Urging rural schools to rise to the challenges of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige on Sept. 25 hosted a virtual town hall meeting intended to showcase how technology is helping schools in four largely remote states comply with the law’s demands.

The hour-long webcast, featuring presentations by lawmakers, education officials, local educators, and students, explored efforts under way in Montana, West Virginia, New Mexico, and Iowa to achieve better results and close the distance between students and educators in sparsely populated regions.

Presenters said technology can play a key role in toppling the impediments faced by rural schools in particular, from the need for more teachers who are highly qualified to higher-level instruction and more accurate assessment of student achievement.

“The internet is the eighth wonder of the world,” Paige said in a statement following the event. “It brings unlimited information, entire libraries, courses, and instruction to anywhere you have a modem and a server. Now, technology even removes the distance of time and space and allows us to share valuable information. Rural schools are no longer isolated.”

Expanding the reach of instructors

In Iowa, for instance, educators at Manning High School–a 170-student institution about two hours outside of Des Moines–have tapped the power of the Iowa Communications Network (ICN), a statewide computer infrastructure designed specifically for use by public agencies, to deliver foreign language and upper-level mathematics courses via videoconferencing to students in rural areas across the state.

Although Manning is fortunate enough, according to Principal Brian Wall, to have highly qualified teachers on staff–especially for more advanced disciplines such as calculus and foreign languages–many schools in rural Iowa lack the resources to provide such options to students. But with ICN, Manning teachers can work with understaffed schools by presenting virtual classes over the network.

As many as three other high schools have been connected to calculus classes at Manning using the network, Wall said. Though the school itself enrolled only three or four students in calculus classes this year, the instructor is responsible for teaching approximately a dozen students across the state.

“Teachers are hard to find, especially for rural schools,” Wall explained. Given the recent spate of budget cuts, he suggested that delivering courses via video provides a highly attractive, economically feasible alternative to hiring a full-time teacher, particularly in rural areas where salaries are traditionally lower and highly skilled educators are in great demand.

Bringing lessons to life

In Montana, schools are employing the power of the internet to deliver highly engaging lessons that connect students to scientists and explorers in the field. The state has turned to the JASON Foundation for Education to offer real-life science and math curriculum to students in grades 4-9 and in all seven Native American Reservations across the state.

Despite Montana’s rural expanse, educators said the state’s expensive videoconferencing tools had been “collecting dust.” Now, about 8,000 students throughout the state take part in an online learning program that educators have credited with bringing into the classroom everything from real-life oceanic explorations to historical archeological digs.

John Atkinson, a student at Billings Senior High School in Billings, Mont., who was selected to travel to Alaska as part of a JASON-sponsored expedition, told participants he was impressed by the foundation’s use of technology and its ability to convey his experiences to his classmates back home via the internet.

Atkinson, one of 33 students and educators who took part in JASON XIII: Frozen Worlds, traveled to the icy town of Portage Valley, where he participated in a study of the ice worm–a rare scientific find that experts hope will provide insight into organ tissue research and medical preservation efforts.

Led by Robert Ballard–the explorer credited with discovering the ruins of the Titanic in 1986–the expedition was broadcast live via the internet to millions of students and teachers across the country last year.

Virtual schooling

When it comes to online learning, few rural states have exhibited more ambition than West Virginia, where the state’s Virtual School provides internet-based instruction in any number of core and advanced disciplines, from reading and language arts to science and social studies, as well as the fine arts, foreign languages, and health, among other subjects.

Donna Miller, coordinator for the West Virginia Virtual School, said the internet alternative has helped foster a culture of equitable access for students throughout the state, who–without the benefits of online learning–would not have access to courses as rigorous as those available in most city and suburban schools.

This year, West Virginia has enrolled 1,200 students in 115 different online courses supplied by five content providers: Apex Learning, Florida Virtual School, Intelligent Education Inc., Stanford University, and Virtual Green Bush. In almost all cases, tuition for these courses is paid for by a grant from the state legislature, Miller said. The idea is to create equitable opportunities for students, while providing access to high-quality certified teachers as required by NCLB and giving more flexibility to learners in the process.

Real-time assessment

In New Mexico, educators at Wagon Mound Elementary School contend they have risen to the challenge of measuring progress and spurring greater student achievement by using personal digital assistants, or PDAs, to grade students’ scores on reading assessments instantly, enabling teachers to make adjustments to their teaching practices without having to wait weeks for official, paper-based results.

New Mexico’s Department of Education employs a software product from New York-based Wireless Generation, called mCLASS: DIBELS, to help determine how close students are to achieving the goals of NCLB and President Bush’s ambitious Reading First initiative, which states that all students must learn to read by the end of third grade.

Using Palm handhelds running the DIBELS software, educators are able to assess students’ reading scores based on pre-determined state and national benchmarks in a matter of minutes, said Greg Gunn, president and co-founder of Wireless Generation.

The use of the technology allows educators to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of each student individually, enabling teachers to adjust their pedagogies accordingly, he added.

The assessments are conducted during class time directly on the handhelds. The results are made available through a web site provided by the company, giving educators the ability to build printable data reports that can be used to illustrate the progress of an individual student, a class of students, or even an entire district.

Gunn believes the technology will help schools in rural New Mexico communicate, despite the vast distances between them. By having a common set of reports to compare, he hopes educators will be able to share results more effectively and, in turn, make suggestions that will lead to success.

Because the technology can be installed on a handheld and is accessible through a web site provided by the company, Gunn also contends it’s relatively affordable-a true benefit for schools everywhere during this tight budget year.

‘It’s about ideas…’

Undersecretary of Education Eugene Hickok told reporters after the meeting that the internet and the evolution of technology in the classroom provide extraordinary opportunities for students in rural schools, especially as they come face to face with the challenges outlined under the new law.

“This isn’t necessarily about technology,” he said. “It’s about ideas and turning a disadvantage into an advantage.”

The problem, he added, is no longer a lack of access to technology; instead, it’s a lack of creativity on the part of schools in how they choose to integrate it. “In a lot of places, technology is still seen as an add-on,” Hickok said.

The Virtual Town Hall Meeting was organized by the Rural Education Task Force, which was established to help identify challenges faced by the states and school districts and to work on finding solutions.

Also during the presentation, ED announced a $35 million grant to the American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence to fund its alternative route to full certification of classroom teachers. (For more information about this web-based initiative, see http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4651.)

See these related links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

Rural Education Task Force
http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ruraled/index.html

Iowa Communications Network
http://www.icn.state.ia.us

JASON Foundation for Education
http://www.jason.org

West Virginia Virtual School
http://access.k12.wv.us/vschool

Wireless Generation
http://www.wirelessgeneration.com/web