On Chris Ford’s first day as superintendent of Missouri’s Fordland R-III school district in 2014, all three buildings in the 550-student system were working off a server from the 1990s connected by five switch ports. The connection speed wasn’t strong enough to stream YouTube videos, and some teachers had been waiting two years for technology repairs.
Ford hired an IT director, then coupled federal E-rate funds with town bond money, to have a fiber-optic line and wireless access installed.
Three years later, the technology profile of this small, rural city and farming community in the city of Fordland is quite different: Students now can choose to learn one of four languages, instead of only Spanish, which had been capped at Spanish 2. They can take online credit-recovery classes, choose among five online dual-credit college courses, and access an online learning center with a variety of classes taught by area high school teachers. And the district is partnering with a nearby urban district to provide on-demand, upper-level courses in 2017-18.
“I asked school administrators not to act like we’re a small school district,” said Ford. “Our vision has opened up the world for our students.”
Opening up the world to students in isolated, rural communities is a challenge. Many rural schools lack the technological infrastructure or the financial resources to offer students rich experiences in foreign-language instruction, science, and other subjects. As a consequence, rural students often end up being academically and technologically unprepared to take on college or jobs right out of high school that require a sophisticated level of thinking and technological skills.
Unlike their urban and suburban counterparts in other places, enrolling in charter schools or using a voucher to attend a private school are rarely options. But what is an option, and something that appears to be broadening the definition of school choice, is the freedom to choose online courses offered by providers other than the school district—in other words, course choice.
In speeches around the country, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been pushing the idea of course choice, in addition to her aggressive advocacy for more typical school choice policies such as charter schools and vouchers.
That approach relieves a bit of pressure for rural districts wrestling more than their wealthier suburban counterparts with distance and financial constraints and the closure of schools that serve as community anchors. Yet while public education advocates agree that greater course choices driven by online education could help improve course offerings in rural schools, questions and concerns remain:
• How would new funding streams to states be distributed and implemented?
• What kind of technical and academic support would be available?
• And what about recent studies showing that students who take classes through cyber charter schools don’t perform as well as their peers in traditional schools?
“I’m really concerned about increasing attention to access without increasing attention to quality,” said Susan Patrick, the president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. “Are they using this opportunity to innovate, to rethink approaches to ensure every student is successful? Or are they just replicating the inequities of structurally problematic models with traditional classrooms and using the internet?”
While iNACOL has national standards for high-quality online courses, programs, and teaching, Patrick said, schools in the United States should also look at efforts in other countries where there are separate quality-review offices for examining whether instructional strategies match research on how students learn best. What the United States has now, she added, is “a very underdeveloped quality-assurance process” for schools.
The fact that there are various types of rural communities complicates matters.
“There is no one-size-fits-all model,” said John White, a former deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach for the U.S. Department of Education. “We need a strategy for how the federal government is going to support different levels and layers of rural America, and there has been very little specific information as to what that strategy is.”
Research shows that a blended approach of mixing face-to-face and virtual instruction to learning works best. With that understanding and the increasing trend toward personalized learning, added White, rural districts need more uniform support to overcome challenges affected by declining enrollment, difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers, and diminished course offerings.
As of now, rural states score all over the board on tech-advocacy group Digital Learning Now’s latest report card. Some have become accomplished at increasing access (Alaska, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma), but have a long way to go on quality choices. Others have done well with personalization (Montana) and quality of instruction (Kentucky), while still others lack quality content (Nebraska).
Supanika Ackerman, who teaches nine 3rd graders in Alaska’s 240-student Yukon Flats district, eight miles above the Arctic Circle, has concerns that stretch beyond the age of the technology.
DeVos should do more to help prioritize cultural relevance in online courses, said Ackerman, particularly for communities like hers that run on “hunting, gathering, and fishing,” and in which residents seldom leave the state. With that approach, she said project-based assignments would have more context for students—and more buy-in. An ecology lesson on plant cells, for example, could focus on arctic plants instead of tropical plants.
Face-to-face interaction is another crucial element to consider when dealing with isolated locations like Yukon Flats, where there is no service road, and groceries are flown in by bush pilots.
“Online education can be a good thing,” Ackerman said, “but students need a guide to help them navigate it.”
Good relationships between teachers, students, and parents are considered the backbone of the nonprofit Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, based in Exeter, N.H. The school, lauded by iNACOL’s Patrick for training its instructors on developing those relationships, as well as for its competency-based instruction and assessments, has 13,000 students in grades 6-12, offering part-time and full-time classes in one of the nation’s most rural states.
Though building relationships with students through one-on-one interactions is time consuming, “it’s the most effective and important thing that we do,” said CEO Steve Kossakoski. “It may be more efficient to assign large numbers of students to instructors and become more of a tutorial program, but it would not be in the best interests of our students and it would not produce positive academic results.”
According to K-12 researcher and distance-learning expert Tom Clark, the success of online education in rural areas comes down to “who is taking the course, who is offering it, and how it is supported.”
For rural communities, a conversation about course choice, rather than school choice, is a “more viable” one, said Clark, the president of Clark Consulting, a research and evaluation consulting firm in Illinois that focuses on online and blended learning.
That conversation continues, and as it unfolds, many rural advocates are taking a wait-and-see approach.
“The Department of Education has yet to reach out to my office on a plan for rural districts,” said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana in an email. Tester is a Democrat who is also a former teacher and school board member.
“No matter what Secretary DeVos does, the focus needs to be on investing in our public schools, especially in training and retaining good teachers and educating students of all abilities,” he added. “If her plan invests in supplemental online courses and digital programs for rural schools, that’s fantastic. However, it cannot be at the expense of the existing investments that our public schools rely on.”
Coverage of learning through integrated designs for school innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2017 edition of Education Week as ‘Course Choice’ in Rural America