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5 new benefits of online learning in rural areas

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According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 5.7 million students attend rural public schools in the US and roughly 57% of all operating school districts are located in rural areas. Of those rural schools, high schools tend to struggle the most when it comes to providing a broad catalog of course options. 

Whether it’s due to a lack of teachers, internet access, limited financial resources, or less perceived interest on the part of students -- or all three -- these issues are holding schools back from achieving the equality and equity in education that all students deserve. Here’s how equality and equity differ:  

  • Equality in education is achieved when students are all treated equally and have access to similar learning resources. 
  • Equity, on the other hand, is achieved when all students receive the resources they need to be able to graduate prepared for success after high school.

In today’s educational environment, more rural schools are reexamining how they measure up on equality and equity, and are taking steps to ensure that all students are taught by qualified educators who are fully prepared for teaching and supported throughout their careers. Educational resources and the funding that supports them also have crucial roles in both equality and equity. 

Meeting the Challenges Head-On

By providing all students access to high-quality college-and career-ready curriculum, certified teachers, and up-to-date instructional materials and tools -- including computers and related technology -- rural schools can more adequately provide their students with the resources they need to be prepared in today’s ever-changing world. Here are five challenges that online learning is helping rural schools successfully address: 

Teacher Shortage

According to the US Department of Education, public schools in more than 40 states have claimed teacher shortages for the most recent academic year in the following subject areas:

  • Math
  • Special Education
  • Science
  • Computer Science 
  • Foreign Language
  • English as a Second Language (ESL)
  • STEM (cited by 62% of rural schools)

Online learning helps schools overcome teacher shortages. At nonprofit virtual provider VHS Learning, teachers are certified, average 15 years of teaching experience and over 80% hold a master’s degree or higher.

The online provider also offers over 220 online courses; provides online/blended learning course content options; and leverages state/regional/national level organizations to help defray costs. Through partnerships with The National Math and Science Initiative and the New Mexico Public Education Department, for example, the nonprofit is also providing reduced cost and free access to AP courses for students in North Dakota, New Mexico, and elsewhere.

Unprepared Graduates 

When considering new students, colleges look at:  

  • Grades in college prep courses. Most colleges will consider performance in college preparatory courses the strongest sign of a student’s ability to do well in college.
  • Strength of curriculum. Colleges look for students who took the most challenging courses available to them. 

When students have the opportunity to look beyond onsite courses, and to take online classes based on their individual interests and aptitudes, it will strengthen their college applications.   

Curriculum Imbalances

According to recent data from the US Department of Education, many students don’t have access to all the courses that will prepare them for college and careers. For example, only 50% of high schools offer calculus; only 63% offer physics. And, between 10% to 25% of high schools do not offer more than one of the core courses in the typical sequence of high school math and science education, such as Algebra I and II, geometry, biology and chemistry. Online learning helps to level these imbalances by providing a complete, unrestricted catalog of courses from which to choose.

Lack of Advanced Placement Classes

Rural districts often don’t have access to Advanced Placement courses, but they can add them to their curriculum with an online learning partner. In the most remote, small districts, for example, 68.7% lack access to AP classes. When the online organization’s students are asked what benefits they gained from their online courses, 76% of students said they gained access to a course not offered at their school; 76% said they developed independent learning skills; and 71% said they gained exposure to online learning, a learning mechanism often used in higher education.

Tight Budgets

School principals value the use of technology within learning as an agent for both empowering learning and addressing educational inequities. When asked, 88% of principals said they chose the online program for the access to a large variety of courses, 69% chose it for scheduling flexibility, and 64% chose the platform for electives and highly specialized courses. Other reasons for choosing the online provider included preparing students for online learning in college, accessing courses for gifted and talented students, providing more academically rigorous courses, developing 21st century and citizenship skills, and leveraging the overall benefit of affordable online learning solutions.  

As online learning continues to evolve, it’s producing excellent outcomes for all schools. When an online provider’s strengths are carefully considered in combination, the argument in favor of using online learning in our rural school settings is noteworthy.

Jim Dachos is vice president of educational partnerships for the nonprofit, VHS Learning.

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