Saturday, August 02, 2008

Stepping Across the Digital Divide in Rural Missouri

On Monday and Tuesday last week I presented at the 4th Annual Southeast Technology Conference held at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. It is a small conference with just over 200 participants from 90 school districts. I presented three 1 ½ sessions on mobile phones in the classroom, using flickr and wikis. The flickr and wiki sessions were held in a computer lab with 26 computers. The flickr session had 22 attendees and the wiki session was overbooked with attendees doubling up at 4 of the computers. It was great to see this number, of mainly rural teachers, exploring Web 2.0.

Jane Doe who teaches 8th, 9th and 10th grade science in a small rural community stayed after the flickr session to ask a few questions about ideas for her science class. I am choosing not to give her real name because I would not want her comments to put her in jeopardy with others in her district or town. She clued in when I said I was a former teacher. One of the flickr examples I showed was an annotated photo of a horse labeling the parts. Jane’s background is in agriculture and she related to this from her equine studies classes. As we continued our conversation, I learned that the only “technology” in her classroom is an overhead projector. Not a projector mounted overhead, but 40-year-old technology. She projects onto a dry erase whiteboard which has a horrible glare. I would venture to guess that Jane’s overhead projector is older than she. She has no glassware, no microscopes and no dissection kits. She offers extra credit for students who furnish supplies for classroom activities. She is considering buying a used laptop from her brother and we talked about looking for a used projector from the university, a nearby community college or pawn shops.

I have long been aware of the digital divide, but it really slaps you in the face when you have conversations with young teachers like her. There is a computer lab in her school, but as she put it, the computers are really old. The computer lab is where the only SMARTboard in the school is located and because no one has been trained to use it, no one is using it. Jane would like to use a SMARTboard in her classroom. Jane and I paid a visit to the reseller exhibiting at the conference and he helped her with some ideas of how others have found the funds to buy equipment. Things like trivia nights or PTA sponsored events or placing nameplates on equipment donated by local businesses. She is ready to take this on, but will she succeed?

During our time together, she mentioned letters to the editor complaining about the salaries being paid to the teachers in her district and the low MAP scores. ‘Tis a puzzlement.

When I returned from the conference I received an e-mail from Jane say, “I just wanted to thank you again for all your knowledge sharing and help in getting technology for my classroom! I am truly grateful!” There is so much more I wish I could do for teachers like Jane.


Wesley Fryer said...

I think it can be easy to take technology tools and high speed Internet access for granted when you are fortunate to be able to use it every day. Stories like this highlight several things, but one of the most important is that FUNDING for technology in our schools is such an important priority that is simply NOT a priority in many areas. E-Rate has provided lots of funding for schools, but I regret that in many schools those routers, servers, and high speed connections have not made much of an impact on teaching and learning.

I have heard NPR episodes and seen TED talks discussing the power of mobile technologies to connect previously unwired communities in the developing world. I continue to wonder what role mobile technologies are going to play BEFORE more expensive technologies like laptop computers enter the picture for teachers and students? As we've discussed, of course, some rural areas have poor cell phone coverage so those prospects may seem dim as well. I am getting convinced that we need more rural advocacy for high speed Internet and cell phone connections, similar to what we saw in the 1950s when the US was electrified. If we'd waited for market forces to provide electrical connections to the far reaches of the rural U.S., folks in those areas would STILL be waiting for electricity.

Karen Montgomery said...

Thanks, Wes, for your comment. E-rate has done a lot to address some technology needs, but it really doesn't matter if your telecommunications and internet access are up to date if there is no money in the budget to refresh or even purchase computers.

Babel Fish


Karen Montgomery is the author of Gomeric Hill. The opinions expressed herein are mine and not necessarily those of my employer.