Distance Learning: Mathematical Learning Opportunities for Rural Schools in the United States

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1 Distance Learning: Mathematical Learning Opportunities for Rural Schools in the United States Margaret Sloan & John Olive University of Georgia, USA and Much has been written about technology in the mathematics classroom, in the computer lab, and in students' homes. Such technology includes calculators, SmartBoards, computers, Internet access, VCR or DVD recorders or players, digital cameras, computer projection apparatus, and other technological solutions to particular teaching and learning needs. Many schools, especially those in remote, often impoverished locales, cannot provide such a cornucopia of goods and services, but there is one technological resource that can provide students in almost any location with the very best learning opportunities available anywhere in the world. This technology is known as Distance Learning, and even at its most basic level, any school with Internet access can open new doors of opportunity for its students. When access to interactive video systems can be achieved, Distance Learning can enable those students to become acquainted with world-class mathematicians and scientists. All schools, including the rural schools which seek to educate almost one third of the children in the United States (Beeson & Strange, 2003), make decisions about the use of technology on a more or less continual basis, and all schools have similar factors to consider the population they serve, the resources at their disposal, and the technological expertise of their staff. According to a recent NCES report, rural schools are leaders in U.S. education in at least one area of computer based instruction: distance learning (Setzer & Lewis, 2005). In many ways, schools in the rural United States are similar to schools in developing countries that have limited fiscal resources for education and may be remote geographically. The intent of this paper is to provide information and insight into some of the ways that distance learning can benefit mathematical learning opportunities in such schools and how this technology might be procured and utilized. In the NCES report, distance learning courses are defined as those offered in a district with the teacher and the students in different locations. Approximately 46% of rural districts in the United States have students enrolled in distance education courses, and two-way interactive video, the crème de la crème of distance learning, is the technology most often used as

2 the delivery method (Setzer & Lewis, 2005). With two-way interactive television, or I-TV, distance learning is instructor-led, class-based, and synchronous providing real time instruction and communication (Yaunches, 2004). As typically implemented, I-TV is the technology that most closely resembles a traditional classroom, and in thousands of rural schools, educators are discovering the instructional benefits and cost effectiveness of this technology. According to a report about distance learning opportunities for elementary and secondary students, of the 15,040 school districts in the United States, 5480 (44% of secondary schools and 36% of all schools) had students enrolled in distance learning classes. Administrators were so pleased with the results that 72% of participating schools were planning to expand their distance learning programs. Fifteen percent of students in distance learning courses were taking mathematics. Nationwide, 14% of students in distance learning classes were taking Advanced Placement or college level courses, but in more than half (53%) of the rural schools offering distance learning classes, students were taking such accelerated offerings. Similarly, for 56% of the schools in areas with high poverty, where distance learning was offered, students were taking advanced courses (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002). This suggests that for students in rural and economically stagnant areas, distance learning is vitally important for gaining access to the highest levels of academic work. Research comparing distance learning of mathematics to traditional learning has been limited, usually at the college level, and often indicates there is no significant difference in achievement; but most mathematics educators in rural schools would quickly point out that for rural schools, the question is often not a choice between traditional and distance instruction but whether an advanced mathematics course can be offered at all. A driving force behind rural schools' embrace of distance learning, beyond the ability for small rural schools to provide an expanded mathematics curriculum for their students and continuing professional development for their teachers, is that distance learning is often an effective response to the ever-looming threat of consolidation (Yaunches, 2004). Nearly 54% of rural and small town secondary schools in the U.S. have enrollments of 400 or fewer students (Hoffman, 2003), and state legislatures often turn to consolidation of schools or entire districts in an attempt to cut costs and provide better educational opportunities. Research has shown, however, that small schools can be effective, with lower dropout rates and higher percentages of students graduating (Hobbs, 2004); and, as it turns out, attempts to lower costs through consolidation almost always fail (Rural 2

3 School and Community Trust, 2003). The preservation or demise of small schools is a vitally important issue for many communities, and providing distance learning opportunities for students, as opposed to pursuing consolidation strategies, certainly seems to be a more effective solution to the problems spawned by isolation, teacher shortages, and fiscal pressures. Having limited numbers of students interested in taking an elective mathematics course presents challenges for school administrators who have to balance demands for classroom space, teachers, and other resources and without a distance learning alternative, such requests often must be denied. Distance learning programs can provide access to such coursework, even for just one or two students. Students in need of remedial work, as well as those ready for advanced mathematics courses, can benefit from these offerings. At most schools, even those with limited technology, students can be directed to computer resources on an as-needed basis, before, during, and after school. Because many colleges and universities in the United States offer distance learning courses, high schools with this technology can offer dual enrollment for students who are ready for college-level mathematics but have not graduated high school. Some schools have found that distance learning can provide a virtual schooling alternative across the curriculum. Alternative school programs are commonplace throughout much of the United States, many of them relying on computerized instruction of some sort; and the high school in Cairo, Georgia, has a novel approach to the problem of students who are unable to meet traditional requirements. These students spend the school day in a computer lab at Cairo High School taking on-line courses offered by Griggs University in Maryland; but this is not a remedial or tutorial program. As soon as they have enough credits to complete graduation requirements, the participating students receive a high school diploma from the state of Maryland (Williams, 2005). Web-based instruction generally refers to distance learning as well as instructional programs that include on-line sites for access to data sets, software applications, or other instructional materials. Unlike the fixed content in conventional computer-based instruction (CBI), Web-based instruction can be modified to meet specific needs, is accessible from almost any location, and can be linked to related sources of information factors that establish what has become known as "anytime, anywhere" learning. Ultimately, successful integration of any technology, including webbased instruction, into the mathematics curriculum is dependent on teachers and administrators who embrace new technologies and are willing to participate in professional development programs designed to help them take 3

4 advantage of the benefits and opportunities embedded in computer-based learning (Huffaker, 2003). Much of the research about technology integration assumes that once technological tools are in place, everyone will enthusiastically support technology-based instructional methods; however, this does not usually occur without a conscientious effort by school officials to address a multitude of issues. Schools must explore issues dealing with professional development, equitable access to appropriate hardware and software, Internet access and controls, and out-of-class availability of computers (Alexiou-Ray, Wilson, Wright, & Peirano, 2003). Providing support to teachers may involve extensive and on-going professional development. Many distance learning providers expect that a teacher will be available to assist students with the course content as well as the technology, and those teachers often need additional training often through web-based professional development programs. The InterMath i Project, a collaborative effort of The University of Georgia, CEISMC - Georgia Institute of Technology, and regional technology centers in the state of Georgia, funded in part by the US National Science Foundation, is one functioning example of a web-based professional development resource for middle school mathematics teachers. InterMath focuses on building teachers' mathematical content knowledge through mathematical investigations that are supported by technology. The Project includes a workshop component as well as an ongoing, web-based, support community that includes a lesson plan database and a discussion board. Clearly, all of this technology costs money, a commodity often hard to come by in rural areas. Initiatives such as the e-rate program, which is a telecommunication, Internet access, and internal networking discount program administered by the Federal Communications Commission, and technology challenge grants from a wide range of sources can alleviate some fiscal difficulties. Many school districts band together to develop distance learning consortiums, establishing partnerships with other schools, higher education partners, and/or other outside vendors to provide cost effective options for distance learning by sharing teachers, maximizing the benefits of the I-TV network investment, sharing costs of operations, combining classes across multiple schools, providing access to professional groups, and maximizing the use of technology by addressing objectives for athletic, administrative, health, and other educational staff (Hobbs, 2004). After receiving a grant in 1992, the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) developed a distance learning program with the goal of distance learning becoming a school outreach program. They began with the delivery of three courses, AP American History, Precalculus, and 4

5 Science of the Mind, utilizing one-way video and two-way audio. In 1994, NCSSM became a state-funded provider of educational programming to teachers and students, utilizing the North Carolina Information Highway. Now, with two-way video and audio, their system supports full interactivity between school sites and teachers and among school sites with each other, sharing resources and curriculum. Through distance education NCSSM can provide rural and isolated areas of the state with courses, enrichment programs, paired teaching collaborations, workshops, and graduate level courses (The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, 2002). In Florida, the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) was funded through a $1.3 billion dollar initiative to ensure that the project did not threaten general education funding. Now, while many other states struggle to maintain a virtual-schooling option for their students, FLVS has a substantial revenue stream, generating approximately $500,000 in profits during 2004 (Wood, 2005). The advance governmental support enabled FLVS to provide educational opportunities not only for students in Florida but also for students around the world as FLVS has joined the ranks of courseware entrepreneurs, selling to other schools its curriculum and offering franchises with hardware, software, curriculum, and professional development for teachers (Wood, 2005). Rural schools are not alone in their effort to take advantage of grants as a means of financing technology to meet the special needs and challenges facing rural educators. In a press release from Merrill Lynch in December 2004, it was announced that students in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Georgia will benefit from a new $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Innovation and Improvement to fund the development of a national model for increasing educational opportunities for students attending small and rural schools. Over the next five years, the Association of Education Services Agencies (AESA) and Catapult Learning, LLC will establish a streamlined contracting and purchasing system so that small and rural school districts will have greater access to high quality supplemental educational services (PRNewswire, 2004). These supplemental educational programs are an integral part of many districts' school improvement plans, especially in regards to the provisions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). During the pilot program, 2,300 Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Georgia students will receive live, individualized, direct instruction delivered through Catapult Learning's online tutoring system (PRNewswire, 2004). Distance learning is not a fad, nor is it a panacea for all of the shortcomings of the traditional mathematics classroom, but all evidence 5

6 indicates that its widespread adoption is likely to continue into the future, with students accessing the technology at school, public libraries, and their homes perhaps even via their cell phones. For their very survival, rural schools have to provide this technology. Issues such as curriculum controls, accreditation, course evaluations, teacher certification, accountability, academic integrity, Internet filters, per-student funding, preservice teacher training, and professional development need to be addressed as distance learning becomes a more substantial part of students' educational experience. There is no benefit to be derived from ignoring the fact that technology is essential to today's education environment. In the United States there are ways to fund it and ways to train staff to utilize it; but schools, rural and otherwise, need to spend their money wisely, critically examine research reports, and realistically assess the ways in which various technologies can attend to the needs of the students in their schools. In an upcoming research effort, the first author of this paper will be examining in depth the mathematics program in a rural school in the southeastern United States, and of particular interest will be the extent to which that school, located in an area of extreme poverty, has been able to provide access to Web-based instruction, including distance learning, to enhance learning opportunities for its students. References Alexiou-Ray, J. A., Wilson, E., Wright, V., & Peirano, A. M. (2003). Changing instructional practice: The impact of technology integration on students, parents, and school personnel. Electronic Journal for the Integration of Technology in Education, 2(2). Beeson, E., & Strange, M. (2003). Why rural matters 2003: The continuing need for every state to take action on rural education. Washington, DC: Rural School and Community Trust. Hobbs, V. (2004). The promise and the power of distance learning in rural education (Policy brief). Arlington, VA: The Rural School and Community Trust. 6

7 Hoffman, L. (2003). Overview of public elementary and secondary schools and districts: Washington: National Center for Education Statistics. Huffaker, D. (2003). Reconnecting the classroom: E-learning pedagogy in US public high schools. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 19(3), National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students: Washington, DC. PRNewswire. (2004). AESA, Catapult Learning awarded $5 million U.S. Department Education Grant to Develop Tutoring Model for Rural/Small Schools. Merrill Lynch News Stories. Rural School and Community Trust. (2003). The fiscal impacts of school consolidation: Research-based conclusions. Washington: Rural School and Community Trust. Setzer, J. C., & Lewis, L. (2005). Distance education courses for public elementary and secondary school students: Washington: National Center for Education Statistics. The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. (2002). How we started and why we do it. Retrieved 1/8/2006. from Williams, T. (2005). On-line program boosting education. Thomasville Times-Enterprise. Wood, C. (2005). Highschool.com [Electronic Version]. Edutopia. Retrieved 11/2/05 from e=apr_05. 7

8 Yaunches. (2004). Distance learning, from theory to powerful reality [Electronic Version]. Rural Roots, 5. Retrieved 10/24/05 from i InterMath web page: Project Director: Dr. James W. Wilson, Department of Mathematics and Science Education, The University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia. 8

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