Internet Reshapes Outlook for Rural Schools

Published November 1, 2003

“The influence of geographic factors diminishes as technology grows,” wrote Will and Ariel Durant in their 1968 book, The Lessons of History. Even these eminent historians could hardly have imagined how the Internet and high-speed telecommunications would so vividly illustrate the truth of their observation–transforming the opportunities available to children in rural America by putting them in virtual schools with classmates from a statewide neighborhood.

During a recent virtual town hall meeting hosted by U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, high school math teacher Brad Benton in Manning, Iowa explained how one of the unforeseen benefits of teaching a virtual calculus class over the Iowa Communications Network was the connections among the schools. Although students in the virtual classroom were sitting in schools all across the state of Iowa, he said, it was almost as if they were sitting at arm’s length from each other.

“The perk that we didn’t foresee is the dialog we get between the schools that we teach to,” said Benton. He related how, over his six years of teaching calculus in distance learning mode, he had seen students get to know their virtual classmates and develop a network of friends in rural communities all across the state.

Acting Deputy Secretary of Education Gene Hickok, who moderated the virtual town hall meeting, said the Manning story shows how technology is not only transforming the process of teaching and learning but also creating new neighborhoods.

“Because of the smart use of technology and good ideas,” said Hickok, “you can make a state into a neighborhood, and, frankly, make a nation into a neighborhood.”

All 374 school districts in Iowa are part of the Iowa Communications Network (ICN), a fiber optic network established in the early 1990s. ICN supports two-way audio and full-motion video-conferencing at 750 sites across the state. Although Manning Community Schools has only 500 students in K-12, the distance learning capabilities of ICN allow the district to teach classes like Spanish and calculus cost-effectively by adding students from other schools across the state to Manning’s virtual classrooms.

As well as giving students the opportunity to take classes not offered at their local schools, ICN also broadens the curriculum offerings with statewide efforts such as the Science Coop Project, whose aim is to bring science expertise to the schools. Now in its fourth year, the project involves 28 Iowa schools and 20,000 students spread out over 40,000 square miles.

While ICN provides students with access to high-quality teachers, it also provides teachers with access to professional development. Courses for teachers are delivered over the network and a number of teachers are pursuing master’s degrees online through the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

“This is just the beginning of our distance learning,” said Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa), who also participated in the town meeting.

Rural Education Task Force

The virtual town meeting, which took place on September 25, was held to illustrate how rural communities are using technology to meet the goals of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. The law’s requirement for teachers to be “highly qualified” in subject matter is particularly challenging for rural communities, where teachers often are providing instruction in multiple subjects across several grade levels.

Although much of the emphasis for school reform has focused on the problems of urban school systems, 43 percent of the nation’s public schools are in rural communities, and nearly one-third of America’s school-aged children attend public schools in rural communities. Secretary Paige has formed a Rural Education Task Force to identify the challenges faced by rural communities and to recommend solutions.

During the hour-long virtual town meeting, which was broadcast live over the Internet, educators from Iowa, Montana, New Mexico, and West Virginia showcased solutions they have developed for their rural communities.

Montana JASON

Susan Byorth, program manager for the Montana JASON project, spoke from Bozeman, Montana. She emphasized that the provision of technology alone was not enough, pointing out that the video-conferencing equipment in many Montana schools had been “gathering dust” until the JASON project came along to make efficient use of it as part of an online science and math curriculum. Connected from Billings, student John Atkinson told of his experiences in Alaska with the JASON project.

New Mexico DIBELS

From New Mexico, educators from the Wagon Mound Public Schools showed how they were using handheld computer devices to collect assessment data for tracking student progress in reading. With the DIBELS technology, they get prompt feedback on reading performance and thus are able to adjust their instructional strategies on a timely basis.

West Virginia Virtual School

Speaking from Wayne Middle School in West Virginia, Donna Miller described the rapid growth of the West Virginia Virtual School (WVVS), of which she is the coordinator. Established in 2000 with the primary aim of providing course options for underserved students in rural areas of the state, the WVVS now provides 115 courses to more than 1,200 students.

“Many of these students are from the most rural areas in West Virginia, where advanced placement, higher math, physics, and foreign language courses would otherwise not be available,” said Miller.

The courses are delivered by a variety of contract providers, who supply not only instructional materials but access to qualified teachers.

According to Miller, the virtual school provides multiple benefits to rural communities: equitable access to courses, high-quality courses, high-quality teachers, and better learning opportunities for West Virginia students.

Hickok hailed all of the applications as “outstanding work,” and Paige said he looked forward to seeing “continuous creativity” in discovering new ways to use technology for improving the lives of children.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

Rural Education Task Force:

Virtual Town Hall Meeting Webcast:

The Montana JASON Project:

Iowa Communications Network:

Manning Community Schools:

New Mexico IT and Reading:

Wagon Mound Public Schools:

West Virginia Virtual School: