K-12 School Computer Networking/Chapter 25/Distance Learning and Rural Education
Introduction to the Topic
Rural schools typically face issues such as a lack of qualified teachers and a lack of budget to implement costly classes in which only few students attend. With the rapid growth of technology used in educational settings, distance learning now can provide significant benefits for rural schools to overcome these issues. This page illustrates how distance learning helps rural schools handle their problems and enhance their educational quality. The target audience of this page is distance learning coordinators and instructors, working for rural K-12 schools. However, due to the high applicability of the information, people who are generally interested in distance learning are likely to find this page interesting. The information on this page is mainly based on research of U.S schools, but this might be applicable to many other countries, as we can find similar issues in rural schools all over the world.
Rural schools generally exist in countryside areas which typically have less economical development and a lower population than urban or suburban areas. In the case of the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Education, the definition of a small rural school is a school in a district where average daily attendance is fewer than 600 students, or in a district in which all schools are located in counties with a population density of fewer than 10 persons per square mile (U.S Department of Education, 2008).
Traditionally rural schools have had unique benefits for students. In fact, rural schools pioneered many educational reform tools, including peer assistance, multi-grade classrooms, mentoring and cooperative learning. The small size of the community made strong unity among students, teachers and the community (National Education Association). However, although rural schools have certain benefits and importance in their community, rural schools face unique challenges too. The following section is a description of these challenges.
Challenges of Rural Schools
Here are the typical challenges that rural schools face.
1) Difficulty in providing comprehensive curriculum
The small size and remote geographic location make it difficult for rural schools to provide comprehensive curriculum. Additionally, rural schools often have difficulty in providing low-enrollment and high-cost classes, due to a lack of budget and qualified teachers. For instance, the U.S. shortages of teachers in subject areas such as math and foreign languages make it harder for rural schools to maintain the qualified teachers of these subjects (Hobbs, 2004).
2) Lower payment for teachers
Teachers in a rural school often receive a lower salary than teachers in an urban school. For example, in the case of the U.S., on average, rural teachers only make 88 % of the salary of their non rural peers (Jimerson, 2003). This is because teachers’ salaries are partly generated by the local property tax, and rural areas have a poorer capacity to generate this tax. Due to this pay gap, rural schools have trouble hiring and retaining new teachers. Consequently, some rural schools have to hire under prepared teachers and have inappropriately large class sizes.
3) Funding Shortages and Threats of consolidation
The reduction of national and state educational funding has had a particularly strong impact on rural schools, as they typically have a low local tax base, lower economic development, an aging population and declining student enrollments. As a result, it is difficult for rural schools to provide high cost and low enrollment classes such as anatomy and chemistry. In the U.S. there are many cases of lawsuits arguing that the state government has a constitutional duty to provide schools with equitable and adequate educational funding. Nevertheless, in many cases, legislatures often turn the issue to school consolidation as a way out of fiscal distress and a way to improve student educational opportunity. In these cases, it is often true that the savings gained through consolidation will be more than offset by higher costs in other areas (Rural School and Community Trust, 2003).
What Is Distance Learning?
Distance learning is any kind of instructional setting where instructors and students are separated in physical space and time. Distance learning is not synonym of “online learning”, as distance learning includes more comprehensive learning activities such as listening to the radio, and distance learning does not have to be combined with internet access. Nevertheless, it is also true that in many contexts, distance learning includes online communication. Hobbs explains distance learning based on its four major characteristics: learners, time, instruction and degree of interactivity (2004).
Distance learning can occur with individual learning or within a group. In the case of individual-based learning, when two students are enrolled in the same class, one student may sit in the computer room of his/her school to participate in the class, and another student may be in his/her home. In a group learning setting, a group of students may participate in the class from their school, while another group of students may participate in the same class from different schools or organizations.
Distance learning can occur in both real time and delayed time. In real time (synchronous communication), students and teachers can interact with each other simultaneously. In delayed time (asynchronous communication), students can response to previously developed instruction at their convenience (at any time and any place).
Distance learning class can be provided by several methods. Students may learn from teachers as they do in the traditional classroom settings, or students may also learn from a set of organized materials such as computer texts. In the latter case, students may never interact with human instructors.
4) Degree of Interactivity
Often distance learning is divided into one-way and two-way technologies. In one-way technologies, students may be able to see, hear and watch instructors, but students cannot directly communicate with instructors. On the contrary, in the two-way technologies, students and teachers can directly interact with each other.
Any distance learning contains these four aspects in varying degrees.
Advantages of Distance Learning for Rural Schools
This section is an illustration of the advantages of distance learning in rural schools. To be clear, distance learning has significant potential to overcome the issues of rural schools and would enhance the quality of the education.
1) Academic Advantages
Distance Learning classes can be offered regardless of the availability of local certified teachers, and significantly improve the breath of curriculum in rural schools. For some advanced classes sometimes it is almost impossible for rural school to find adequate local teachers, but these problems can be solved by offering distance learning programs. For example, teachers in an urban school can teach a class such as anatomy as an online class, to a student in rural school where there is no qualified anatomy teacher. For the distance learning coordinators, it is important to think about collaboration with different schools (including urban schools) and various teachers to offer these advanced classes. Another important academic advantage of distance learning which traditional classes cannot offer is the possibility of a “virtual” field trip. Using technologies such as YouTube, Video Phone and Skype, instructors can offer students the opportunity to interact with remote cultures regardless of their geographic location. For example, in American schools, students can talk with people in Asia, or they can go on a virtual field trip to NASA using Video Phone.
2) Economic Advantages
For an educator’s point of view, calculating the cost for each class is something that he/she has to do to implement and evaluate the class. In this sense, it is hard for rural schools to provide classes which are expensive, but have low enrollments. However, using distance learning technology, this problem can be solved. Rural schools now can expand the breadth of curriculum by introducing distance learning classes, depending on the year to year student needs. In this way, rural schools do not have to hire new teachers in order to satisfy student needs. Also, it is important to note as a technology coordinator that some forms of distance learning which do not require a high degree of instructor involvement have no significant incremental cost. Learning through radio and DVD are examples of this. Thus, the cost of offering a class to one student could be same as if it were offered to fifteen students.
3) Professional development for teachers
Not only students, but teachers also receive benefits from distance learning. Rural teachers can update their knowledge and gain additional certification through distance learning. They do not have to leave their community to further their expertise. Additionally, distance learning provides opportunities for extending the clinical experience of pre-service teachers. Also, pre-service teachers can maintain remote mentoring relationships between new teachers and experienced teachers.
4) Collaborative Learning beyond space and time
Distance and time are not barriers to collaboration with students and teachers in remote places. Rural students can share their learning with people in remote areas through an online discussion board. Distance learning instructors can create educational programs aimed at sharing views between urban students and rural students. Instructors can even create global learning environments which students learn together with people in foreign countries. This kind of learning opportunity is desirable in the present era of globalization.
5) Specialized student services
Distance learning technology also makes it possible for students to receive an extended variety of specialized school services such as speech therapy, psychological testing and counseling. Video phone technology is especially useful on these occasions. Sometimes rural students have trouble receiving these services, even though they need them. Distance learning tools can help solve this issue (Barron, 1999; Hobbs, 2004).
How to Ensure Student Success
There are some factors which we can typically see in successful distance learning. Broadly speaking, there are three elements.
1) Instructional effectiveness
This measure may not very different from a traditional classroom. It is often said, distance learning technology does not improve bad teachers, but it improves the capacity of good teachers. That is, it expands instructors’ ability to communicate with students, coach students and encourage the application of their learning. The importance of instructional effectiveness is not really different from in the traditional classroom setting. Without this capacity, sophisticated technologies do not enhance the educational quality of rural schools.
2) Instructor training
There are mainly two major aspects regarding distance learning in which instructors should be trained. First, instructors need to understand the technical operation of software and hardware. Second, and more importantly, they should learn how to teach through distance learning technology. Sometimes, teachers fail to teach distance learning classes by simply transferring their experience in traditional classes. There are different conditions such as level of interaction in distance learning. It is important to prepare for teaching based the distance learning environment. Instructors should be especially aware of types of technologies and internet connectivity that rural schools have.
3) Student supports for technology issues
A technological support structure is essential. Rural schools should have a school-based technology troubleshooter who can handle problems such as internet communication problems. Also, depending on the course, occasional face-to-face contact with an instructor facilitates student learning (Barron, 1999; Hobbs, 2004).
A Success Story
There are numerous successful cases of distance learning in rural K -12 education all over the world. The Fire and Ice project is a quite well-known example. “Fire and Ice” is a series of interactive dialogues among students (ages 7 to 13) of several countries including Brazil, Canada and Mozambique. They used webcam for their communication. There, they discussed global environmental problems with the help of translators. A rural school in Massarmbara, a village several hours from Rio participated in this project. Instead of just discussing the environmental issues, the students exchanged ideas for practical actions to change the environment of their communities. Later in the year, they talked again to share their progress. The Brazilian students in Massarmbara found out about the devastation of the soil in their community due to fires, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Then, the students learned how to make compost to create organic fertilizers from local farms and actually grew garden vegetables. Their action caught the attention of media outlets such as CNN, and become a well-known successful case of distance learning. The distance learning project “Fire and Ice” not only provided the rural students chances to interact with foreign students beyond physical spaces, but also inspired them to take practical actions to make a difference in their community with a global vision. Without distance learning technology, this kind of learning program in the rural school would have been impossible. Stace Wills, the co-founder of Fire and Ice says, "This project is about inspiring students to create their own solutions for helping combat climate change in their local areas. What really makes this different is that the students are translating dialogue into action" (Schwartz, 2007).
The Obstacles for Rural Distance Learning
When effectively implemented, distance learning has considerable benefits in rural education. However, there are possible barriers to implementing distance learning in rural schools.
1) The Digital Divide is the essential issue. The Digital Divide is the gap between areas where access to telecommunication technologies, especially internet access, are available and areas where it is not. In the case of the U.S., many rural schools still lag behind urban schools. The gap is now defined in terms of the access to broadband (high speed line). Because in many cases, distance learning programs require a certain degree of internet connectivity, the Digital Divide will be a big issue.
2) Lack of skilled technology coordinators and instructors Rural schools sometimes lack school based technology professionals who adequately familiar with distance learning technology. Often small schools do not have the resources to attract skilled technology coordinators who can fix the technology problems and can keep up to date on the newest information about distance learning.
3) Budgetary issues Technology selection is often determined by affordability. In this way, technology may not meet the expectations of students and instructors. In the case of the U.S., school district budgets rarely include expenses for distance learning technology, so collaboration with the state government is necessary (Hobbs, 2004; National Education Association).
While these issues exist in rural schools, clearly, distance learning has huge potential to revolutionize the quality of education in rural schools. Distance learning definitely provides broader choices and chances to make more creative education programs in rural schools. While allowing rural schools to maintain their distinct benefits, distance learning will ensure that the location and size of a rural school will not limit its quality.
Barron, A. (1999). A teacher’s guide to distance learning. Tampa, FL: Florida Center for Instructional Technology. Retrieved December 5, 2008, form http://fcit.usf.edu/distance/default.htm
Hobbs, V. (2004). The promise and the power of distance learning in rural education. Arlington, VA: Rural School and Community Trust. Retrieved November 30, 2008 from Education Resources Information Center.
Jimerson, L. (2003). The competitive disadvantage: Teacher compensation in rural America. Washington, DC: Rural School and Community Trust. Retrieved December 2, 2008 from Education Resource Information Center.
National Education Association. (n.d.). Rural Education. Retrieved December 2, from http://www.nea.org/rural/index.html
Rural School and Community Trust. (2003). The fiscal impacts of school consolidation: Research-based conclusions. Washington, DC: Rural School and community trust. Retrieved December 2, 2008 from http://www.ruraledu.org/docs/arkansas/fisc_soc.doc
Schwartz, B. (2007, December 5). Children plan for planet’s future. CNN.com. Retrieved December 1, 2008, from http://www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/11/29/justimagine.elluminate/
U.S Department of Education. (2008). Small rural school achievement. Retrieved December 2, 2008, from http://www.ed.gov/programs/reapsrsa/index.html