Distance Education on Rise in U.S., Study Shows

Published May 1, 2005

A new survey from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reveals approximately one-third of the nation’s school districts offer distance-learning courses and 72 percent of them plan to expand their offerings.

Students in rural districts represent the majority of children taking advantage of distance-learning options, according to the report, titled “Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students: 2002-2003.” The report was released March 2 and provides the first national data available on distance education in public schools.

“Distance learning is expanding the offerings for many of our nation’s high schools,” said Susan Patrick, director of the department’s Office of Educational Technology. “It is not replacing courses, but adding to the curricular offerings. It is another way to bring courses to areas with highly qualified teachers, at any time and any place. Small and rural schools are finding distance learning a viable solution for offering advanced placement courses, [and] rigorous math, science, and foreign-language courses not otherwise available at the school.”

Innovative Technologies Used

For the purposes of this study, NCES defined distance education courses as “credit-granting courses offered to elementary and secondary school students enrolled in the district in which the teacher and students were in different locations.” The courses, which most often originate from postsecondary institutions, are delivered using a variety of technologies, primarily two-way interactive video or the Internet.

“Two-way interactive video systems can be purchased and maintained in four- or five-district consortia for less than the cost of a teacher,” said Rachel B. Tompkins, president of The Rural Trust, a national nonprofit organization devoted to issues affecting rural education and communities.

Such technologies allow districts to offer courses that would otherwise be unavailable, increase Advanced Placement choices, and better meet the requirements of students with specific needs, such as those learning English as a second language. High-poverty districts in particular report distance learning is a valuable tool for serving students with specific needs, and rural districts emphasized the role distance learning plays in their ability to offer Advanced Placement and college-level courses.

“Distance learning has helped small rural high schools offer more courses,” Tompkins said. “This includes upper-division math and science as well as dual college credit and Advanced Placement.”

Programs Fill Course Gaps

Selected findings point to the importance placed on distance learning by rural districts, small districts, and districts with high poverty concentrations:

  • 42 percent of districts with medium or high poverty concentrations had students enrolled in distance education courses (compared to 33 percent of low-poverty concentration districts);
  • small districts enroll more students proportionally in Advanced Placement or college-level distance education courses (24 percent, compared to 7 percent for large districts);
  • rural districts enroll more students proportionally in Advanced Placement or college-level distance education courses (27 percent, compared to 4 percent for urban districts); and,
  • a greater proportion of both small districts and rural districts enroll students in foreign-language distance education courses (by a percentage nearly triple that of large and urban districts, respectively).

Expansion Likely

Most of the districts responding to the survey reported offering Advanced Placement or college-level courses and increasing their capacity to meet the needs of certain students were very important factors in the decision to offer distance learning. Consistent with other findings of the study, small districts and rural ones considered these reasons more important than their large and urban counterparts did.

Expansion is likely for nearly three-quarters of the districts already offering distance education, the study found. Cost was the most commonly cited factor affecting growth of distance learning, along with concerns about course development, course quality, infrastructure limitations, and per-pupil funding based on attendance.

For some schools and districts, distance education helps them retain local control as a host of state lawmakers initiate consolidation efforts. (See “District Consolidation Could Affect School Choice, Competition,” this page.)

Tompkins agreed distance learning can help rural communities “in blunting the concern about breadth of curriculum that often leads to pressure for consolidation.

“Schools are also essential institutions of community,” she added. “When schools close, towns die. So maintaining schools helps sustain small towns.”

Kate McGreevy ([email protected]) is a freelance education writer from Indiana. She formerly worked with the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy in Washington, D.C.

For more information …

The NCES report on distance education is available online at http://www.nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2005010.

For more information on The Rural Trust, visit its Web site at http://www.ruraledu.org.