Creative Solutions to Keep Rural Students Engaged

Teacher with students in Bunker Hill CUSD classroom
(Image credit: Bunker Hill CUSD)

Quickly pivoting between learning models is a challenge for any district, but for rural districts, this challenge is amplified by distance and spotty connection issues. 

Take, for example, Bunker Hill CUSD #8, a remote and rural PK-12 system of 600 students 30 miles north of the Metro-East area in Macoupin County, Illinois. In a continued effort to ensure the district was meeting the needs of all students, the district has had to pivot between hybrid, full remote, and face-to-face learning throughout the year. 

“At the beginning of the school year, our county had a surge in Covid-19 cases,” says Superintendent Todd Dugan. “In efforts to keep students six feet apart, we began the school year with ‘blue and yellow’ teams, with 50% of students physically in attendance while 50% logged in from home via Go Guardian Video Conferencing with Google Classroom. 

“One hurdle right away was struggling to make the students at home feel like they were in the class participating, instead of just observing. The same was true with the students in the room,” Dugan says. 

One new tool that Bunker Hill used to address this issue was the Nureva HDL300 system. This audio system, designed for classrooms, captures the audio of everything happening in the classroom so the students at home can clearly hear what the teacher and in-person students are saying during class. Teachers can stand and walk around, and in-class students can share their feedback with students learning from home, who can hear everything without any feedback or delay. The system installs on the wall in minutes and its plug-and-play connectivity and auto-calibration makes setup simple. 

“All of the students in the classroom could clearly hear the students from home, avoiding the need to use online chat and have the teacher repeat out loud what the students at home said,” says Dugan. “This led to increased student engagement and interaction with one another, which was the major piece of the classroom environment that was lacking during the hybrid periods.”

Challenges and Solutions

In remote rural schools, bandwidth is a huge barrier. Many times, it is not an issue of being able to afford the internet, but rather if broadband is even offered to outlying rural areas. Parents using satellite internet providers find that monthly data allowances are exhausted in a couple of days. Others report not being able to participate in Zoom or Google Meet due to upload speed issues. 

Because of these issues, many students were forced to turn cameras off to conserve bandwidth, leading a few teachers to feel remote students were not engaged. Having the Nureva system in the classroom resolved this. Even though remote and in-person students could not see one another, they could clearly communicate through the HDL300’s live audio connection without any audio delays or issues related to the in-person students’ distance from the system. Offering a compromise of live audio connection through the Nureva system was a way for students to have their voices heard and remain part of the conversation. 

The teacher who piloted the HDL300 confirms that the device worked amazingly well at bridging the divide between remote and in-person learners. 

"My students absolutely enjoy being able to hear and communicate with their classmates at home as if they were in the room with them,” says teacher Katherine Sutton. "As a teacher I like the freedom of walking around my room. The Nureva system allows me to move around and engage with all students instead of feeling tethered to my computer."

Unexpected Results

Focusing on improving communication between face-to-face and online learning environments has paid dividends. 

“Using our own assessments, we found that K-2 were the only grades showing a significant ‘learning loss’ with grades 3-12 showing very minimal loss,” says Dugan. “However, grades were highest in K-3, and lower in 4-12. This suggests that there is an inherent flaw in how we are assessing students’ content knowledge and skill mastery. 

“We had been focusing on ‘work being completed’ and not necessarily on ‘standards/skills mastery being demonstrated.’ In other words, our current grading practices favor compliance and completion over competency. This should be one valuable lesson learned from the pandemic. The integration of communication technology could be one bridge to better allow students to demonstrate their mastery of these necessary standards and skills.”

PD Tips & Other Creative Solutions

Dugan says professional development and community partnerships were key to their success. 

He reports that Bunker Hill CUSD #8 professionally trained all their teachers in remote teaching best practices, such as using breakout rooms in Zoom. Recognizing that a typical 48-minute class period is too long to be effectively engaged for students on screen time, teachers set “timers” for shorter direct instruction sessions. Communication technology that allowed for ease of conversation helped make the most of these shorter instructional periods. 

The district also partnered with area businesses and redefined traditional learning spaces to ensure more students had the access they needed for remote learning. 

“We offered cellular hotspots to all students, but the weak cell signal would prevent them from using video conferencing,” says Dugan. To help solve this issue, the district offered their school libraries as ‘WiFi laboratories’ for small numbers of students, created a drive-up public WiFi hotspot at two buildings, and even had the public library and local restaurants let a small number of students use their spaces to connect to their classrooms via video conferencing.

What Not to Do

Do not teach passively to any students, advises Dugan, even at times when 50% of students are remote. In other words, using a hybrid model of primarily note-sharing or lecturing to all students in person, while allowing the remote learners to only view/hear the same experience, is not helpful. “It’s a step backward by decades in terms of what we know about effective pedagogy,” says Dugan. 

“Learning equality has been a challenge and a hallmark of this new era we find ourselves in as modes of educating can turn on a dime,” says Dugan. “Key to making that transition seamlessly, and achieving fully engaged students regardless of where their learning might be taking place, is to make all students feel equally heard. Using communication tech such as the Nureva HDL300 system helps all students use their voice to feel a true part of the class and equal participants in the learning experience.”

Sascha Zuger

Sascha has nearly two decades of experience as a freelance journalist writing for national magazines, including The Washington Post, LA Times, Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic Traveler, and others. She writes about education, travel and culinary topics.