Future of School Annual Rural Summit Focused on Digital Learning

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Public educators and digital learning experts spent two days exploring the use of technology and innovative practices to support student learning in rural areas.

Public educators and digital learning experts from across the U.S. at the 2020 Rural Summit.

Public educators and digital learning experts from across the U.S. at the 2020 Rural Summit.

“Equitable access is a work-in-progress and much more needs to be done in order to provide high quality online learning opportunities to even the most remotely located schools." - Amy Valentine, Executive Director, Future of School

A diverse group of national leaders in education recently gathered in Austin, Texas, to share critical insights on advancing K-12 rural education through digital learning. Online and blended learning programs have supported rural students and schools in myriad ways for years, but for many educators and advocates, the pivotal role digital learning plays in boosting student engagement and academic achievement in rural education has not been widely explored. The second annual Rural Students Digital Learning Summit, which took place on February 23 and 24, 2020, was sponsored by the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance (VLLA) and Future of School (FoS), and focused on providing equitable access to online and blended learning in remote areas.

Representatives from the summit’s sponsors, including Robert Currie, President of VLLA, and Robyn Bagley, a Founding Board Member of FoS, kicked off the event with thought-provoking remarks. “The schools and districts of rural America face unique challenges related to equity and access,” Bagley said. “Technology can be the equalizer to provide those students the well deserved resources afforded the nation’s most populous and affluent areas. Enabling districts to retain teachers in onsite roles as well as tap into the expertise of those located elsewhere will transform learning for rural populations.”

Through talks, presentations and open discussions in large and small group formats, attendees from 21 states and the District of Columbia shared their experiences as educators and nonprofit leaders, and explored trends, obstacles, opportunities and emerging shifts impacting rural school districts throughout America.

A few of the Summit’s highlights:

  • Three state-level presentations by representatives from the Colorado Department of Education, the Vermont Virtual Learning Collaborative and Virtual Arkansas underscored the impact that strong or absent policy has on expanding access to high quality learning opportunities.
  • Three presentations of creative strategies in Montana, North Carolina and Tennessee that involved philanthropy, state virtual programs, and/or community organizations and directly increased access and equity.
  • The Summit’s youngest attendee and speaker who has yet to receive her diploma gave a personal perspective on digital learning. Satara Ehnes, a 17-year-old senior at Julesburg High School in Colorado, will graduate with 50 college credits and an associate’s degree from community college two days prior to her high school graduation in May—an accomplishment made possible by virtual learning programs.

“Equitable access is a work-in-progress and much more needs to be done in order to provide high quality online learning opportunities to even the most remotely located schools,” said Amy Valentine, Executive Director of Future of School. “Our students’ futures depend on it, regional economies depend on it, and the competitiveness of our workforce depends on it.”

Attendees tackled current educational policy, solutions to teacher staffing shortages, the imperative for broadband internet, emerging social and community issues, and workforce readiness, among others, aiming to shed light on topics that shape a meaningful, rigorous and relevant K-12 learning experience despite geographic challenges.

The Summit proved to be an intimate, interactive forum for national rural education leaders, leading practitioners and supporters of online and blended learning to discuss and develop meaningful approaches that will improve rural education in the 21st century.

The Future of School fully supports the evolution of America’s rural school districts toward readiness for an increasingly interconnected world. It is committed to an active dialogue on progress made in 2020 and exchanging ideas and finding new ways forward—both at the third Annual Rural Students Digital Learning Summit in 2021, and via a digital resource repository now in the early stages of development. Sign up here to receive updates on these efforts.

Future of School is a 501(c)3 public charity amplifying the importance of K-12 learning as a catalyst for student readiness and a stronger society through programs and events, including its celebrated impact summits, original publicly shared research, grants for educators innovating in their schools and a scholarship program that rewards students diversifying their educational pathway.    

The Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance is an association of innovative virtual programs in the U.S. Consisting largely of state virtual schools and several consortia, the member organizations serve well over a half million online course enrollments annually. The Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance (VLLA) is a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit organization that includes Colorado Digital Learning Solutions, Georgia Virtual School, Idaho Digital Learning Alliance, Illinois Virtual School, Indiana Online, Michigan Virtual, Montana Digital Academy, Nevada Learning Academy, NC Virtual, Virtual Arkansas, VHS Learning, Virtual SC, Virtual Virginia, Wisconsin eSchool Network and Wisconsin Virtual School.

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Amy Valentine
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