The Promise and the Power of Distance Learning in Rural Education

Last Updated: August 01, 2004

Distance Learning in Rural Education

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By Vicki Hobbs

A rapidly growing number of rural students are increasingly involved in some form of distance learning for all or part of the school day (or night). The precise long-term impact of distance learning technologies on schooling will not be known for several years. But this paper embraces the likelihood that distance learning will revolutionize the concept of "schooling" — not by abandoning schools and individualizing and isolating students in the process, but rather by enhancing individual and class educational opportunities most often in the context of a school. The concept of schooling will surely be altered in the process, but the school as a social and educational institution will undoubtedly remain.

The schools that educate one-third of our children living in rural places are unique and diverse. One common characteristic shared by most rural schools is their size — they are generally small in comparison to most urban and suburban schools. Nearly 54 percent of rural and small town secondary schools (grades 9-12) have enrollments of 400 or fewer students.

Extensive research findings show that small schools and districts graduate a higher percentage of students and dropout rates are lower in small schools. In small schools and districts, there is less violence, less vandalism, a heightened sense of belonging, better attendance, and members of the community, including parents, are more involved.

The importance of rural schools to their communities is significant and the educational value of retaining small, community-based schools is undeniable. But rural schools also face unique challenges:
  • Providing a Comprehensive Curriculum: Size and/or remote geographic location may prevent small schools from offering a comprehensive curriculum. All schools are held to state performance standards, but by also setting input or resource standards, such as a high minimum number of credits offered, an additional burden is selectively placed on small schools. Compounding the problem, national teacher shortages in subjects such as math, science, and foreign languages make it harder for small, rural schools to maintain advanced high school course offerings.
  • Recruiting, Retaining and Adequately Paying Teachers: On average, rural teachers in the U.S. make only 88 percent of the salary of their non-rural peers. With growing teacher shortages and a growing "teacher pay gap" across districts, many small and rural schools may simply not be able to retain or hire new teachers. A 2003 report shows the range in average rural teacher salaries across the U.S. from a low of $24,234 in South Dakota to a high of $49,872 in New Jersey, with a U.S. average of $32,694.6 While salary is not the only factor involved in attracting or retaining teachers, low teacher salaries weigh heavily against rural schools in the competition for teachers.
  • Meeting the Requirements of No Child Left Behind: Rural schools have unique problems meeting the No Child Left Behind Act's "highly qualified" teacher requirements, as they struggle to find and hire certified teachers in every subject area. Educational requirements for paraprofessionals, providing supplemental services for students in schools identified as "in need of improvement," and providing for student transfer and options for school choice are all more burdensome to small and rural schools.
  • Funding Shortages and Threats of Consolidation: State cuts in education funding particularly impact rural schools, which frequently have a low tax base, limited economic development, an aging population, and declining student enrollments. Coupled with the growing number of lawsuits arguing that state governments have a constitutional duty to provide schools with equitable and adequate educational funding, many legislatures often blindly (and with no evidence to support them) turn to school consolidation as a way out of fiscal distress and a way to improve student educational opportunities. It is almost always true that lowering costs through consolidation will be more than offset by higher costs in other areas.
Distance learning is a fitting response to these pressing needs confronted by America's rural schools. Research shows that it can be as effective as classroom learning in terms of student performance. It offers the opportunity for enhanced curriculum and advanced classes, as well as for students to participate in low-enrollment, high-cost classes such as physics, anatomy, chemistry, music theory, or calculus. Along with the academic advantages come economic ones: school size no longer determines the scope or breadth of curriculum offered. Schools of any size can offer a virtually unlimited curriculum without incurring the costs of hiring additional teachers. Savings increase even more if schools participate in distance learning consortiums to share master teachers, personnel and technology costs.

Most importantly, distance learning can enable small schools to remain open and small — thereby embracing more than a half century of educational research showing that smaller schools offer a multitude of educational advantages for students over larger schools.

Distance learning is here to stay. Its future appears to be unsure only in its direction or extent of growth. This paper focuses on the applicability and potential of twoway interactive television for small and rural K-12 schools as a primary asset in improving educational access and equity and calls for the adoption of enlightened distance learning policies and guidelines at the state and local levels.