For Morgan County Public Schools, distance learning affords students in the rural Tennessee district opportunities to take a wider selection of courses, says Technology Coordinator Chris Rogers.

Tech-based Distance Education Evolves from Traditional Learning Environments

Morgan County Schools relies on distance learning to expand its academic environment beyond the classroom walls.

Morgan County Schools relies on distance learning to expand its academic environment beyond the classroom walls.

It wasn't the rigors of rocket science that kept all but 11 students in Morgan County (Tenn.) Schools from enrolling in physics last year. The rural district – with eight schools serving more than 3,000 K–12 students – has only one physics instructor to teach the lone course at the district's vocational school.

Morgan County Schools relies on distance learning to expand its academic environment beyond the classroom walls.

It wasn't the rigors of rocket science that kept all but 11 students in Morgan County (Tenn.) Schools from enrolling in physics last year. The rural district – with eight schools serving more than 3,000 K–12 students – has only one physics instructor to teach the lone course at the district's vocational school.

This meant that attendees from other high schools had to endure an hour-long round trip to the vocational school and were also required to enroll in a second course at the site.

“Since the bus takes 20 to 30 minutes one way, they didn't have enough time to make it back to the next class at their home school,” explains Chris Rogers, Morgan County Schools' technology coordinator. “And a lot of students didn't want to take physics because they'd also have to take another class at the vocational school.”

Fast forward to the 2009 school year. Twenty-five Morgan County students are now tackling E = mc2 without ever leaving their desks, thanks to a grant used to buy distance-learning technology. Today the physics students need only focus their attention on a projected image within their classrooms.

“We're a very rural area, and our schools are very far apart,” says Kathy Carroll, the district's grant director. “With distance learning, our kids don't have to ride a bus on a second route and spend half a day getting to another location. Any student can now take physics.”

More students now also have access to Algebra 1, a course that was previously unavailable across the middle-school level. It is now offered to eighth-graders at five schools.

“Our algebra teacher can instruct all the eighth-graders across the county without leaving her normal classroom setting,” Carroll says. “This gives our eighth-graders a head start on high school math requirements. They are able to take more advanced classes and, as seniors, receive dual-credit courses through the local college.”

You don't have to be a mathematician to tally up the benefits of Morgan County's initiative. By removing the barriers to delivering varied curricula across the district's 522 square miles, the new technology is giving students a competitive edge and enhancing course availability and staff development.

Distance Learning Delivers

Defined as an education environment in which the student is separated from the teacher, distance learning has gained wide appeal in recent years within K–12 school districts. “Distance learning, or online learning, is definitely a growing trend, and I expect it to continue to grow,” says Dan Lips, senior policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a public policy research institute in Washington, D.C.

Many schools also use the web to deliver online curricula within virtual classrooms, a method that is particularly popular among schools that are unable to provide a wide range of electives on their own, such as rural areas where there may not be enough instructors to teach certain subjects.

A number of rural and less-populated districts rely on distance learning to share teachers among several sites. Distance learning can also be used to enhance collaboration between students in remote classrooms by promoting problem solving, multicultural education and community involvement on projects. And for K–12 schools isolated from universities, museums and libraries, distance learning can bring these resources into the classroom.

Engaging Students

Rocky Warren, Morgan County's physics teacher, says the technology has dramatically piqued his pupils' interest in physics. “Students are mesmerized by big screens, and I think they pay more attention due to this,” he says.Warren says he has received favorable responses from students, who are thoroughly enjoying the class. “I keep it fun and interesting,” he says. “I can still teach in my own style, but the equipment takes it to another level. It kicks it up a notch.”

Indeed, Warren's ability to draw from numerous instructional resources and seamlessly move among them lets him reinforce the subject matter with real-world examples. For instance, the instructor might begin with an outline projected from his notebook, then work out a problem on the presenter, then display an animated illustration from a physics website, and then return to the original outline.

65%The percentage of growth in K–12 public-school students enrolling in technology-based distance education between 2003 and 2005

“So far, the technology is great,” agrees Myrna Sumner, who teaches the district's Algebra 1 class. “I love the way it is so easy to switch back and forth from PowerPoint to Elmo to face-to-face to video to the computer. I wish every classroom could have the equipment and training that I have.”

Formatting for Success

Morgan County's quest to implement distance learning was not without challenges. After being rejected for a U.S. Department of Agriculture distance-learning grant, the district opted to partner with another county that had twice made unsuccessful bids for the grant. The alliance worked, with the resulting $637,000 grant shared between the Morgan and Grainger County school districts.

Sumner believes the enhanced technology will motivate students to learn more efficiently. “It is no secret that today's students are spoiled by technology,” she says. “As educators, we must strive to keep our methods in education as technology-oriented as we can.”

With that in mind, Morgan County's distance-learning lessons are recorded and placed on a website, and can be downloaded into audio and video formats compatible with most personal media players.

“If a student is not able to attend the class for any reason, they can just pull up the website,” Rogers says. “This can also function as a tutoring tool for those who may want to go back and review.”

The district rolled out its distance-learning program this semester with just two classes, but plans for expansion are already in the works. “There are a lot of things we're going to incorporate into our program,” Carroll reports.

For starters, Morgan County hopes to bolster next semester's lineup with a chemistry class, a course not yet available at all high schools. And by collaborating with its grant partner, Grainger County Schools, Morgan County believes they will be the first schools in the state to offer a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps course through distance learning. The district will obtain the course next term from Grainger, while making its own distance-learning classes available to that district.

The Anywhere Classroom

Today, technology options let teachers and students work together regardless of the miles that may separate them.

In fact, the increasing availability of online curriculum programs has led to the creation of entire “virtual schools.” One of the first and largest, the Florida Virtual School, offers 60 courses for high school students statewide, in subjects ranging from algebra to Latin.

Distance learning encompasses a whole spectrum of e-learning options, allowing courses to be taught over the web, via TV and through video conferences with live class sessions. These classes are supplemented with telephone and e-mail contacts, online assessments, videotapes and lab equipment mailed to homes, and in-person get-togethers and field trips.

The kind of tools necessary for distance learning courses largely depends on the delivery and teaching methods being used. First and foremost, it is necessary that students have access to high-speed Internet. Some online courses also demand that a student's computer be able to manage audio and picture files. E-mail, conferencing and two-way interactive video systems are also widely used.

<p>Mark Battrell</p>
Dec 10 2009

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