School Guidance Counselors: Are They Distance Education's Biggest Ally?

Article excerpt

Are guidance counselors really mis- guided when it comes to distance learning? I ask this because during an online course discussion forum, a for- mer distance learning instructor posted an interesting comment surrounding the issue of guidance counselors and their role in the distance learning process. This instructor stated that guidance counselors are "misguided" in their attempts to rec- ommend at-risk students for distance learning courses. The implication being that the probability of completion is low for this demographic. As a guidance counselor I was surprised to learn that there are still individuals who are not open to the idea of equal access for all students, but it did start me thinking about the counselor's role in the whole distance learning process.

There is a common misperception that equates at-risk learners to higher failure rates when the truth of the matter is, not all at-risk learners have the same characteristics. There are many elements that predispose students to the risk of dropping out of school. Some elements are based solely on academic achievement while others are environmental. However, this article will consider only students from low socioeconomic and single parent households when discussing at-risk students.

The number of students taking distance learning courses is on the rise. Those numbers have increased across ethnic, educational, and socioeconomic lines. While the numbers reveal a slightly higher growth rate for students enrolled in recovery courses, there appears to be an overlap for the at-risk student population. Why? How? Could this be the result of school guidance counselors recommending distance learning as a viable recovery option? Are students finally beginning to realize that, for many, a combination of distance learning and traditional face-to-face courses might be the right instructional mix to fit their learning styles? Well, it certainly does appear to be this way and it might be why distance education institutions are rapidly expanding. Susan Patrick, the director of the U.S. Department of Education's office of educational technology, stated that she was expecting a "huge growth" in the availability of online and distance learning. "We expect the growth to continue, consistent with the growth in higher education distance learning," she added (Honawar, 2005).

THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

Distance education institutions are rapidly becoming more effective at accommodating a larger volume of learners with a variety of learning styles, but is every student being included? Is the digital divide preventing certain learners from not fully realizing this rapidly growing trend in education? Quoting Nielson (2006), "The 'digital divide' refers to the fact that certain parts of the population have substantially better opportunities to benefit from the new technology than other parts of the population" (para 2). Research conducted by The Center for Children and Technology (2001) found what educators and community leaders alike have long suspected, that technology use for low income communities tends to be unequal. The research indicates that while all ethnic groups have experienced significant increases in technology ownership, gaps between Whites and minorities still exist today, thereby affecting the rates at which minority students are enrolling in distance learning courses. As this problem becomes more evident, many school counselors are asking themselves "what can be done to ensure that more at-risk and minority students are included in the distance learning process"?

THE ROLE OF THE GUIDANCE COUNSELOR

School guidance counselors are a vital part of helping children develop into wellrounded individuals. Counselors provide valuable information to students in regards to academics (elementary, middle, high school and pre-college preparation), classroom schedules and life choices (job information, dropout prevention, and drug abuse issues). To answer the question of how to include at-risk students, as well as more traditional students in the distance learning process, one needs to look no farther than the state of Florida. …