Seven rural South Dakota school districts have announced they’ll use nearly $1 million in grant money to become the latest consortium to establish two-way audiovisual communication among their schools. Known as the East Central Interconnect (ECI), the distance-learning network will allow participating schools to offset the challenges of geographic isolation and sparse student populations.

Previously, other districts in South Dakota and elsewhere have banded together in similar networks. Scheduled for a test run this spring, ECI will connect the Brookings, Deubrook, Deuel, Elkton, Estelline, Rutland, and Willow Lake school districts.

Estelline High School Principal Dennis Rieckman sees the network as an invaluable way to pool the districts’ limited resources. Four of the seven participating districts enroll fewer than 400 students in grades K-12.

“This allows us to offer new classes without hiring new staff,” said Rieckman. “This is the way to go because it will give our kids more opportunities.”

The network will connect these small districts‹some of them consist of only single buildings‹throughout a large rural area. Deuel (K-12, enr.: 650) is the largest school in the consortium; Rutland has only about 150 students. Some of the schools are as much as 70 miles apart.

Evolution of ECI

Roger Hansen, superintendent at Deuel and director of ECI, said the idea for the network took shape in 1995 during a conversation with Deubrook Superintendent Doug Nelson. Nelson had seen distance-learning programs in action during a visit to Minnesota. Both men agreed that a partnership among regional districts would be a good idea.

Hansen rounded up support from neighboring districts. Last year, the consortium applied for and received a Rural Utilities Service grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The grant supplied $350,000 of the $733,000 in total funding for the network.

The districts enlisted South Dakota State University (SDSU) to serve as the network’s hub. Graduate assistants at SDSU helped with some of the network’s programming and will be available for technical support when ECI kicks off in the fall. In addition, the university will offer three classes per semester over the network so students can earn college credit.

Each school will connect to the network via the internet and a video camera. The schools already have internet access courtesy of the “Wiring Schools” project, which recruits prisoners to wire South Dakota public schools.

A new type of teaching

Hansen said the principals of each school are working out a schedule of classes to be offered over the network. He anticipated that advanced-placement English, upper-level math, and foreign languages would be most in demand.

“We can’t have a Russian teacher, a German teacher, and a Spanish teacher all on staff, but hopefully we can pick up some of those classes on the network,” Hansen said.

ECI will get a test run this spring when the teachers who have volunteered to teach classes over the network participate in a training workshop conducted by SDSU.

Besides facing the technical challenges posed by distance learning, teachers also will have to make adjustments in their teaching style. Although the students will have two-way communication with their teacher, distance education limits teacher-student interaction.

“We’re going to have to change the way we teach and the way we learn,” said Amy Smith, an English teacher at Rutland School. “The trend in education seems to be hands-on learning in small groups, and I don’t know how that will work with distance education.”