Published on 2012/02/24
Rural Students And Challenges With Technology

What are the biggest differences between attitudes in students of rural and urban colleges?

From my experience, I find that when I meet rural students in my classroom, they are often nervous because they’re in a new, very crowded, very busy environment and they may be overwhelmed so they keep quiet.  They may be reluctant to say anything at all, because they don’t want to be labelled country or hillbilly or redneck or any other words with negative connotations.

They tend not to speak up at all; they just sit. In contrast, with the urban students I see kind of a cocky attitude where they’ve taken on an attitude of “nothing you can say to me is going to make any difference,” or, “I’m here because I have to be.” It’s kind of a self-assured, closed-off attitude. I’ve even had students tell me “I’m paying for this so you better…” and they give me a list (with what grade they want or how I should teach to their particular needs!)

I’ve never had a rural student say that to me.  They tend to be respectful and sometimes timid. I find many rural students may be breaking family tradition by being first-generation college students.  They don’t have the family experience of what happens at college or they might be going against the grain and they don’t have any family support, or they may even have negative feedback from their families.

When we are dealing with technology specifically, do you find that there are significant cultural differences that exist between urban and rural students?

Yes, because especially here in Southwestern Virginia, we haven’t had—and still don’t have—internet access in the outlying rural areas. In order to get internet access one has to know the vocabulary, understand how it works, and have the money. For example, if you were going to get internet access through Direct TV or Dish TV, it entails having another satellite dish installed on your house. That’s a major expense and many families may not even see the need to spend that money, or even have the money to spend, so that’s going to cut them out of internet access to begin with. Satellite connections are not the best and are affected by geography and weather. Cable and DSL are not available in many areas.

It hasn’t been so long ago when I still had dial-up, which is so frustrating it’s not even worth having, so some people don’t even have it, or if they do have a dial-up internet connection they don’t deal with it, because it’s a pain in the neck.

It’s threatening. There are a lot of myths surrounding what can happen when you use the internet. Some rural people think it allows kind of a two-way connection. There is a prevalent belief that others can see into the home through the computer, or that personal information can be stolen from the computer. They have a real distrust of what the computer and the internet can do, so they come with little or no experience. I find too in the rural schools that this misinformation might come through the teachers and the parents. I have dealt with many teachers who don’t really know a lot about using computers, so they are uncomfortable or afraid.  I call it the “I don’t like it, it’s too different,” viewpoint. If children and teenagers spend the majority of time with parents or teachers who feel that way, then they’re certainly not going to be afforded opportunities to explore technology or to use computers for all their varying purposes, much less to get online. When those students come to college, they are at a disadvantage immediately.

How do you see the difference in accessibility, and then the cultural mistrust of technology affect student learning specifically with adult students?

Well, for one, as soon as students arrive on a campus now, everything that students must access is online. Registering for classes is online. Anything having to do with the library is online. Class assignments may be online. At the very least students need be able to turn on a computer and log on to the college website. If they’re feeling stressed or afraid then that emotion takes over, and it’s very difficult to learn a new skill. That presents a roadblock and the content matter learning cannot take place, because they’re stuck.

A lot of fear has to do with the vocabulary, simple terms we take for granted, like “email” and “log on”, and what we think are intuitive steps are not to someone who has no experience with computers or internet. An example would be, when our electricity blinked this afternoon, and it unset our clock on our stove. My husband has a continuing struggle with it, and while asking me how to set it, he said, “Well how do you know what button to push next?” I really could not explain it, because it comes to me automatically. I went through the steps and it worked and I knew what to push next, and his comment was “Well shouldn’t that be written down explicitly in the directions?”

That whole lack of knowledge of how computers work —is a real roadblock for adult students. In my experience over the last few years, rural students seem to be more handicapped because of the lack of access and experience.

How do you think the roadblock that technology presents can be overcome?

At the college level, I think we need to know how to find out in some kind of unthreatening way, whether it’s through a placement test, or questionnaire, or even an interview, to find out where each student’s technology skills are from the very lowest level. I start talking in the first class session about BlackBoard, our learning management system, and if I have students who don’t even know how to turn on a computer, then I’m so far above them in explaining something that has nothing to do with them, that they’re going to tune me out.

I think that should be discovered at the admissions level. Advisors should ask in simple terms what students can do with computers or have them answer a questionnaire prior to course sign-up, so that they’re not signing up for 16 credits and then becoming so overwhelmed with the technology demands that they drop out altogether. I think that information must be acquired before they are allowed to sign up for courses. I’m not even sure that our advisors realize that they need to ask such basic questions. Most people tend to assume that others can do what they can do.

What happens if this is allowed to continue? How do you think student populations and enrollment rates are going to be affected if students keep coming through without an ability to function at a basic level with computers?

They drop out quickly.

I see it every semester—especially now with the economic downturn; we have more and more thirty-and-up adults coming to college to get retrained. They could be coming on their own, or they’re part of a training program.

We had a large group come from a factory that had closed down in a nearby town. They may have been high school dropouts who had gotten their GEDs a while back, and then just operated on whatever factory level the factory demanded, and now in order to be retrained for a job they’re thrown into a fast paced technology based situation. It’s very stressful for them, and very frustrating, and often they don’t make it through first semester. That’s not going to help this big push we have for graduation rates, if we can’t get them past first semester.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

I think responsibility comes from all around, there’s not one side or the other. While talking to teachers last week, in a meeting about redesigning our developmental English program so that it addresses some of those issues, I brought up what I just said, about the need for a placement test or placement interview for technology. Someone usually shushes me and says that’s not the English department’s job. That compartmentalization of whose job it is really gets in the way. I don’t know whose job it is. It ends up being mine when they come in my classroom. If there is not some acknowledgement of whose job it is, underprepared students are going keep coming to us, and only the ones with a tremendous amount of perseverance are going to make it through. We are going to keep losing a lot of them we might be able to keep, if we asked the right questions early enough.

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