Across America’s rural communities, online learning partnerships are planting seeds for student success. As these cooperative efforts grow in our heartlands, so, too, does the measurable impact on rural K-12 learners.
In its March 2022 publication “Partnering for Rural Student Success: Best Practices for K-12 Districts and State Virtual Schools,” the i4tl Center for Research and Innovation examines relations between virtual school programs and rural schools. The study highlights the positive outcomes for students, schools, communities, and teachers.
For the report, the Center outlined the significant impact of state virtual school programs on rural education from across the U.S., including VLLA member Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, and South Carolina. To best understand and quantify the positive impact virtual learning has on rural settings, the research focused on common characteristics of successful partnerships.
Among these characteristics are the development of alternative accessibility and funding models, support of high-quality implementation of digital teaching and learning, and creative programming that expands learning opportunities. Additionally, continual data collection is key to a program’s success.
NC Virtual: A Case Study for Rural Collaboration
The power of partnerships, especially how it relates to rural education, is evident to many of the country’s top online providers. NC Virtual, a member of the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance, embraces the importance of educational equity for students in rural North Carolina.
“As an increasingly mobile society, there is a high likelihood that students in rural areas will ultimately live elsewhere,” said Rachel McBroom, Ph.D., chief academic officer at NC Virtual. “To ensure that these students are competitive in the future marketplace, the educational community must ensure that all students, no matter their zip code, have access to the educational opportunities necessary to ensure their lifelong success.”
North Carolina serves over a half million rural students, representing more than 1 in 3 of the state’s public school students. The state has long considered how to best address rural inequities in part of the long-standing Leandro lawsuit filed in 1994 by low-wealth rural districts over the issue of funding. The state has used strategies such as supplemental funding and comprehensive support models from the state education agency. Currently, the state is studying various funding options which address rural schools’ ability to provide an equitable educational experience.
To support collaboration between the state’s public schools and online learning programs, NC Virtual has partnered with rural schools in a number of ways. The driving factor in these partnerships is for NC Virtual to help its rural partners supplement their existing programs to meet their students’ needs, according to McBroom.
Co-teaching courses illustrates one type of partnership. These co-taught courses pair teachers in the face-to-face school with an experienced online teacher. Rural schools that struggle to provide mentors for their new teachers have embraced this model. NC Virtual’s experienced online teachers can provide mentoring to newly licensed teachers in rural schools as they co-teach content.
“Online learning allows rural schools to offer its students expanded opportunities,” said McBroom. “Common challenges faced by rural schools include limited fundings and/or human resources. Through online learning, rural students gain access to a wider variety of courses previously only available at larger urban schools.”
Collaborations not Kingdoms: An Analogy for Educational Access
Just over 1,600 miles northwest of North Carolina sits the Center for Distance Education in North Dakota, another staunch advocate for public school-online learning partnerships. In fact, State Director/Superintendent Matthew Lonn, Ed.D., muses that schools cannot operate as kingdoms.
“Maybe that is a little bit extreme,” said Lonn. “But the point is important. School districts do not have the luxury to function like a kingdom in Europe during the Middle Ages … or Game of Thrones if that’s an easier reference.”
The reference alludes to the typical kingdom in Middle Age Europe which had a strict social order. There was the upper-class nobility, the middle-class merchants and other educated professionals and, finally, the lowest level of the social ladder made up of the peasant class. The basic governmental structure was termed the feudal system, a kingdom made up of lords who owned large land estates often worked by the peasant and merchant class. The lords vowed allegiance to the region’s king. In return, the king protected the lords, and the lords protected their peasants in the event of attack. As such, the peasants promised to serve the lords and the king during times of war and provide funding via taxes.
Middle Age Europe was a time in history with much upheaval. Trade between kingdoms was often a dangerous venture. Kings and queens collaborated little with neighboring kingdoms because many felt they could provide everything they needed on their own. In addition, there was a general lack of trust regarding the ambitions of neighboring kings and or queens. The result was a map of scattered European kingdoms that relied on their own feudal systems for their prosperity and survival. The only real way to expand a kingdom’s resources was to invade another.
“Eerie parallels can be drawn between the Middle Ages and present-day school districts,” said Lonn. “Many districts today are very hierarchical in how they are managed. Most still follow a standard social order of superintendent, assistant superintendent, principal, assistant principal, teachers, students. Each has certain expectations placed on them that are associated with their position level.”
School districts also have confined land areas that they can legally operate in. Although to be fair, taxpayers do have the authority to vote on property tax increases which puts a little chink in the armor of this analogy. In addition, districts do not often invade neighboring districts, although, they do sometimes compete for students.
Unlike kingdoms during Middle Age Europe, school districts cannot fall into the trap of thinking they can meet the needs of their constituency in the 21st century without partnering and collaborating with multiple regional, state, and national partners. Knowledge today is vast and supposedly doubling every 12 hours. New and improved services are being developed and improved constantly.
“If a school district is going to make sure that their students have access to quality content presented in mediums that have been shown to help kids learn, they can’t rely on their own staff to do it,” said Lonn. “They simply don’t have the time and resources.”
Instead, by partnering with organizations that invest heavily in new content development and technology, a district can allow teachers and support staff the opportunity to do what they do well. That is to work daily with kids, building positive relationships and helping navigate a world that is in a constant state of change.
Instead of each district trying to act as a fully self-sustaining organization, they must recognize the advantages of specialized education for students. Online learning programs do certain things well, including the delivery of high-quality online content and assessment via a Learning Management System and Student Information System. These complex systems are growing and changing almost daily.
“By partnering with regional, state, or national online learning programs, districts do not have to spend time and valuable resources providing a medium of learning that is not their strength,” asserts Lonn.
In contrast, classroom teachers do things well that online programs often struggle with. Hands-on, project-based group learning, live discussions and debate, and one-on-one tutoring are all advantages possessed by face-to-face school districts. By focusing on these advantages with their staff, districts have resources to provide choice and opportunity to students that they do not otherwise have the funds to offer for learners.
“What eventually killed the constant state of war that plagued Middle Age Europe was the realization that through trade and specialization with other kingdoms and nations, everyone can enjoy a higher standard of living without continual disruption,” concludes Lonn.
Many school districts realize that by partnering with online learning programs, students gain choice in their education and school district staff gain the ability to work more one-on-one with students. The result is an educational experience that provides students, especially rural learners, with the skills they need to be successful adults.
Partnering for Rural Student Success: Best Practices for K-12 Districts and State Virtual Schools, i4tl Center for Research and Innovation, March 21, 2022, https://www.i4tlresearch.org/partnering-rural-student-success
Rachel McBroom, Ph.D., chief academic officer, NC Virtual, https://ncvps.org/
State Director/Superintendent Matthew Lonn, Ed.D., Center for Distance Education, https://www.cde.nd.gov/