Nearly 60% of the United States’ 13,500 school districts are located in rural areas. But many have small and shrinking enrolment numbers — they educate less than a quarter of the country’s students — leaving them struggling to recruit teachers and offer vital subjects to their pupils.
As broadband access has improved across the country, online education has been trumpeted as a solution for rural schools’ woes. Technology can allow students to take classes they’d otherwise have missed, improving their attainment and chances of making it to college. Hundreds of thousands of school students across the country are enrolled in virtual education programs.
The online education sector, though, is sprawling and constantly-evolving. There are a few keys to identifying high-quality classes in the crowd. But how can under-resourced rural schools be equipped to spot them?
Online education can work
Declining student numbers in rural areas mean that many rural schools have thin budgets, and difficulty attracting qualified teachers. It’s a particular difficulty for science and mathematics subjects, where more specialisation is needed.
“Teachers may be certified in one particular area of mathematics or science, but not another,” said Pam Buffington of the Education Development Center, a Boston-based non-profit. “There’s less offering and fewer classes in those rural places.”
State governments in the US conduct standardised testing, but choices about which subjects to offer and to what level are made locally. A lack of classes in crucial subjects like algebra and calculus can stop students progressing. Rural Americans are just as likely to finish high school as their urban compatriots — but significantly less likely to go to college.
Online courses can fill that gap, Buffington said. A 2011 study for the federal education department trialled an online algebra class in rural schools in Maine and Vermont which weren’t offering algebra, even to students judged ready for it. Those taking the course had improved maths performance and were more than three times more likely to enrol in an advanced course the following year.
The promise of online education is growing rapidly as high-speed broadband spreads across the country. According to Education Superhighway, 94% of school districts have access to fast enough internet for digital learning, up from just 30% in 2013.
But it has to be done right
Enrolment in online education has grown accordingly. But it has plenty of critics. The National Education Policy Center has found that fully or partly virtual schools, which enrolled more than 400,000 students in 2016-17, on average underperform traditional public schools on many metrics.
Virtual schools are distinct from the individual online classes used by rural schools, but the figures are indicative of the variation in quality among course providers.
A few factors, according to Buffington, are important in ensuring online learning is effective for rural students.
One is that classes should have a local facilitator, based in the traditional school. Facilitators need not be certified in the subject, but they can “make sure the students are online, that they’re requesting support when they need it, and that they have some face-to-face connection”, Buffington said.
The 2011 study of Maine and Vermont found that local supervisors played a more active role in students’ learning than researchers had expected.
A second beneficial approach is “hybrid engagement”, in which a class is partly delivered in person and partly online. Hybrid methods have become common in professional development programs for teachers, Buffington said, and have been successful in promoting greater engagement. “It helps to really make courses into richer opportunities for students,” she said.
Hybrid engagement can be difficult for the most remote rural schools. In those situations, a third factor is important: ensuring classes involve interactive elements, such as live group discussions with a teacher, rather than static content.
“The things that more readily simulate what they would be doing in school face-to-face are really helping to bridge these gaps,” Buffington explained. She described working with one school district which had introduced a largely static online course for young students.
“They had kindergarteners with headphones on, sitting next to each other but not interacting,” she said. “That’s not a strategy that’s successful.” But better-designed resources can encourage discussion and interaction between students and teachers, achieving better results.
Schools struggle to find best practice
The challenge, however, is for schools to identify these good practices when they’re already struggling with a lack of staff and resources.
Decisions about whether and how to implement online classes are usually made by a school district superintendent or an individual school administrator. It can be difficult for them to sift through vast numbers of providers — the NEPC counted more than 725 virtual and blended schools in 2016-17 — and keep up with best practice.
“That is and will continue to be a challenge, as new vendors come on board,” according to Buffington. “It’s really important that someone has the responsibility to set and discuss the criteria that make a good course.”
The extent to which schools are getting that kind of support varies widely across the country. In Maine, where more than half of students attend rural schools, online education has been a priority since 2001. The state government has helped ensure knowledge about good practice is retained over time and shared between schools.
But other states do relatively little to help schools. Some 21 have not provided a definition of “instructional materials” for schools that includes digital learning, leaving schools in the dark, according to the State Educational Technology Directors Association. Only 26 have a repository of vetted materials and just 15 offer state-level funding to help schools implement online education.
Professional organisations like SETDA and the National Rural Education Association are also helping. The NREA in March published a comprehensive report identifying effective initiatives of states and school districts to use online learning in rural schools.
“The guiding documents do really help a lot,” Buffington said. Well-designed and implemented online learning initiatives can dramatically expand the range of opportunities for rural students. But as the sector develops quickly, continuing support is needed to keep schools abreast of new evidence.
“It’s not technology’s good or technology’s bad,” Buffington said. “It’s about how the technology is being used, and whether it’s supported by what we know about high-quality learning.” Schools need to ensure that by identifying the right courses — and policymakers can help guide them to those choices. — Fergus Peace
(Picture credit: Flickr/dcJohn)