Wiring Rural Schools Into Educational Reform

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The nationwide movement to raise academic standards for graduation from public schools and entry into public universities has caused concern for some rural-school administrators, who fear these new requirements will make their already-difficult burden intolerable.

Rural administrators trying to meet the new standards face several problems. Often there is not enough money to hire needed teachers, especially when rural districts must compete with city districts for teachers in disciplines in which there is a shortage. This problem sometimes makes it necessary for rural teachers to teach outside their areas of specialization, a practice that can hurt the quality of instruction. Even if the money were available, teachers hired for special courses (calculus, physics, foreign languages) would have only one or two classes per day--not enough to justify the expense. In addition, adequate libraries and well-equipped science laboratories are often unavailable in rural schools.

Thus, although many rural schools do a superior job of educating students in the basics, most do not have sufficient staff and facilities to provide the variety of courses needed by students preparing to enter college or the workplace.

The educational disadvantages created by their isolation are not new to rural districts. The traditional solution--consolidation--is being considered again as part of current reform efforts. But as we should have learned by now, consolidation is neither desirable nor acceptable in some areas. In my state, where the local school is the indispensable centerpiece of many towns, consolidation is politically unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, rural schools' problems can be ameliorated and perhaps solved if we make good use of the new electronic technologies--microcomputers, videocassettes, live satellite transmissions, and two-way audio hookups--that can provide educational services in remote areas.

I realize that this idea may conjure up visions of "Sunrise Semester," that incredibly dry instructional program broadcast decades ago. But new technologies have given us a much greater ability to offer sophisticated, interactive instruction. In several rural areas, significant electronic teaching is already taking place.

The Western Wisconsin Communications Cooperative, a network serving eight rural districts, provides live instruction with a combination of microwave and cable transmissions. The WWCC system has two-way video and audio. This allows the teacher to see as well as hear students at the remote locations. Students receive and answer test questions on microcomputers. Currently, courses in Spanish I and II, shorthand, digital electronics, advanced mathematics, and German are being conducted on this system. The WWCC also uses the system for teacher workshops and administrative conferences, and as an inter-school bulletin board.

Since 1980, the Alaska state government has operated the highly ambitious LearnAlaska System. Alaska has an area of 586,412 square miles and a population of 438,000. More than 200,000 Alaskans live in Anchorage. Another 70,000 are in Fairbanks and Juneau. This leaves nearly 170,000 people spread over an enormous expanse of rural territory.

To help provide education for this rural population, the state has put in place a satellite-based television network and (using telephone lines) an audio-conferencing system that links 260 rural sites. The system delivers instruction primarily through prepackaged, commercially prepared materials, not live programming.

Here in Oklahoma, we have created a program that combines the geographical coverage of LearnAlaska with the live-program delivery of WWCC The project, known as the Arts and Sciences/Public Schools Teleconferencing Network, is a collaboration between the College of Arts and Sciences at Oklahoma State University and the public schools. Last spring, we began delivering, via satellite, weekly enrichment programming to 21 school districts in Oklahoma, one in Colorado, and the University of New Mexico. The topics of these three-hour programs ranged from the environmental impact of a coal-fired power plant to a hands-on experiment in plant cloning. Each program had an OSU faculty member as its host.

At the same time that our faculty members were gaining experience with the medium through the enrichment program, the college was preparing for the next step. Using telephone lines, a member of the Oklahoma State German faculty last winter began developing a German-language course with students at Beaver High School--a rural school in the Oklahoma panhandle. This project permitted the instructor to learn which blend of current technologies (including computer-aided drill and practice, computer-interactive voice recognition, and live instruction) would be most appropriate for this type of course. It also allowed public-school students, teachers, and administrators to evaluate the usefulness of such a system.

The results were positive. The superintendent, the principal, and the classroom teachers all expressed enthusiasm for the course and urged that other courses be offered using the same blend of technologies. The students' performance, as measured against an OSU German class, was comparable to that of average college freshmen.

Beginning this fall, OSU will provide German instruction, by satellite, to more than 50 school districts throughout the region. Last spring's experiment led to some changes in the way the course will be taught. The experiment made it clear that grammar study and language drill are more efficiently handled with the computer than with television. Consequently, while video will be used to provide the human element--the student-teacher linkage--the bulk of the air time will be used to put the language in a cultural context through the use of German television commercials, music, and art, and vignettes related to everyday situations.

We are making plans to produce German II and courses in high-school physics, chemistry, and calculus

Having a superior teacher in the classroom is obviously the most desirable way to educate students, but when a teacher is not available--as often happens in rural schools--"distance education" offers major benefits:

The necessary course information and instruction are made available to rural students. This guarantees equality of educational opportunity for all our young people, no matter where they live.

Important courses are taught in a highly cost-effective manner--a genuine advantage, given the strained finances of many states.

The public schools get good courses, professionally developed by master teachers who have expertise in a particular area.

The students have daily interaction with these teachers.

Special tutorial assistance is always available through an audio bridge or computer.

The students have access to high-quality print and electronic-media materials, to a variety of information resources, and to a range of data bases.

Professional testing and evaluation are fully integrated with the instructional activities. (This also ensures that a certain standard of performance is met statewide.)

Distance learning is a cost-effective way to work toward geographic equality of educational opportunity. It may be the only way. If we have the vision to adapt and the willingness to use the concept of distance learning, we will diminish the plight of the country school.

Vol. 04, Issue 42, Page 36

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