Innovation in Appalachia: How Eastern Kentucky School Districts Are Pursuing Digital Badging for Social Change

Even today, with all the information in the world available at our fingertips, many Americans know little about the extreme poverty in Appalachia.

One of the poorest parts of this region can be found in Eastern Kentucky. Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC) is comprised of 22 school districts in 17 eastern Kentucky counties. They serve an area where, according to Fahe, nearly a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. Leaders in this cooperative are equipping Appalachians with the tools they need to solve regional challenges, enabling them to share innovations across counties and even earn digital badges to demonstrate job skills.

KVEC started in 1969 with only eight school districts, according to Executive Director Dr. Jeff Hawkins. The districts pooled resources, worked to purchase discounted materials, and promoted compliance training. 15 years ago, they shifted away from compliance training and into teaching, leadership, and learning.

In that time, they also expanded up to 22 counties, shown above. This encompasses the eastern-most part of Kentucky, an economically struggling area since coal mining has become nearly obsolete.

Five years ago, KVEC started re-envisioning K–12 systems as a way to reinvent Appalachia through community and workforce investment boards. Their hope was to cultivate an abundance mentality, and their belief was that the people of Appalachia are perseverant, creative, and resourceful. Therefore, they knew that the best long-term solutions for the challenges these communities face would come from within. Students would serve as the leaders for change, leading parents and caregivers to realize they’re capable of the same.

KVEC has been a champion for improvement and innovation. The most notable of their efforts is the push for personalized learning for every child. They allow students to connect with their passion, then enable them to follow their goals in a career pathway. This is inclusive of all post-secondary opportunities, from college to vocational or trade school. Personalized learning is crucial for impoverished students who may not have exposure to all of the possible opportunities. However, they didn’t stop at personalizing education for students. They also worked for personalized professional learning pathways.

Problem Solving as a Community

Another aspect of KVEC’s work is Activating Catalytic Transformation (ACT) which helps Appalachian districts engage in community-based problem solving. This is crucial to catalyzing change because many rural communities are reliant on activism through interdependence.

KVEC began the program after winning a Race to the Top District grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2013. Currently, they give mini-grants to schools for support of the ACT work.

Jennifer Carroll, leader of the ACT work, shared their action research cycle:

  • Identify a problem in practice
  • Engage principals, teachers, students, and utilize community
  • Create a solution through a theory of action and result

One example of this method is from Magoffin County, where teachers worked to create productive parent/guardian communication. They surveyed students to identify connections with three trusted adults, logged it into a database, and created an app. This technology allows teachers to find ways they can support students personally. It allows for everything from logging parent conferences on academics, to figuring out who the three teachers a student would most benefit from seeing them in attendance of a funeral of a family member.

Innovators shared this app all across the region through “The Holler.” In some areas, teachers may struggle to connect with their students because many of them live in rural ‘hollers’ where school busses take winding, narrow roads for hours. It’s difficult to forge relationships with students’ families when many of them are working and do not have time to make it to parent-teacher conferences.

The Holler: A Place for Connections

The Holler is a “place-based, social learning network” to connect, share, and increase student agency. Another school, Flat Gap in Johnson county, worked on individualized interventions in real-time. This also provides a platform for student-led innovations. For example, in the same school, students led fundraisers for water purifiers and bottles. Appalachian people in some of these areas lack access to clean water. Through The Holler, Flat Gap students were able to share their purifiers neighboring Martin County students when they needed them.

The Holler is not only a repository. It’s a place for hope and interdependence to foster tangible change. Through threads and linked sites, users are able to discuss, problem solve, and share impacts. The Holler has different facets, but it’s still personalized. From the aforementioned ACT strategies, to math minds discussing curriculum development, this site allows users to brainstorm collectively. Bruce Parsons, founder, shared that the site has around 1,000 weekly users interacting. There are 5,000 total registered users.

Parsons also explained that this incorporates internal aspects such as KVEC and voices from inside schools: students, teachers, and administration. As well as incorporating external aspects: community conversations and responses. This dual-accessibility allows for a sense of alliance and trust. He explained that they utilize a depth chart to understand the reach of this work; They can determine how far traffic goes and what messages reach specific areas. The depth chart allows them to cultivate audiences and develop relevant content. This provides a revolutionary opportunity for communities to work together to address their needs.

Jennifer Carroll mentioned more on the forum aspect of The Holler. She explained about ‘Holler Challenges’ like sharing videos and resources around classroom redesign and teaching strategies. This utilization of online connections allows them to bridge the distance gaps so prominent in Appalachia. On the other hand, the Fire Summit allows participants to gather together and demonstrate their projects. This past conference, they shared live-streams from ten different locations in the expo center. They then archived them on Holler for accessibility. She explained the reward in seeing the development from the proposals in October to their culmination in April. For students, the reward may be more personal: they can play a role in positively changing their communities.

Digital Badging

They are considering every possible avenue of development through education technology by also allowing for micro credentials for workers. Digital badging is a way to innovate around the limited to non-existent of professional development. KVEC works to allow teachers to participate in free professional/clinical learning which can be applied in classrooms. At present houses these credentials, which are approved through the submission of ‘artifacts,’ or projects, from these conferences. The digital badging will soon migrate to Digital Promise so that they can be displayed on Holler. By May, these micro-credentials will convert and contribute to certification and re-certification of workers. Bruce Parsons shared that digital badging includes metadata which allow platform users to see the contents of the ‘artifact.’ Artifacts would include projects such as the app from Macgoffin county, the water purifiers from Johnson county, and other projects. Not only does digital badging showcase their skills, it also allows for others to see final projects that allowed students and teachers to acquire those skills.

KVEC is not near a university, so digital badging allows them to navigate around the challenge of distance. The example they gave of the recent microbadging efforts was the Transmedia Storytelling Course. It incorporates curriculum for visual storytelling or graphic art. Teachers play a role in developing and expanding this curriculum, allowing students to develop their skills one at a time. For students who may be distracted from school because of personal struggles, they now have a way to work to solve the problems their community faces and have their efforts recognized.

This is more than learning, it is community building. For years, Appalachians have taken care of each other. Communities come together in times of crisis. Now, those who innovate and lead the way in creating a better future for the region can showcase their efforts through digital badging. They can connect with their peers and collaborate to cultivate change. People outside of Appalachia cannot always contextualize the problems faced by Appalachians. KVEC is meeting communities where they are and utilizing their trust in one another to allow for grassroots change.

Amanda Wahlstedt

Amanda Wahlstedt is a media arts and sciences major and education studies minor at Wellesley college. As a rural low-income student in Kentucky, she played an essential role in the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team’s College Tripwires project, a student-led investigation into the inequities facing Kentucky youth in the process of navigating the postsecondary transition process. She has written for the EdSurge Independent Cohort and been published in the Hechinger Report and Louisville Courier Journal. She currently serves as the Chief Storyteller for Student Voice.