Today I find myself in downtown Minneapolis after driving in last night from working with educational leaders in northern Iowa. I was looking forward to getting out and walking around the city, but it so happens I arrived the same time a winter storm has hit with high winds and what’s this white stuff I see falling from the sky? Yes….two days ago it was 60F today 38F and by Friday when I leave back to 63F. A little cold for my tropical blood so I’m doing the only logical thing you would do…..hanging out at a laundry mat catching up on laundry and thinking.

I’ve been very impresses with how far Scott McLeod, Jamie and Nick have been able to move Iowa educational leaders in the conversation of what needs to be done to keep education relevant in rural America. 

As I’ve talked with Scott and the educational leaders I’ve been working with throughout the state I keep coming back to Clayton Christensen book Disruptive Class (a must read!). He talks in the book about how disruptive technologies start by filling a niche need that is not mainstream. But they gain momentum fast and by the time mainstream knows what hit them they’ve become irrelevant (my basic paraphrasing of the book).

Iowa finds itself trying to compete in a world where populations are moving to more urban settings, leaving rural states like Iowa looking for ways to stay relevant. I met one Superintendent who has 700 students covering something like 400 square miles and their population is increasingly getting smaller and older. How does a small rural community compete in a wired fast pace world?  

You teach students to connect and be creative.

The number of schools/districts that have gone 1:1 in the past couple of years is about to reach 100 a 50% increase from the year before, and I have a feeling the adoption rate of 1:1 in rural states like Iowa will continue to outpace those of urban states in the near future. 

You then look at online learning and what the book Disruptive Class really focused on. That as these rural areas shrink they can’t afford full time teachers to teach every subject and online learning fills the void of offering classes that cannot be offered or supported locally. 

We talked about ways that these educational leaders could connect their communities that are spread out over great distrances. Of course Facebook came up in our conversations and instead of the usual “We can’t do that” that I’ve been hearing in the US for the past 3 years, there was a different conversation. This time one around “How do we do that?”

We discussed how much of their population, even the elder generation are probably on Facebook. Most figured probably upwards of 80%. If your community is in Facebook, and they won’t come to you for meetings, training, or to get information on bond issues, etc. Then you need to go to them and that is increasingly becoming Facebook. You don’t have to like it, you don’t have to agree with how they handle your data, but with 500 million users and 80% of your local population already connected, you can’t ignore it either. 

We also had some great conversations around the use of cell phones in the classroom. Even in some of the poorest of rural areas educational leaders where estimating that in 4th and 5th grade probably 30 – 40% of students have a cell phone. 

We discussed ways to use the camera, text messaging and my favorite idea: QR Codes

I’m going to come out right now and say that 2011 will be the year of the QR Code. We’re seeing them pop up more and more and as industries like aerospace continue to adopt them as a way to give out electronic boarding passes they’ll become more mainstream. 

It’s been fun to talk with open minded educational leaders and have conversations around the future of learning. We continue to say we need to get the leaders involved in these conversations and the work that Scott and his colleagues are doing in Iowa is opening up opportunities for change. 

For the first time in my three years of consulting with American schools I’m feeling hopefully that the conversation is changing.