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Friday, July 20, 2012

Rethinking rural schools and distance learning

As much as I at one time would have hated to say it, a lot of life can be lived digitally.  It's made me rethink the teaching and learning possibilities for students in our rural districts.

In just the last two weeks:
  • I've had a wonderful visit with my daughter in her DC abode, via Skype.
  • I've had productive face-to-face meetings with my business partner at 9 o'clock each morning, each in our home offices, again via Skype
  • I've been contacted by a new client who found me through LinkedIn. Since then we've made our work arrangements via email and cell phone.
So listening to superintendents' casual conversations at this week's Arkansas Rural Education Association persuaded me that the possibilities for providing quality teaching of all the required 38 courses -- not to mention some stimulating courses that aren't required -- through "distance learning," or the digital classroom are more easily achieved and, in many cases, make more sense than closing down a school. 

My only qualification to that statement is that it must be done right.

A visit to the Arkansas Department of Education's Distance Learning Center in Maumelle a few years ago, where I watched an intense Calculus class in action, convinced me then that good teaching can be delivered virtually.  This, obviously, is already being done. Quality high school courses already are provided by several centers around the state.

Superintendents of small campuses say distance learning options help them because:
  • They can find quality teachers who will lead their classrooms though they live elsewhere.  
  • It saves them money because they aren't duplicating teachers for small classes at each of their campuses. 
  • Students can engage in learning in familiar settings without making the long bus rides that are becoming more and more the norm for this state. 

Right now, Arkansas law mandates that school districts must be shut down after two consecutive years of enrollments below 350.  I was a strong supporter of that law, simply because students at larger districts often have so many more opportunities both in terms of classes and extracurriculars.  But the more digital this world becomes, the less sense I think that arbitrary number makes.

The key is making sure this distance learning in small districts is the best thing for the students, not simply for the school staff or the community.  So, in addition to making sure the class is taught by a first-rate teacher who knows how to make lessons sing on the airwaves:
  • Teachers must have an appropriate teaching load so they can communicate individually and frequently with their students via email, Facebook, phone call, etc.,  in addition to the on-air class time.
  • Schools must provide facilitators who coordinate with the teacher so they can assist with the learning as well as the technology.
  • The technology has to be first class -- none of this "can you hear me now" stuff.
  • School facilities must be well-maintained (this does get tougher when enrollment numbers are low)
  • Teachers must make periodic personal visits to each of the classes. Life can't be totally digital!
This last is important. While classes can and should be supplemented by lessons from say Harvard professors or Smithsonian Museums staff, I believe the full-time teacher must be someone familiar with the community.  Another recent experience illustrates this point:

I was trying to make a reservation for a hotel on State Line Avenue in Texarkana. I couldn't remember if the hotel was on the Arkansas or Texas side, which totally baffled my overseas-based hotel representative. He never did get the concept of a street that could straddle two states. In fact, he insisted that it must be in Texas and tried to put me into the chain's hotel in Marshall, Texas, at which point I became irritated and ended the call.

I can imagine a student getting just as frustrated with a teacher who didn't know the lay of the land. All learning could stop at that point.

No doubt, there are other ways distance learning could fail to engage students as much as a warm body leading the classroom.

But, in terms of policy, Arkansas could and should do more so the rural people of our state who value their way of life can maintain it without sacrificing the quality of education for their children or putting them on a school bus at dark-thirty in the morning for a too-long ride.

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