Rural Teaching, Technology And Rural Schools

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There is no doubt that the concept of "rurality" has proven to be a difficult term to define. While some research has used geographical or economic factors to define "rural" other studies have examined socio-economic indicators or a combination of both. The purpose of this discussion is to compare and contrast how two different research studies have attempted to define "rurality"- The Australian Bureau of Statistics ARIA Index (Trewin, 2001) and Cameron-Jackson's (1995) independent study on defining rurality.

The Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia (ARIA) was developed in response to the Australian Bureau of Statistics' (ABS) call for a classification of remoteness (Trewin, 2001). It primarily utilises geographical indicators to define remoteness and makes no assumptions about socioeconomic factors that may also influence perceptions of what constitutes rural living. By using road distance between populated localities and service centres (where people need to travel to in order to access goods, services and entertainment) to measure remoteness, the study strongly emphasises access to services and population size as defining features of rural life.

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In accordance with the ABS report, Cameron-Jackson's (1995) study acknowledges the important place that geographic and demographic descriptors have in definitions of rurality but warns that taken alone, these factors can never provide a complete picture of "rurality". As such, Cameron-Jackson (1995) extends on geographical descriptions of rurality and argues that human considerations (how rural people perceive rurality), must also be taken into account. Consequently, Cameron-Jackson (1995) defines rurality by highlighting five distinguishing features. These are presented in the table below.

Table 1. Cameron-Jackson's (1995) five indicators of rurality.

Indicator

Description

1. Place of residence in relation to population density and geographical terrain

Towns can be placed into three zones with diffuse boundaries:

Regional- small cities (e.g. Hobart) and towns that have reasonably high access to goods and services but play an important role in providing services for the surrounding rural countryside.

Rural- encompasses small towns and districts that are located within a one day return trip to small service centres.

Remote- consists of localities that are more than a one day return trip from a small service centre.

2. Level of access to community services

Based on findings that suggest that long distances from highly populated service centres reduces ease of access to needed services

Terrain and climatic conditions are taken into account

Local variations are considered

3. Industry type

Acknowledges that agribusiness is central to many rural communities and that industry based on land-use is more vulnerable to global changes in the economy.

4. Population make-up

Rural areas may vary widely in their population demographics.

There is a need to distinguish between permanent residents, itinerant groups, Indigenous Australians and neo-ruralists* as policy needs may differ.

5.Subjective views of ruralism

Based on the premise that rural dwellers do not usually view rural living in 'urban terms'- where rurality is associated with disadvantage.

*term used to describe professionals, retirees and leisure seekers who are attracted to the rural lifestyle.

It is easy to see that the two studies under examination reflect quite different aspects of the same concept. While Cameron-Jackson's (1995) study is aimed at providing rural policy makers and service providers with the too often neglected "human considerations" of what "rural" means to rural people, the ABS definition of rurality is intended as a more generic concept that can be readily adopted for a wide variety of statistical, administrative and political purposes (Trewin, 2001). While neither study denies the significance of the defining features offered in the opposite article, different research aims have led to differences in emphasis.

PART 2: COUNTRY AREAS PROGRAM

The Country Areas Program (CAP) is a federally funded initiative that seeks to improve the educational outcomes of rural students by helping schools identify and overcome some of the barriers associated with geographic isolation (NSW CAP Guidelines, 2009; Share, Lawrence & Boylan, 1994).Supporting schools with the resources and professional development opportunities they require to develop and implement solutions to problems caused by distance is one of the program's primary objectives (NSW CAP Guidelines, 2009; Share, Lawrence & Boylan, 1994).

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According to the NSW Country Areas Program guidelines (2009), the aims of the initiative are grounded in three key focus areas. These are:

Curriculum: improving access to quality learning materials, teachers and educational experiences

Peer interaction: offering students increased opportunities for peer engagement and collaboration and,

Connectedness: supporting collaborative learning opportunities through the utilisation of new technologies and strong connections with outside organisations and community groups.

Online Research Modules

One initiative endorsed by the Country Areas Program that particularly relates to the 'curriculum' and 'connectedness' objectives mentioned above involves 'online research modules'. According to McKenzie (1997), online research modules offer a solution to the obstacles many teachers face when using the internet. The modules enable teachers to access structured research activities for their lessons that include links to websites already deemed suitable by other teachers (McKenzie, 1997) as is the case in the Stage 5 'U.S. History' research module (n.d.). The advantage of the modules is that they save time, focus investigations, and allow instructors to maximise on-task behaviour of their students (McKenzie, 1997). For example, a history teacher planning a lesson on World War I conscription may direct students to the BBCAP online research module (n.d.) where students will find clear directions and questions that will guide them in their investigations.

The benefit of introducing students to online research modules is that they are specifically designed around what McKenzie (1997) refers to as the "research cycle". The research cycle allows students to see the methodological 'processes' in research (McKenzie, 1997). Beginning with an 'essential question', students are led through the steps of evaluating, synthesising and analysing information and thus find themselves motivated and engaged in higher order thinking (McKenzie, 1997). Such activities are beneficial for students as they represent a move away from shallow, topical research and encourage meaningful learning to occur (McKenzie, 1997).

PART 3: SCHOOLS IN RURAL AREAS

Because the state of Victoria provides no publicly accessible list of schools classified as 'rural' the following outline of rural Victorian secondary education providers was established by using the Australian Bureau of Statistics' five categories of remoteness (CDHAC, 2001), and the Australian Schools Directory search engine (Future Media Group, 2006) (see Appendix A). A total of 89 secondary schools were found using these criteria.

Government Secondary Schools

These schools are primarily funded by the state and represent the majority of schools in rural Victoria with 69 of the 89 schools falling into this category. Interestingly 34 of these schools were P-12 schools, suggesting that combining primary and secondary schools in small communities is a viable solution to low student enrolments. Six of these providers were also identified as 'specialist schools'.

Catholic Secondary Schools

These schools form part of the non-government education system in Australia and are attached to the Catholic Education Office of Victoria. These schools also receive some government funding. Only 10 Catholic secondary schools were found in the present search and were mostly located in large service centres rather than small towns. One of these colleges also provided boarding opportunities for students.

Independent Secondary Schools

Like Catholic schools, these schools are not government-run although they may receive some funding assistance from the government. Eight secondary providers were found for this category, one of which represented the only single-sex school in the search (non-denominational) and the other seven being associated with a Christian denomination other than Catholic. One school also provided boarding options.

Distance Education Centre Victoria (DECV)

Although the DECV is located in the Melbourne suburb of Thornbury, the school provides correspondence units for students who are rurally isolated from a mainstream school or who would like to supplement their studies with a subject not currently offered at their school (DECV, n.d.).

Donald High School: A Profile of a CEP Secondary School

Donald High School (DHS) is a Year 7 to Year 12 secondary provider and currently has 170 student enrolments. In 2006, DHS was recognised as one of the top five best performing, non-selective public schools in Victoria and was found to be the third best performing Country public school in VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education) (DHS, n.d). DHS provides all the core subjects in Years 7-10 and offers a small number of electives. In Year 9, students are offered the opportunity to travel to the North Central Cluster Centre (NCCC) once a week so that they may experience a greater range of technology based subjects (DHS, n.d.). Due to low student numbers there is limited selection of subjects at VCE level and this is countered through videoconferencing links with other schools in the cluster. VET (Vocational Education and Training) units are also offered through the school and this requires students to travel to the closest TAFE one day a week for skill based training (DHS, n.d.).

PART 4: SCHOOL ANALYSIS

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Rosehill High School [] (RHS) is a government P-12 secondary school situated in the Wimmera district of Victoria. The community of Rosehill has a population of approximately 800 and provides limited goods and services to local agribusinesses and townspeople. Livestock and crop production represent the main types of industry in Rosehill and in the last 11 years the community has suffered from severe drought which has led to a significant fall in population size. As a result of these factors, RHS has seen a change in its student population in the last five years.

While RHS once provided education primarily to the children of farming families who were permanent residents of the community, the school now sees many itinerant families move through the school. Although some students still complete their entire primary and secondary education at RHS, in recent years student numbers have fallen lower than ever before (currently 100 students in the secondary section) and student retention is generally poor (usually only 12-15 students enter Year 12). Furthermore, drought and the subsequent loss of local business within the town has meant that more students who enrol at the school come from low-income families. As such, the school has adjusted to these changes in student demographics by providing more skill-based training opportunities within the school's timetable and by establishing a successful VET (Vocational Education and Training) program. Students in Years 10-12 who select this later option must travel one hour to attend TAFE classes every Wednesday where they work towards obtaining a recognised trade certificate or apprenticeship qualification.

Although RHS offers all the core curriculum subjects from Years 7 to 10, one of the disadvantages of the shift in focus from academic to skills-based training is that the already limited 'elective' space within the school's timetable is now filled with Arts and Technology units (e.g. agriculture, auto, woodwork, VET, graphics, Textiles and Food Technology) rather than academic units. Where the school was once able to offer students a wide variety of electives including specialist English, SOSE, and Science classes, student choice is now limited to only 3 or 4 prescribed elective units at Years 9 and 10 (no elective subjects are offered to Year 7 and 8 students) and as such student numbers remain fairly constant (although low) across these year levels.

Subject choice is particularly limited once students reach VCE (Years 11-12). Due to the fact that RHS is a 'hard-to-staff' school and sees its biggest drop in student enrolments during VCE, only those subjects that have sufficient numbers each year can run- regardless of whether or not there is a qualified teacher present at the school. While the school is sometimes able to run classes for as few as three students, RHS will usually only run a VCE class if five or more students have selected a particular unit. Students who wish to select a unit that is not offered at the school are able to complete the subject via correspondence. Subjects with the lowest student numbers that are often offered via this mode (although this changes from year to year depending on student choice) include Media Studies, Accounting, specialist English subjects, specialist Maths subjects and History Studies. The subjects that tend to have the lowest student numbers each year are Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Agricultural Studies.

When considering whether the use of a distance education delivery system would enhance RHS' curriculum, it would be difficult to argue that such an arrangement would not be beneficial to staff and students alike. Videoconferencing would be a much better option for students who find it hard to stay motivated and focused when completing studies via traditional correspondence methods. Moreover, teachers who are qualified in particular disciplines but rarely have the opportunity to teach them may appreciate being given the chance to diversify their teaching load. By establishing links with other schools in the district that have low student numbers and problems attracting qualified staff, videoconferencing and access clusters may open doors for both the students and teachers alike.

PART 5: TELE-TEACHING

In recent times the advancement of new technologies has assisted many rural schools overcome some of the barriers associated with isolation, low student numbers and poor student retention (Arnold, 2001). Videoconferencing, audiographics and use of television and radio programs are collectively referred to as tele-teaching (Lundin, 1994) and have helped enhance the educational options of rural students (Alston & Kent, 2006; Stevens, 1998).

One of the main benefits of tele-teaching is that it enables students to engage with learning material in an interactive way because lessons are usually delivered live via two-way video and/or audio link-ups (Barker, 1991; Lundin, 1994). This allows a personal exchange of information to occur between teacher and student and in recent times improvements in videoconferencing (a method that incorporates live video and audio broadcasts) have meant that these exchanges can take place with very little time delay (Boylan & Francis, 1999). For very remote schools, satellite tele-teaching eliminates some of the problems once caused by distance in that they make interactive learning possible in communities that are unable to access high speed Internet (Barker, 1991). Furthermore, tele-teaching may be seen as superior to correspondence education (via post) because there is minimal time lag between sending work off and receiving feedback (Lundin, 1994). Benefits are also apparent for teachers in that tele-teaching allows teachers of small schools to diversify their teaching loads with new and interesting subjects.

However, there are some pitfalls associated with tele-teaching. While some of these difficulties are associated with the technology itself (such as audio 'echo', motion delay and signal problems) others present themselves as logistical or organisational issues at the school level (e.g. high cost, maintenance issues, training staff and synchronising timetables of cluster schools) (Barker, 1991; Barker, 1987). Moreover, tele-teaching presents teachers and students utilising the methods with some unique challenges that tend not to occur when engaged in face-to-face classroom instruction.

It is this later point that DeVries and Lim (2003) discuss in their review of the similarities and differences of tele-teaching compared with face-to-face teaching. One of the ways that tele-teaching differs from the face-to-face mode relates to communication. While teachers in traditional classrooms are usually skilled in promoting class discussions and assessing student understanding through the use of non-verbal language, questioning techniques and collaborative learning arrangements, the very nature of tele-teaching often requires a different approach to communication (DeVries & Lim, 2003). Text-based interaction or non-visual communication is often heavily relied upon in tele-teaching and as DeVries and Lim (2003) suggest, the increased anonymity that students may feel often changes the traditional dynamics of the teacher-student relationship. Accordingly, teachers may lose some of the authority they are accustomed to and find communication with their distance students is more egalitarian than in face-to-face teaching (DeVries & Lim, 2003).

Furthermore, Walker and Boylan (1992) point out that the absence of visual cues may pose problems for teachers who are used to relying on non-verbal language as a means of determining level of student understanding. Similarly, without being able to see examples of students work as they complete it, some teachers may find that they need to adopt new communication and assessment strategies that are conducive to the particular method of tele-teaching being employed (Walker & Boylan, 1992).

Along with communication differences, tele-teaching has been found to require greater planning time and requires teachers to be competent in managing, maintaining and utilising various technologies, whereas teachers using the face-to-face mode can just concentrate on 'teaching' (Walker & Boylan, 1992). Also, as opposed to tele-teaching face-to-face education is not usually inhibited by technical difficulties (Walker & Boylan, 1992) and places a lot less organisational stress on the school.

The organisational issues associated with tele-teaching are an important consideration for schools and teachers alike. Due to some of the challenges already discussed, the delivery of a successful tele-teaching program requires careful planning, particularly when more than one school is involved (NSW DET, 1998b). In rural New South Wales and Victoria, it is now not uncommon for a number of schools in the area (referred to as a 'cluster') to establish videoconferencing links with each other in order to provide greater subject choice to their students. In this arrangement, students from different clusters can share a single teacher via two-way video/audio link-ups. However, organisationally this means that timetables from a number of different schools need to be synchronised and maintained (NSW DET, 1998b). Furthermore, establishing what student numbers and subject choices are going to be for the following year may be a daunting task for administrators as it will effect what classes can and cannot be offered to students (NSW DET, 1998b). For the tele-teacher, organising reliable assessment and ensuring that lessons are engaging and promote meaningful learning is often no easy task and a reason why education departments need to provide adequate support and training to tele-teachers within their district (NSW DET, 1998a).