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Support Pilot Distance-Learning Projects, Congress Urged

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WASHINGTON--Congress should support a range of national demonstration projects to determine how rural school districts can take advantage of distance-learning programs, a new report by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting urges.

The report was submitted to Congress last week in response to a 1992 law that required the C.P.B. to assess the ways in which its telecommunications infrastructure could benefit rural schools.

The report argues that distance-learning--the use of satellite broadcasting, telephone and cable-television lines, and other technologies to deliver instructional programming--could help reverse some of the effects of the nation's long-term population shift from rural to metropolitan areas.

That population loss has compelled many districts to close and consolidate small, rural schools, in turn forcing students to travel long distances to school and, in some cases, even bringing about the death of small towns, the report notes.

Distance-learning offers a range of advantages to such districts, the report suggests, including serving "as a stopgap to preserve rural schools and to forestall consolidation,'' increasing the equity of access to new curriculums, and bringing otherwise unavailable specialist teachers to remote areas.

"Distance education brings more than the 'three R's' to rural communities,'' it says. "[T]he benefits of distance education go beyond 'educational equity' to the very survival of the communities themselves.''

But the report also points out that rural schools often face numerous barriers to effective distance-learning, including a shortage of money to support programs and buy equipment and a lack of access to the "last mile'' of technology needed to bring programs into schools.

It also notes that teachers generally are not trained in distance-learning techniques and often are resistant to their use.

Seeking an Effective Mix

But some existing programs are reaching rural students with an effective mix of technologies, the report says. It cites six distance-learning systems that involve public-television stations, including the widely recognized programs of South Carolina Educational Television.

The study adds that the Public Broadcasting Service is expected to increase its support for distance-learning programs within a year, when its new satellite becomes operational.

In keeping with its mandate from Congress, the report does not discuss efforts to serve the distance-learning market in many rural communities already being undertaken by private and quasi-public providers.

The report also contains a list of recommended actions that Congress should take to foster the use of distance-learning in rural states. They include:

  • Authorizing a series of national demonstration projects to study and evaluate effective rural applications of distance-learning.
  • Continuing and increasing funding of the federal Star Schools grant program, which funds distance-learning projects.
  • Commissioning a task force to coordinate the policies of various federal agencies with jurisdication over distance-learning.
  • Funding teacher-training programs to encourage acceptance of distance-learning methods.
  • Making distance-learning projects that involve public broadcasting a priority of the Commerce Department's public-telecommunications-facilities program.

Copies of "Lifelines of Learning: Distance Education and America's Rural Schools'' are available without charge from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's office of policy development and planning, 901 E St., N.W., Washington D.C. 20004-2037; (202) 879-9675.

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