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Ronald Lien: How technology can help save rural schools

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Technology’s influence in shaping our educational system is becoming increasingly evident. Today we have the Internet, laptops and other computing devices that give students the ability to access thousands of websites and engage in a variety of learning activities.

Students and teachers are able to function in their respective roles without being in a classroom. The technology offers students the flexibility to choose how they learn, what they learn and where they learn.

In the 1930s, my parents taught in a rural school along Route 32 southwest of Park River, N.D. Dad taught the upper level students, and Mother taught the younger students. The school, Ramsey Grove, was more impressive than most country schools: The white two-story wood frame building had a dramatic spire that made it visible for a considerable distance on the prairie and was the community identifier.

But technology had little impact on the instruction that took place in Ramsey Grove. The focus was on the basics, using books and a blackboard.

Twenty-five years later, I was a graduate student in education at UND. Consolidation of school districts was a major issue. I attended some of the community meetings and saw that the possibility of losing the local school generated considerable emotion.

The residents were on to something, as many of those towns that consolidated wound up losing their vibrancy.

In the 1980s, computers were being used in schools, but those early computers were bulky, expensive and limited in their ability to educate.

Today, in contrast, school districts with the financial resources to get state-of-the-art technology and the personnel needed to optimize that technology are transforming the way we educate.

In my home district of Eden Prairie, for example, all middle and senior high school students get a laptop that remains in their possession throughout the school year. The community is so pleased with the results that it has approved every request for a property tax increase to cover the costs of the technology.

When I reflect upon my early years in North Dakota and the difficulty those in the small towns were having in justifying the continued existence of their schools, I think of what could have been if this technology had been available then.

There would have been no need to consolidate because of the many ways in which students in small school districts gain access to an unlimited number of quality courses and instructors, forming relationships with larger school districts or other vendors of education.

Technology is making it possible for students to follow a variety of paths to complete high school at a younger age or get a college degree in less than four years on a campus by earning college credits while in high school. The financial benefits to the students, state and nation are significant.

I hope North Dakota will invest some of the state’s recent good fortune in showing that small school districts can provide quality education comparable to the education offered in large, wealthy school districts. The state could serve as an exemplar for rural areas throughout the nation.

Lien, a former teacher, high school principal and college professor, is the author of “What’s happening in our schools? The transformation.” He’ll be at the Ferguson Bookstore in Grand Forks to sign books from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 29.