Investigating the Lack of Access to Technology and Broadband in Rural Education

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Brief Abstract

Learners in rural communities often face challenges in education specific to access to technology and broadband internet. This presentation will explore this lack of access and how to potentially address through increased attention from institutions of higher education, fostered family engagement, and support, funding and grants, and enhanced technology opportunities.

Extended Abstract

Description of the Problem

Rural Americans often face challenges in education and therefore long-term economic stability due to a deficiency in access of digital resources, minimal opportunities for advanced education, and a lack of community support and value placed on educational achievements (Alfonso et al., 2018; Mehra et al., 2011; Pappano, 2017; Powers, 2002; Robinson, 2015). This lack of access often results in communities experiencing higher unemployment rates, economic challenges, and lower levels of educational attainment (Mehra et al., 2011). Further, as Alfonso, et al. (2018) posited that while public education in the United States is free and accessible, for the most part, to all, significant discrepancies still “exist within the US educational system due [to] differences in allocation of funding, policies, and geographical locations of schools” (p. 2). In fact, research indicates that rural communities specifically struggle to provide students with special education (Rude & Miller, 2018) and gifted education (Azano et al., 2017).

Providing academic support to rural areas has been an ongoing focus for researchers and policy-makers through projects such as the Appalachian Rural Systemic Initiative. This project which was conducted by Henderson and Royster (2000) and resulted in professional development opportunities that focused on both academic content and pedagogy. More recently Hlinka (2017) discovered that rural Appalachian community college students’ levels of persistence in higher education settings is impacted by their: 1) community and family values related to education, 2) family obligations, and 3) cognitive ability to master higher education coursework. The results from these types of studies help to provide additional insight into the factors that impact students’ academic performance and success. These factors coupled with students’ limited access to digital resources further illustrates the academic challenges that students may experience in rural areas.

Deficiency in Access of Digital Resources

Due to the topography as well as the sparse population of many rural areas, the onset of the spread of Internet access, specifically broadband, faced enormous challenges. As a result, students have fallen behind in their access and abilities to utilize digital resources (Robinson, 2015). This lack of access and skill limits the region’s citizens of benefiting from online educational and career opportunities. Additionally, teachers in rural areas are often hesitant to utilize technology due to reports of technical difficulties, insufficient time, and limited school and community support (Howley et al., 2011). Further, research indicates that parents “would like their children to have greater access to advanced courses, technology, and extracurricular activities” (Park, 2018, p. 563). Moreover, the entire family is impacted by a lack of access to technology, because as students struggle to access educational technology opportunities, their parents are also hindered from supporting their child through teacher and parent communication as well as with researching educational information using technological resources.

Potential Solutions

In addition to the problem itself, potential solutions for strengthening access to education and technology in rural America through this study. Proposed solutions include: increased attention from institutions of higher education, fostered family engagement and support, funding and grants, and technology.

Funding and Grants

Teachers themselves often criticize their school’s lack of access to effective professional development (Hunt-Barron et al., 2015). To combat this deficiency, more grants, such as the Rural Library Professionals as Change Agents in the 21st Century: Integrating Information Technology Competencies in Southern and Central Appalachian Region, are needed in order to provide funding for education and educators in the area. Through this grant, the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ Laura Bush 21st Century Library Program awarded $567,660 for 16 paraprofessionals to earn their Master’s degrees at the University of Tennessee in order to serve as librarians in rural areas who are specifically trained in the advancements of technology (Mehra et al., 2011). Because one of the main reasons rural educators are denied access to quality professional development is geographically spaced schools and a lack of colleagues in the same school teaching the same grade level and subject area (Hunt-Barron, Tracy, Howell, & Kaminski, 2015), grants that provide educators with opportunities to seek online education are needed.

Additionally, federal attention and funding is needed in order to help develop access to education and digital resources in rural areas. Furthermore, incentives may need to be provided to residents who earn advanced degrees to remain in the region, particularly given that most individuals decide not to return to rural communities upon completion of their higher education studies. Particularly, attention needs to be placed on retaining high-quality teachers in rural schools since these contexts are harder-to-staff and result in significantly fewer teachers in in comparison to urban schools (Gagnon & Mattingly, 2015). Exposing rural students to mentors in their communities could be one approach in helping them better understand the opportunities afforded to them by earning a college degree. By having role models in the community, negative cultural perceptions that are focused on the irrelevance of higher education may be dissipated. Additionally, schools can create “grow your own” approaches to help encourage rural students to enter teaching professions within their communities. Gagnon and Mattingly (2015) described these types outreach approaches as including a focus on “creating programs to introduce education careers to promising rural high school students, partnering with universities to establish rural-specific coursework, multiple-subject certification programs, and rural student-teaching placements” (p. 4).


Robinson (2015) shared that the relationships that exist between technology, culture, and poverty can be perceived as complex. This relationship can be further complicated by the way society perceives information that is disseminated through technological resources such as the Internet. Regarding the United States, Robinson (2015) indicated that:

“there is an important discussion as to whether the infiltration of the internet equals an empowerment of cultures while serving as a space to gain knowledge previously unattainable for large segments of society or is it a space where a monolithic, standardized culture is weeding out subcultures; thereby, changing self-perceptions of those traditional subcultures? This is especially important for those traditional subcultures which many believe have been victims of internal colonization.” (p. 76)

These types of subcultures may be impacted by what Ono and Zavodny (2007) described as a “new poverty” that is created from digital inequality. Robinson, Chen et al.’s (2018) research further noted that students and education, family and parenting, as well as prisoner rehabilitation, social class, and aging and the life course are all impacted by digital inequality. McCloskey et al. (2018) and Yelton (2013) also proposed that the popularity of smartphones helps to provide a unique opportunity to bridge the digital divide. This approach can be particularly useful since the demographics of smartphone users is very diverse and expands across socioeconomic statuses. In fact, Yelton (2013) reported that approximately 17 percent of the population with annual incomes less than $30,000 and 20 percent who had not graduated from college utilized the internet predominately through cellular phone use. Essentially, these types of projects have been instrumental in providing support to individuals in communities who may experience challenges in securing employment and more advanced educational opportunities due to their lack of computer literacy levels.

Further, Gibbons Pyles (2016) research advocated for the use of technology, specifically videomaking, in building rural literacy skills through their connection to their communities. Videomaking activities in the study promoted a student’s sense of understanding and belonging in their rural communities as they garnered a stronger sense of self and in turn a desire to serve as advocates for their local communities.

Bringing a Voice

Bringing a voice to rural learners is not only significant for these regions, but for other rural areas both nationally and internationally. In an international society that has become increasingly reliant on technology, Internet access, and digital literacy, individuals who lack these significant resources are disenfranchised educationally, economically, socially, politically, and culturally (Park & Jang, 2016; Robinson, et al., 2018; Shapova, 2014). In order to be active and successful members of society, digital citizens must utilize technology in order to search and apply for jobs in the workforce, benefit from online education programs, accurately evaluate and utilize medical and health information, participate in social activities, and maintain both professional and personal relationships (Hobbs, 2010; Mossberger et al., 2012; Robinson, et al., 2018). However, factors such as one’s income, education level, and geographic location still appear to be significant predictors of his/her access to broadband Internet (Chen, 2013). Nevertheless, access to broadband Internet access is often more limited in rural areas, often resulting in digital disparities between individuals living in rural and suburban areas. It is hoped that through this brief review of the challenges faced by learners in rural communities, a continued emphasis on education, research, and funding will be allocated to the people of these areas in order to provide greater access to digital resources and e-learning opportunities.

Learning outcomes of the workshop include:

  1. Session participants will be introduced to the educational challenges faced in rural areas.
  2. Session participants will analyze areas of technology access that can be improved.
  3. Session participants will be evaluate the importance of access to higher education in rural areas.


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