A wi-fi sign on a country road illustrates the idea that internet access for rural students is challenging.

Spotty internet access for rural students limits achievement

A study shows how strong and reliable internet access for rural students can make or break learning

Technology and internet access for rural students in some parts of the U.S. is unreliable at best, and this limited access could adversely affect their learning.

Rural students are less likely than non-rural students to claim that their home internet access is “great” (36 percent versus 46 percent).

Home internet access for rural students is vital for learning, as report after report consistently identify the growing homework gap as detrimental to student achievement.

Related: Learn how districts are trying to close the homework gap

The report, based on a survey of students who took the national ACT test, also reveals that internet access for rural students is temperamental–they are nearly twice as likely as non-rural students to say their internet access is “unpredictable” (16 percent versus 9 percent).

Rural and non-rural students also have differing access to devices at school and at home. Rural students report somewhat less access to a laptop or desktop computer at home compared to non-rural students (82 percent versus 87 percent).

Given that rural students lack access to rigorous coursework, this lack of technological access may impede their academic success. If internet access for rural students isn’t reliable, they can’t take advantage of advanced-level courses that may only be available online.

Access to a computer with a dedicated keyboard also varies between rural and non-rural students. Lack of this type of access may make schoolwork-related tasks like conducting research or writing more difficult–even if internet access for rural students is in place, lacking the proper tools impedes academic progress if homework takes twice as long on a device without a dedicated keyboard.

A higher percentage of rural students reports access to only one device at home compared to students in non-rural areas (24 percent versus 11 percent). Given the potential benefits of one-to-one device initiatives, the lack of access to devices could create additional disparities in access to more personalized learning opportunities.

“Too often students in rural areas are overlooked when it comes to education policy reform, despite the fact that nearly one in five students in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools live in a rural area,” says Jim Larimore, chief officer for ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning. We need to do a better job of closing these equity gaps to ensure that we’re providing all students with the opportunity to be successful.”

Larimore points out that the majority of rural students in nearly half of U.S. states are from low-income families, and they generally earn lower scores on standardized high school assessments, attend college at lower rates and, as highlighted in the report, have less access to rigorous coursework than do students from non-rural areas.

Policy recommendations to help rural students

The report recommends targeting rural students’ access to technology- both in school and at home – as a way to support their learning and enable access to advanced coursework and personalized learning opportunities.

ACT recommends the following to improve internet access for rural students and overall academic opportunities:

1. Improve access to technology both at school and home. The E-rate program must continue to fund access to affordable broadband internet access for rural students and to rural areas, and completely close the gap between schools with broadband access and those without

2. Increase opportunities for rigorous course taking. Students must have access to and be encouraged to take a minimum core curriculum of four years of English, three years of mathematics, three years of science, and three years of social studies. The survey found that students in rural areas were less likely than non-rural students to complete (or plan to complete) the ACT-recommended core curriculum (76 percent versus 81 percent).

3. Expand opportunities for personalized learning. Students need the opportunity to receive personalized, student-centered learning. In the case of the rural students in the survey, personalized learning could help provide greater access to advanced coursework.

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Laura Ascione

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