communities.

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1 B. Plewa et al. (2020), Reaching young rural learners: Using the Waterford UPSTART EIR expansion grant to ensure K-readiness in the Great Plains [Paper presentation]. National Forum to Advance Rural Education, November 12–13, 2020, Virtual.

2 Although UPSTART is capitalized, it does not appear to be an acronym.

3 S. Clark, L. Goodson, & E. Wertzberger (2020), Leveraging telepresence technology in rural education [Paper presentation]. National Forum to Advance Rural Education, November 12–13, 2020, Virtual.