Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Creating Virtual Classrooms for Rural and Remote Communities: Online Learning May Be the Key to Enabling People in Less Populous Areas to Earn Teaching Degrees and Other Professional Certificates

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Creating Virtual Classrooms for Rural and Remote Communities: Online Learning May Be the Key to Enabling People in Less Populous Areas to Earn Teaching Degrees and Other Professional Certificates

Article excerpt

Rural and remote communities, in the United States as well as in other countries, often have only limited access to higher education. In order to pursue professional training or advanced degrees, people in these communities must leave home. This causes more than just a financial burden. Those with commitments to jobs, families, and traditional roles in the community find it difficult to leave home to further their education.

This is especially true for indigenous and native people. These people often live in villages or communities far from large cities and towns. Although they're increasingly integrated with the modern world through travel, telecommunication, and technology, these people are deeply rooted in their traditional cultures.

These factors make it difficult to recruit teachers from local populations, especially for such high-need areas as special education, mathematics, and science. While many of these communities have nearby community colleges where people can earn two-year degrees, few are close to four-year colleges where they can complete bachelor or postgraduate degrees. Thus, individuals in these communities have few opportunities to enroll in teacher training.

Many colleges and universities provide distance education, but these programs face common problems. Students have identified issues that lead to high attrition rates, including: feelings of isolation, too much reliance on text-based learning, and difficulty accessing computers and Internet. Students face additional challenges when instructors based in urban areas or in other countries don't understand issues specific to their local communities. For students from indigenous cultures who live in traditional, village-based settings, community-based knowledge and lessons learned from elders are important sources of education that are often ignored in distance education courses. Institutions that provide distance education need to consider the unique settings and situations of these learners.

While we focus on lessons learned in our work with indigenous community members, many of these lessons are relevant for other rural communities. Issues shared by all students in rural and remote communities include limited access to higher education, minimal mentoring programs, and a strong sense of community strength. An aspect of particular importance to students from rural communities is the sense of ownership and pride in both the content and the context of what's being learned.

WEB CONFERENCING

Web-based conferencing can be incorporated into distance learning to address the challenges faced by rural students. A number of conferencing systems--such as Elluminate Live!, Saba Centra, Adobe Breeze, and Cisco WebEx--are available, and all of them work over the Internet. The college buys licenses for the web-conferencing system, and faculty and students can click on an Internet address to access the online "meeting room." No software needs to be installed on an individual's computer. However, students do need some basic equipment: a computer connected to the Internet, a microphone, and a webcam for the computer so that users can interact via audio and video.

The virtual meeting room has a whiteboard on which the instructor can place a presentation (e.g., a PowerPoint file). Participants are listed on one part of the screen, and each participant can talk to others in the room by clicking on an icon that activates their microphone. If a participant prefers to communicate by text, the online room also includes a text-chat feature. As in a traditional classroom, the instructor and students can have a discussion, talk and listen to each other, and use virtual signals to communicate questions and feelings. Participants interact visually by using icons, such as a raised hand to signify a question, a happy-face emoticon to convey "all is well," and a perplexed face to convey confusion or need for clarification. …

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