ERIC Identifier: ED308056
Publication Date: 1989-04-00
Author: Monk, David H.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural
Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Using Technology To Improve the Curriculum of Small Rural
Schools. ERIC Digest.
DEVELOPMENTS in two types of technology have important implications for
curriculum and instruction in small rural schools. While both of these
technologies are rich in promise for those interested in improving the
curriculum in small rural schools, there are drawbacks as well.
This Digest reviews the promise as well as the drawbacks. It makes the
argument that the most attractive applications involve combinations of the two
types of technology in ways that depart significantly from traditional thinking
about the delivery of instruction and the role played by on-site (sometimes
called "proximate") teachers (see, for example, Cuban, 1986).
The two technologies involve microcomputers and distance education
technologies. On the one hand, microcomputers are becoming a more familiar part
of the educational landscape, and teachers are using programmed instructional
materials more and more frequently. On the other hand, improvements in
telecommunications make it increasingly easy to transmit instructionally useful
images and sound over geographically forbidding distances.
COMPUTERIZED LEARNING PROGRAMS
A critical feature of
programmed learning packages, computerized or otherwise, can be their "stand-alone" feature (Levin & Meister, 1985). Stand-alone programs are
completely self-contained in the sense that they do not require the presence or
involvement of an on-site teacher. To the extent that effective stand-alone
programs become available, it will be relatively easy to enlarge curricular
offerings in small rural as well as in other kinds of schools.
Important questions concern whether or not stand-alone programs really are
possible, desirable, cost-effective, or feasible.
In fact, it is not yet clear if the market for the kinds of stand-alone
programs desired by small schools will be sufficiently large, even under the
most favorable circumstances, to prompt their development (Carnoy, Daley, &
Loop, 1986). Students may learn more, thanks to the innovation, but unless the
programs have a stand-alone quality they will not enhance the ability of small
rural schools to enlarge and broaden their curricular offerings. Indeed, Walker
(1983, p. 107) concluded that microcomputers would actually add to, rather than
reduce, the costs of education.
If programmed instruction merely supplements on-site teaching resources (that
is, if programmed materials with stand-alone qualities cannot be developed and
widely used), their potential for making small rural schools more viable will be
minimal. New course offerings will require additional teachers with subject
matter expertise, just as is currently the case. And no teaching resources will
be freed for other uses thanks to the arrival of programmed materials (Monk,
On the other hand, a simplistic view of what is required will not serve
development well. The requirement for an on-site teacher is not an
all-or-nothing matter. It is not so much a question of whether programmed
instruction can succeed without any involvement of an on-site teacher as it is a
question about the kind of skills and experience the on-site teacher will need
to have. If learning programs can be developed which REDUCE, but do not
eliminate the level of subject matter expertise required of on-site teachers,
then there can still be considerable potential for improved curriculum and
instruction in small rural schools. The possibilities for such improvement are
enhanced if the use of programmed materials with some stand-alone qualities are
coupled with use of the evolving distance technologies discussed in the next
Educators in the United
States are currently showing great interest in two-way interactive instructional
television and its potential for expanding the curriculum of small rural
schools. Moreover, the range of technological options has been steadily
increasing. It seems reasonable to expect this trend to continue. Numerous
technologies, not just two-way interactive instructional television, make it
possible to join geographically separated students and teachers, short of
levels. Schools and classes can--and have increasingly--been linked together
through the use of telephone lines, cables, and radio and television waves of
various kinds (Barker, 1987; Batey & Cowell, 1986).
Even if distance technologies do become more sophisticated, more reliable,
and less costly, important additional barriers must still be overcome. As Galvin
(1986) demonstrated, schools using distance technologies to share programs must
solve numerous problems. These problems range from the trivial (for example,
agreeing on a common time for a class to be offered) to the more substantive
(for example, achieving a stable balance in which each participating school
feels like it is contributing to the shared enterprise). These are
organizational or, in a sense, "political" problems, but they are at least as
important as the technological problems (Batey & Cowell, 1986). The most
important of the substantive problems, however, may be teacher training. That
problem will be examined after an examination of what a productive combination
of stand-alone programmed materials and distance technology might look like.
TOWARD A PRODUCTIVE COMBINATION
Distance technologies, when
they are coupled with the programmed materials described above, seem to offer
CONSIDERABLE potential for small rural schools that are interested in improving
their curriculum (Hobbs, 1985). To help readers imagine this potential more
clearly, the discussion that follows develops an IDEALIZED example of how these
two technologies might be fruitfully combined. Without some such vision,
however, the research and development necessary to help move educational
practice toward this potential is not likely to occur.
What might be possible? Consider a school with 25 students at each of four
grade levels, 9-12. Assume the school is located in a rural and isolated area,
is separately organized, and is governed by its own elected school board. The
school employs four teachers and thereby has a teacher to pupil ratio that is
unusually low for a small rural high school striving to offer a rich and
The four teachers in this school have been specially trained. They are
generalists in the sense that their training placed emphasis on breadth rather
than depth of academic and professional training. In fact their professional
training has taught them to be managers of instructional resources, a form of
training not unlike that provided to librarians.
These teachers understand the nature of how students learn different
subjects. They can help students learn a wide range of subjects, including
foreign languages, mathematics, science, literature, history, and geography.
They do not have deep knowledge of each subject, however. Rather, they know
where and how to access such knowledge and they know how to share it with their
Moreover, the classrooms have been equipped so that the necessary detailed
subject matter expertise is READILY at hand. One source is the stand-alone
programmed materials described above. In addition, these teachers use programs
that do draw upon their academic expertise, but which also require ready access
to other resources. These other resources might take the form of a consultant on
retainer who is hired to respond to calls (via telephone or television) or who
might make periodic visits to the site (Wall, 1985). The outside consultant and
the on-site teacher work together, developing the curriculum, managing the
instructional process, and assessing student progress. Some teachers in this
setting--depending on their skills, experience, and professional
responsibilities--work with several consultants, each dealing with a separate
Thanks to telephone and data transmission lines, there are additional
strategies and techniques to deliver instruction. For example, two-way
television makes it possible for students in this isolated rural setting to join
classes taking place elsewhere. The on-site teacher provides day-to-day
supervision and manages contact with the instructor at a distant site. Students
have the opportunity to interact directly with the outside instructor as well as
with classmates from other different sites, all of which are in voice and visual
communication with one another.
This scenario is admittedly idealized. Although it holds open the possibility
of dramatically enhanced curricular offerings in small rural schools, its
realization probably hinges on the ability of the teachers and the quality and
nature of their training. It is no small undertaking to become an academic
generalist, to understand how learning takes place in a variety of fields, to
stay informed about the resource base, and to become an effective manager of
instruction in the hypothetical school described above.
If educators concerned with small rural schools are interested in realizing
this vision (and there is ample evidence that they are), then substantial
changes must occur in how teachers in small rural schools are trained. As a
result, the academic qualities expected of both educators and their students
might be expected to rise. The combined effect of changes in teacher training,
technologies, and classroom instruction could well cause the number of teachers
employed in small rural schools to fall, at least as compared to present norms.
It seems clear that the greatest promise
attends combinations of technologies in nontraditional forms of instruction. And
yet, there are a disquieting number of unanswered questions. For example, it is
largely unknown how successful the new conception of a generalist teacher might
be. It is also unclear how possible it will be to develop instructional programs
that can substitute to some degree for on-site teacher subject matter expertise.
Although the seriousness of these questions highlights the dangers of viewing
technology as an easy and readily available means of solving small rural
schools' curriculum problems (Cuban, 1986), the potential is self-evident, and
the direction for future research and development efforts seems clear.
Barker, B. (1987, March). USING INTERACTIVE
TECHNOLOGIES TO INCREASE COURSE OFFERINGS IN SMALL AND RURAL SCHOOLS. Paper
presented at the Annual Conference for Microcomputers and Technology in K-12
Education, Carbondale, IL. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 279 465)
Batey, A., & Cowell, R. (1986). DISTANCE EDUCATION: AN OVERVIEW.
Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 278 519)
Carnoy, M., Daley, H., & Loop, L. (1987). EDUCATION AND COMPUTERS: VISION
AND REALITY (87-CERAS-14). Stanford, CA: Center for Educational Research,
Cuban, L. (1986). TEACHERS AND MACHINES: THE CLASSROOM USE OF TECHNOLOGY
SINCE 1920. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.
Galvin, P. (1986). SHARING AMONG SEPARATELY ORGANIZED SCHOOL DISTRICTS:
PROMISE AND PITFALLS. Ithaca, NY: Department of Education, Cornell University.
(ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 016 355)
Hobbs, D. (1985, August). BRIDGING, LINKING, NETWORKING THE GAP: USES OF
INSTRUCTIONAL TECHNOLOGY IN SMALL RURAL SCHOOLS. Paper presented at the National
Rural Education Forum, Kansas City, MO. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No.
ED 258 786)
Levin, H., & Meister, G. (1985). EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGY AND COMPUTERS:
PROMISES, PROMISES, ALWAYS PROMISES (Report 85-A13). Stanford, CA: Institute for
Research on Educational Finance and Governance, Stanford University.
Monk, D. (1989). EDUCATIONAL FINANCE: AN ECONOMIC APPROACH. New York: Random
Walker, D. (1983). Reflections on the educational potential and limitations
of microcomputers. PHI DELTA KAPPAN, 62(2), 103-107.
Wall, M. (1985). INFORMATION TECHNOLOGIES: ALTERNATIVE DELIVERY SYSTEMS FOR
RURAL SCHOOLS. Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory. (ERIC
Document Reproduction Service No. ED 270 253)