MET:Ensuring Quality Education Through the Use of Technology in a Rural Setting

From UBC Wiki

Page first authored by Wanda Lee Roach (2009)
Edited by Chris Atkinson (2010)
Revised by Danielle Boyd (2011)

The Distance Education (DE) model of teaching and learning has a lot to offer students who cannot attend traditional bricks and mortar schools because of various circumstances such as work and family commitments or living in an area that does not offer the desired programming options. In order to ensure equity between schools, it is necessary that a student in a rural, geographically isolated setting be afforded all the advantages of a student in a large urban centre. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the number of small schools is declining and resources are stretched thin. Some schools with fewer than 100 students are in the category of all grades (K-12). In areas of Northern Ontario, vast geography is also a problem. There are not enough teachers to offer the courses required in these schools.

Advanced courses in mathematics and the sciences are necessary for a student to be prepared to compete at a post-secondary institution. It is also important for all students to have opportunities to access these courses to fulfill the requirements of their secondary school diploma. Specialty courses such as Political Science, Philosophy, Economics, and French Immersion cannot be offered at all secondary schools and in many cases, it is impossible for smaller schools to offer these programs at all. As a result, many school boards and districts have developed distance learning initiatives to offer such courses to students who, because of various reasons, are not able to enroll in such courses in traditional learning environments.


Distance Learning

Distance Learning

Distance Learning, or Distance Education, is the process of delivering learning to students who are not on site.


Distance Learning is designed to be carried out using technology currently available to offer programming to students who would other wise not be able to access such information.

One of the earliest records of distance education is from 1728 when an advertisement was published in the Boston Gazette advertising shorthand lessons. The first institutional record of distance education is from 1833 when a Swedish university offered composition training via mail. [1]

The distance learning of the past is not what it is now. In fact, Taylor [2] claims that the distance education learning environments we witness today are in fact fifth generation models. Distance learning began as a paper based centralized system whereby course material was delivered to the student by mail. When the student had completed the program, they then mailed the finished project to the teacher and waited for a grade to be sent back by mail. The second generation of distance education model incorporated multiple media forms such as print, audio and video tapes, computer based learning and interactive disks and tapes. Next, conferencing technologies were implemented to allow for a greater degree of communication among instructors and students. Delivery technologies common were audio and video conferencing, tele-conferencing, and TV/radio broadcasting. What differentiated this mode of learning from the former modes was the flexibility of the delivery of the content. Students par-taking in such learning endeavors would need to be present to view or listen to the instruction. The communication was synchronous in real-time. With the introduction and wide-spread use of the Internet in the 1990s, a change in distance education was also apparent. The Internet provided a space whereby students and educators could communicate more easily. Tools such as email, discussion boards, and animations changed the face of traditional distance education environments. Students and teachers now had access to a wealth of information via the world wide web.


Today, Distance Education models that are in the fifth generation are rooted in authentic, interactive activities that integrate various media such as text, images, audio, video, and animations. Most courses are now delivered over the internet, using webcasts and Voice-Over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) and various Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication Tools. VoIP allows students to use their broadband internet connection to make calls instead of using the telephone line.

Students no longer have to be in a school setting to access their courses, but have access wherever there is an internet connection. This allows for greater freedom and flexiblity of when and where course materials are delivered. Students still have set class times, but can attend class from home in necessary. The use of webcasts and VoIP allows the teacher to be seen and heard, unlike the former distance learning where the teacher was only heard. This is a much more interactive environment. The use of internet technologies also allows for much faster communication times, especially in camparison to regular mail and fax machines.

How VoIP works [3]


There are some distinct advantages to the tele-learning approach to instruction. For example, this approach is student centered, co-operative, and able to foster social interaction between students and instructors in different geographical locations. Tele-learning can advance a student’s computer skill and familiarize the student with new technology. Furthermore, students enrolled in tele-learning courses showed a greater improvement in relation to high-level thinking and reasoning skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making, using technology, and time management [4].

One example of implementation is for Advanced Placement programs in mathematics and the sciences. These sorts of programs attract a certain type of student. The students enrolled in the AP programs are frequently high achieving and would do well in any learning environment. The teacher must mediate the concerns of the students and parents to make ensure the success of the students enrolled in the program.

For institutions, there is a cost savings in offering distance education. Staffing, infrastructure, and content development are all areas where institutions can save money and provide higher quality education through the use of technology especially in rural settings.

Offering an online or blended approach to a course that requires a highly specialized teacher allows school systems to use the expertise of a smaller number of more skilled teachers to deliver content. [5] Often these subject specialists are in high demand and may not be able to travel from school to school in a rural setting. If a particular course requires such a qualified teacher, rural boards will have difficulty balancing staffing due to smaller enrollment numbers and an increasing number of courses to be offered.

Rural boards need to strike a balance between the number of schools, students and courses that they can offer. With the increased availability of distance education, institutions may choose between costly infrastructure investment such as building science labs, computer labs, library, etc. or offering an increased number of online courses essentially investing in a virtual campus instead. [6]

Course and content development is a costly endeavour whether it be time spent by the teacher teaching multiple subjects (preps) or the board developing curriculum for the system and having to release teachers on an already stretched budget of release time. Online distance education allows for rural boards to gain access to rich, high quality content, developed by outside institutions. [7] Rural boards would simply import that content into their own library of virtual course offerings. It is in the sharing of resources that smaller rural boards can benefit greatly from high quality resources that they would otherwise not be able to afford to develop on their own.


There are many challenges to the implementation of distance education courses on a province wide level. To implement the course effectively the students must be able to learn and be comfortable in the new classroom setting. This being said, a student must exhibit specific learner characteristics in order to excel within an online learning environment. Some characteristics include intrinsically motivated, good time management, and good literacy skills for a great deal of material is presented by way of various literacy mediums. Although one would believe that today's students would be very comfortable partaking in online activities, many students are reluctant to interact with the instructor and other students through the different digital mediums because of their unfamiliarity with the new instructional method. Therefore, a face-to-face meeting and occasional social gatherings can sometime alleviate some of the shyness associated with the new people. Technologies such as web-cams and video conferencing software can help alleviate some of this anxiety.

There are also, additional issues that can plague the use of technology to deliver courses. The nature of the technology can be a factor in the implementation of computer-learning based programs. It is necessary that at the particular school, a person must be responsible for the care and maintenance of the technology. If you have dealt with the use of computer technology on a regular basis, you realize that they can be unreliable even on the best of times. Viruses, communication problems, and poor system maintenance can affect the ability of a student to complete their work in a timely and effective manner. An additional factor in rural settings is the speed and reliability of the Internet connections available. Weather and lack of signals in wooded areas can cause many ongoing issues. As a result, a volunteer (community or school based) is typically needed to facilitate the care of the systems and to troubleshoot any problems that arise.

The last big shift revolves around the teacher. Not all stakeholders will be supportive of distance education as it requires a change in the way a teacher teaches and perhaps additional investment on information technology resources. There is a pedagogical shift required as well in the interactions that a teacher has with his/her students which may require additional teacher training. Teaching evolves from a very linear, teacher-centered approach to an approach that is non-linear, collaborative, and student-centered. Finally, there may be a need for additional technological training for the teacher to be able to effectively deliver a quality education through this new medium. [8]

Distance Learning vs. E-Learning

E-Learning, much like Distance Learning, is the process of delivering academic programming using computer technology (namely the internet) as the medium of instruction. Unlike Distance Learning, which is used by high schools, e-learning is generally used by universities and colleges. E-Learning is a more independent form of distance education, whereby the students are given the materials and resources needed for learning but they are not usually given any direct instruction. Students are responsible for taking the materials given and teaching themselves. The instructor is used as a resource, someone to answer questions, provide feedback, and provide help if needed.

While distance learning and e-learning often share the same Learning Management Systemsto deliver content. It's how the LMS is used that determines whether it is a distance learning or E-Learning model.

Can Distance Learning Replace the Classroom Teacher?

A Teacher Delivering Instruction Through Distance Learning [9]

Some people might ask if it is possible to replace a teacher with an online course. It is possible to envision students sitting at home in front of a terminal and receiving all the instruction they need for their cognitive development. Distance learning can be effective and functional for many students but the teacher is essential to the success of the student. It is required that the individual that is instructing an online course understand the content and the technology. The educator must adapt to the challenges of teaching a computer-based course and deal with some of the shortcomings of this style of instruction. It is the role of educators to facilitate a productive learning environment and to ensure that students are successful in their studies.

Provincial Implementations


Alberta Distance Learning Centre is a provincially funded distance learning school that offers programs that are paper-based, blended, or online in nature. In doing so, it serves grades 1-12 Alberta students as well as students from Nunavut and the North West Territories with alternative programming to traditional schooling.

British Columbia

The Ministry of Education in British Columbia has established a distance learning platform whereby students and teachers are geographically separate from each other. This platform is somewhat similar to that of other provinces whereby course resources are hosted on course management platforms such as Web CT or Moodle.

LearnNowBCwas created by the non-profit organization, the Virtual School Society (VSS). It serves as a go-to point for students and parents inquiring about distance learning options in BC. This website contains a course finder, free tutoring and study skill lessons, career counseling portal, and various other educational resources for students, parents, and teachers.

A unique feature of this province's distance learning strategy is Open School BC, a program initiated in 1919 as a correspondence school. This program offers a multitude of resources for both the public sector as well as k-12 educators and students. These multimedia lessons, activities, and resources scaffold the ministry's educational outcomes and were developed to be used within blended learning environments or as resources for students who do not attend regular schools. Open School BC provides both rural and urban students with just-in-time access to rich learning opportunities which is not always an option within the classroom setting.

Newfound and Labrador

Epiphany Elementary, Hearts Delight, Newfoundland. 60 students from K-6 [10]

In Newfoundland, distance learning is delivered through the Center for Distance Learning and Innovation (CDLI). CDLI was founded in 2000 by the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Education. CDLI uses modern technologies to deliver real-time teaching to its students. In it's overview, CDLI stresses the importance of all content and communications being digital so as not to limit student learning and allow for quick changes to be made as necessary.

CDLI offers over 40 different intermediate and senior high level courses. These courses range from advanced programs in math and physics to music and art programs. The center also offers exam preparation courses and tutoring services.

CDLI uses D2L (Desire2Learn) learning technology to deliver its instruction. D2L is simply the platform chosen through which to deliver the online content.

Distance Learning is used mainly in small rural high schools, with few students and fewer teachers. This teaching style is used to level the playing field between those students and students in large, urban centers with more teachers and greater course offerings.

In the early 1990's, Newfoundland began using distance learning to offer advanced placement courses to schools with limited numbers of students or unqualified staff. Before the rapid growth of the internet, such courses were offered using conference calling, television screens, and writing tablets, as well as paper materials. Students would 'dial-up' their teacher, using a telephone connection to link remotely to the teacher and other schools. At the beginning of the course, students were given a paper booklet of lessons from which to study. During classtime, students received direct instruction from the teacher and used a microphone to ask and answer questions. A writing tablet was used to display any necessary written work, with the work showing on the television screen. All other communications (testing, work samples, etc) were done through faxing of materials. The telephone line was the main method of delivery of instruction.

In the currently implemented model, the courses are delivered synchronously with students interacting with each other and the instructor.



Ontario's e-Learning Strategy is centered around providing every student the best possible education through the use of technology. The strategy has four main pillars: Resource Bank; Learning Management System; e-Community; and Seat Reservation System.

The Resource Bank is a learning object repository that any publicly funded educational institution has access to in Ontario.

The Learning Management System (currently D2L) is available for free to any publicly funded educational institution in Ontario including many high quality courses that have been written for the province.

The e-Community offers a space for students and staff to collaborate.

The Seat Reservation System is designed to allow school boards in rural settings that may not be offering a particular course in their own board to access that course through distance education from another board that may be offering it. This ensures that students in rural settings have access to senior level and advanced courses that would not otherwise be offered in their school.

Success in Distance Learning

In order for a student to be successful within a distance learning environment they must encompass the following skills conducive to such a learning environment:

 - Time management
 - Self-discipline
 - Intrinsic motivation to learn
 - Good literacy and comprehension skills
 - Basic technological competency

Does the current distance education model serve students living in rural areas?

Based on the aforementioned information on the current state of distance learning environments, it is valid to question if in fact the current model of distance learning is benefiting students living in rural communities in Canada. Current models do offer students learning that contain activities that are authentic and collaborative and have the potential to be much more rich than a regular classroom setting. Educators however, must make sure that activities are rooted in constructivist pedagogy and make use of current technological tools and applications. Furthermore, teachers must create lessons and activities that implement differentiated teaching techniques to assure that a variety of learning styles can be accommodated. This feature is necessary to ensure success for all students for they are geographically separate from their instructors and student support with content and understanding is minimal in such an environment.


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External Links

Alberta Distance Learning Centre

Center for Distance Learning and Innovation

Department of Education, Newfondland and Labrador

Desire2Learn Innovative Learning Technology

Direct Instruction

Distance Learning Definition

Distance Learning History

Information on Newfoundland and Labrador

Learn Now BC

Open School BC

WebCT Learning Technology

Voice-Over-Internet Protocol