That’s why technology can be critical, advocates say. Research shows that access to technology and the Internet in rural areas can close critical information gaps and expand opportunities. With computers and high-speed Internet, rural residents can access college and scholarship information, take online courses, fill out job applications, and find educational resources such as study guides.
"Technology allows people in rural areas to reap the benefits of a rural lifestyle while not sacrificing access to learning opportunities," said Karen Cator, president of Digital Promise, a nonprofit that helps schools integrate technology. In rural areas, access to technology helps students become "digitally literate," she added. And it’s not just about formal education. "If you’re in a rural area, it doesn’t mean you have less-varied interests than students in other parts of the country," Cator said. "If you have access to technology, it’s much easier to … pursue your interest, whether it is computer coding or technology or photography."
In Piedmont, the district’s adoption and rollout of a technology program has been slow and cautious. Before the one-to-one initiative, each classroom had a handful of large desktop computers. In 2009, a group of teachers and administrators drove 350 miles to Mooresville, North Carolina, whose schools many regard as a model for how students can use laptops, to see a technology program in action. The team was impressed and eager to get started. That fall, Piedmont high school received several carts of laptops from a federal grant.
Despite the influx of technology, many students still struggled with access and lacked the Internet at home. When teachers assigned online assignments or videos, students had to download the material before they left—or else return to sit outside the schools at night to connect to the district’s network, according to Jerry Snow, principal of Piedmont Middle School.
In late 2011, the district received a federal E-rate grant—part of a program in which the government subsidizes Internet access for schools— to install a wireless network over the town. It not only helped students, but it also "removed barriers for our teachers," who now had fewer limitations on what they could assign for homework, Snow said.
Unlike larger or more-urban districts, Piedmont has not had access to digital experts or a large technology staff. District leaders have relied on student workers from the high school and a nearby college to troubleshoot. They have also opened their doors to student teachers so that older employees have more help implementing the technology, and so that the aspiring educators can learn how to use computers in classrooms.
In 2010, students in grades four through 12 each received a laptop, and in 2013, Akin expanded the program to include grades one through three. This year, the district introduced iPads in kindergarten classrooms. Instead of buying computers, the district leases them from Apple for several years at a time, which Akin said "forces us to keep the newest technology in students’ hands."