Distance Learning Bridges the Digital Divide in Higher Education

Digital equity has long been a hot topic for K–12 schools. But small, rural colleges and universities have also had to tackle the issue to ensure their students enjoy the same resources and opportunities as students in urban locations and large institutions. In Anderson, S.C., Forrest College attracts students from rural areas as far as an hour’s drive away. In the past, if students couldn’t make it to campus because of transportation issues or a sick child, they missed out on class. But now, distance-learning solutions enable them to attend class wherever they may be. Students simply Skype in and watch lectures live, or they may ask an instructor to record class sessions using lecture capture technology so they can be viewed later. “Whatever students see in the classroom, the students can see at home,” says Scott Peterson, Forrest College’s administrative dean and IT services manager. Making the Rural Landscape High Tech Rural colleges face a number of challenges, according to Randy Smith, president of the Rural Community College Alliance. They lack the large population base and resources of urban areas, which translates to a smaller pool of potential faculty members and fewer mass transit options. Faculty shortages, especially in fields such as nursing, welding and culinary arts, are a huge issue. “It takes a unique person with an advanced degree and teaching experience who wants to live in a rural area,” says Smith, whose organization advocates for the country’s 589 rural and tribal colleges and their 3.4 million students. Transportation is also an issue, particularly for students living in remote areas with little or no public transportation. “The majority of students drive an average distance of 25 miles one way to get to class,” says Smith, who is also president of Sisseton Wahpeton College in Sisseton, S.D. Broadband is a great equalizer. Most, if not all, rural colleges today have the fast internet connections they need to provide not only Wi-Fi on their campuses, but also online and distance-learning courses. That gives students increased learning opportunities and more convenient access to education, Smith says. “For the most part, we have as much technology as urban colleges,” he adds. Finding Creative Classroom Solutions with Ed Tech Rural colleges find a variety of ways to support distance learning. Some equip classrooms with high-end video conferencing equipment and high-definition displays on main and satellite campuses. That way, if the main campus is too far away, students can go to a distance-learning classroom at a satellite campus to watch lectures and interact with faculty at the main campus, says Smith. Some rural colleges are beginning to solve their teacher shortage by hiring faculty in urban areas who then...

Read the full article here