Rural America: How Online Learning Can Provide Equitable Opportunities

We have all heard of “the” best teacher in the school. In fact, when you are lucky enough to get this teacher for your child (or yourself), you can be left feeling like you won the lottery! Thoughts fill your head thinking about how much your child will learn.

For many, we keep our fingers crossed until we receive our child’s schedule for next year and then breathe a sigh of relief (and maybe do the Happy Dance) when we see Mr. Awesome’s or Mrs. Fabulous’ name. Online learning allows fantastic teachers to be a child’s teacher regardless of the child’s zip code.

In today’s world, how can we ensure that we are providing equitable opportunities to students?

Serving Students Regardless of Zip Code

During the 1996 school year, the Florida Department of Education awarded the “Break the Mold” grant to two counties to assist in providing equitable learning opportunities for rural students within the state of Florida. Out of this grant, the first online high school was created. Since then, Florida Virtual School (FLVS) has grown to serve Kindergarten-12 students all over the state of Florida with more than 190 courses including Advanced Placement, honors, credit recovery, and most recently, elementary.

Over the past 14-years, I have served in many roles at FLVS. Fortunately for me, in my current position at FLVS, I have the privilege of serving our customer-partners who license FLVS courses in the Northeast and Midwest. My curiosity about equitable opportunities sparked some interesting conversations with two incredible educators whose schools also serve rural students. Jeff Renard, Founder and CEO of Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative (VTVLC), and Charlie Heckel, Administrator of Rural Virtual Academy (RVA) in Wisconsin.

Improving Access to Online Education

The reality is, there are many children whose parents do not have access to broadband internet or computers leaving many students with the inability to learn online (or during COVID-related school closures, to continue their learning). In my conversations with both Jeff and Charlie, it became even more clear to me that regardless of the state where rural students reside, the inequities are common and the same plight in cities exists in rural America. For those living in poverty, the experiences are similar in both urban and rural areas.

Forming Partnerships to Extend Opportunities

In Wisconsin, Rural Virtual Academy (RVA) has broken barriers using FLVS content. In addition, teachers use live instruction every day to teach students. Charlie said, “Once we get kids online, there is no longer an equity issue.” However, the toughest part of the job of an educator can be getting the student online. Jeff shared that rural communities often do not have broadband connectivity, and this severely limits students’ opportunities. However, once the student has access, possibilities can become realities.

The Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative (VTVLC) is working with all schools in the state to provide options for schools and students including FLVS content and professional development training. Like FLVS, both programs are providing opportunities for students via online learning taught by effective online instructors.

The idea that rural families are “destitute and living in a shack in the woods is one of the biggest misconceptions,” reported Charlie. Charlie shared with me that many rural families choose to live a more reclusive life and tend to be more independent, self-sufficient, and prefer the slower-paced life. Thus, choosing to live a rural lifestyle can sometimes come with trade-offs, such as accepting the current reality that high-speed internet is not available in many rural areas across the United States.

Questions Yet to Be Answered

Without high-speed internet, students find it difficult to adequately and reliably access online courses. Yet, online learning allows students the opportunity to take rigorous courses that may not be offered in their small towns and connects each student with the best teachers for those subjects. So, what can we do help bridge the digital divide? How can we help provide equitable opportunities for all students regardless of their zip code?

One thing we know for sure, online learning bridges gaps, provides possibilities to students, and creates the space for students to learn regardless of their zip code. Which begs the question, are we providing equitable opportunities to students? The answer is not clear.

One thing is clear: we are providing opportunities, but are these opportunities wasted by lack of access?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments about ways your local community or school district is improving access and working towards equality.

A special thank you to Charlie Heckel, RVA and Jeff Renard, VTVLC.

Post by Michelle Licata, FlexPoint Education Cloud Account Manager

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