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K-12 Distance Education: The Case of Rural Schools

An Article by Bobby Hall


The purpose of this study is to inform state policymakers and local districts on the issues surrounding distance education in K-12 schooling and in particular the need for distance education adoption in rural schools. The goal of this study is to assess the effectiveness, advantages, disadvantages and necessity of distance education and to assess any barriers prohibiting the adoption of  distance education. Research shows that schools are adopting distance education platforms to deliver otherwise unavailable coursework to students, which holds especially true for rurally based K-12 schools. The differences in effectiveness between traditional face-to-face and distance education methods are inconclusive. The results of this study show that some schools, such as small rural schools, may not have a choice as to the adoption of distance education, because the benefits of adoption for rural schools far outweigh any cost of failing to do so. In addition, cost and an institutionalized school system are barriers to distance education adoption and expansion. This study recommends that further research be conducted, particularly on effective uses of distance education, that state education agencies work to develop methods which will place both traditional and distance education on equal accountability levels, and that the federal government needs to create a more equitable system of funding so that rural schools will more easily be able to adopt the distance education that they need.

About the Author

Bobby Hall is a second-year fellow with the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA) where he is working on his master’s degree in public administration. He also currently serves as a project assistant with the Community & Regional Development Institute at Cornell. Before attending CIPA, Bobby worked for the American Farm Bureau Federation for three years and earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Oklahoma. Originally from Olustee, a small town in rural Oklahoma, he currently lives in Ithaca, NY with his wife Erika and daughter Bianca.


The purpose of this paper is to inform state policymakers and local districts on the issues surrounding distance education in K-12 schooling and in particular the need for distance education in rural schools and any barriers preventing the adoption of distance education in rural schools. The U.S. Department of Education defines distance education as, “the application of telecommunications and electronic devices which enable students and learners to receive instruction from some distant location.”[1] This definition can technically apply to “virtual schools”[2]; however, this study focuses solely on the use of distance education within physical schools. In determining what constitutes a rural school, a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report used in this paper defines rural schools as those which are 55 miles or farther from metropolitan areas;[3] however, the most widely used definition of rural schools are those schools which are in communities with less than 2,500 people, though these communities are often a great distance away from large metropolitan areas,[4] and the latter is the definition that this paper uses unless otherwise stated.

Distance Education Methods

Distance education classes can originate from a school’s own district, another district or often a postsecondary institution. Methods for distribution of distance education courses can include video (pre-recorded, live via satellite, or two-way instructional television), audio, the internet, or other computer technologies such as CD-ROM.[5] The diagram found in Appendix-1 shows characteristics of each of the major distance education technologies. The diagram classifies each distance education method by instruction mode (instructor-led or text/graphics based instruction), learner type (class or individual), degree of interactivity (full-time two-way audio/video to one-way audio), and spontaneity of two-way communication (synchronous/real-time or asynchronous/delayed). Asynchronous courses are usually self-paced, in which the student learns at a pace agreed upon by both the teacher and student.  Synchronous courses are real-time, using communication tools and integrated video.[6] As seen in Figure-1 below, in an National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) survey of 5,500 public school districts which offered distance education courses during the 2002-2003 school year, Setzer, et al. found that two-way ITV was the most popular method used for the majority of distance education courses at 49 percent, while one-way pre-recorded video was the method least used at 7 percent.[7]

Figure-1. Percentage distribution of district enrollments in the various types of distance education courses during 2002-2003

Source: National Center for Education Statistics (2005) (Setzer, et. al, 2005, pp. 10)

Because two-way ITV and online courses are the most popular distance education methods, they will be the two methods discussed throughout this study.

Two-way instructional television, or ITV, courses involve a form of videoconferencing where students and an instructor located in a different area are able to see and hear one another at all times. ITV is the method most similar to a traditional classroom, with the main exception being that the teacher is not physically located in the same room as the students. Using the ITV method, homework and tests are sent through fax or e-mail by local school distance education facilitators, teachers or aids, but a supervisory adult does not need to be located in an ITV classroom since the remote teacher can hear and see the students.[8]

As seen above in Figure-2, online courses are the second most popular method of distance education. Clark defines an online course as, “one in which 51 percent or more of the course is delivered online with primary instruction…often supplemented by face-to-face meetings or supervision.”[9] Software packages known as learning management systems are the method typically used to distribute online classes. These packages permit teachers to distribute instructional materials, produce content or assignments, and supervise other aspects of the course. The software packages provided to both the teacher and his or her students also often include student tracking tools which can provide snapshots of a student’s progress.[10]

Why Distance Education?

According to the latest NCES data, 37 percent of public school districts reported having students enrolled in distance education courses during the 2004-2005 school year. The total number of students enrolled in distance education courses in the 2004-2005 school year was 506,950. This is an approximately 63 percent increase over the previous school year which reported 317,070 students enrolled in distance education.[11] Figure-2 illustrates a breakdown of these numbers by instructional level. In essence, the use of distance education is becoming more prevalent, and this is particularly the case in rural schools.

Figure-2 Percentage of students enrolled in technology-based distance education courses by instructional level

Source: National Center for Education Statistics (2005)

Distance education is a necessary tool for many rural schools. NCES statistics consistently show that rural areas are the biggest users of distance education. There are over 10 million students in rural schools, and this represents 21 percent of all K-12 students in the U.S. Also, rural areas hold over 55 percent of public school districts and 31 percent of public schools.[12] Figure-3 shows that 45 percent of rural districts had students enrolled in distance education courses during the 2004-2005 school year, compared with 32 percent of suburban districts and 25 percent of urban districts.[13] This is occurring as the number of school districts that are adopting distance education continues to grow.

Figure-3. Percentage of public school districts with students enrolled in distance education courses by metropolitan status

Source: National Center for Education Statistics (2005)

Casey lists three reasons why distance education has grown in prevalence: “1) the great distances of citizens from educational institutions, both geographically and socio-economically; 2) the thirst for education; and 3) the rapid advancement of technology.”[14] The argument that distance education has grown out of great geographic and socio-economic distances has particular importance for rural schools. Rice offers a different perspective, stating that the growth of distance education is due to funding shortages and overcrowded facilities.[15] According to Setzer, et al.’s analysis, both Casey and Rice are correct. Budget shortfalls and overcrowded facilities may have created the need for distance education and the geographic distances seen in rural areas of the country also helped to create a need for distance education, but the rapid progression of technology met that need. Setzer, et al.’s NCES survey found that 80 percent of respondents cited access to otherwise unavailable courses as their school’s main reason for adopting distance education.[16] If this survey is representative of the national education system, then one of the reasons for the growing use of distance education is that it provides a great benefit for schools that are more geographically isolated or under-funded, with both characteristics being typical of the majority of rural school districts.[17]

It is also not uncommon for faculty of a particular school to lack the expertise or certification needed to teach advanced or more specialized courses. Schools often find it impractical to offer specialized classes for a small number of students who are eligible to enroll in them, and this is particularly the case in the more geographically isolated, or rural areas, of the U.S.[18] An example is Advanced Placement (AP) courses, which are courses offered to high school students who perform at the college level. Fifty percent of respondents in Setzer, et al.’s survey stated that one reason they adopted distance education was to provide AP courses,[19] thus showing that those schools which are too small and under-funded to provide such courses would benefit greatly from the adoption of distance education technology. Figure-4 below shows reasons for adoption other than to offer unavailable classes. The chart illustrates that addressing growing populations is the least mentioned reason for adopting distance education, and the chart also shows that offering courses that would not have been available and meeting the needs of specific students (such as AP courses) are the top two responses that were given. Thus rural school districts which have difficulty providing necessary coursework are more likely to adopt distance education, and this is in comparison to growing metropolitan areas which might adopt distance education to address a student population that is increasing in size.

Figure-4. Percentage of districts indicating that each reason was very important in deciding to adopt distance education

Source: National Center for Education Statistics (2005) (Setzer, et. al, 2005, pp. 56)


Effectiveness, Advantages, and Disadvantages of Distance Education

Distance Education v. Traditional Face-to-Face Education

Even though rural schools are finding it necessary to use distance education, there exists a debate about whether distance education is as effective as traditional face-to-face education. There have been a number of studies on this question, including meta-analyses on the large range of distance effectiveness studies. A meta-analysis, also called a quantitative synthesis, evaluates a range of studies which focus on the same problem, estimating how much one conclusion and treatment differs from others and the associated variability. Meta-analyses are able to combine studies with differing sample sizes by extracting an effect from all studies, overcoming the problems of selectivity, of narrative reviews, and conclusions based on test statistics from studies with differing sample sizes.[20] A meta-analysis has the following benefits:

a) it answers questions about size of effect; b) it allows systematic exploration of sources of variability in effect size; c) it allows for control over internal validity by focusing on comparison studies vs. one-shot case studies; d) it maximizes external validity or generalizability by addressing a large collection of studies; and e) it improves statistical power when a large number of studies is analyzed.[21]

One of the most routinely cited studies on distance education, comparing 116 distance education programs of grades 3-12, by Cavanaugh, et al. concluded that there is no significant difference between distance education and traditional face-to-face education in regards to learning effectiveness.[22] If there is no significant difference, then this would mean that rural school districts have no reason not to adopt distance education.

Another often cited meta-analysis by Bernard, et al. found that asynchronous settings, as defined above, favor distance education’s effectiveness, and synchronous settings favor traditional classroom settings. They found that synchronous distance education is not as effective as face-to-face teaching, though they also found better effectiveness levels if the distribution of synchronous distance education was via ITV or if the students were younger due to a younger student’s need for spontaneous feedback and guidance.[23] Bernard, et al. also found that ITV improved effectiveness levels for asynchronous settings.[24] In a third meta-analysis, Zhao, et al. found that the quality of a distance education program is influenced by an identical set of factors which influence the quality of traditional face-to-face programs, such as a student’s attitude, student satisfaction, student participation or instructor quality.[25] This shows little contrast between what influences distance education and what influences traditional education. Zhao, et al. did find that when instructor involvement is high, distance education is slightly more effective, but face-to-face education is slightly more effective when teacher involvement is low.[26] This means that teacher involvement is important for distance education courses. A more recent meta-analysis conducted by the U.S. Department of Education found that, on average, students using the online method of distance education perform slightly better than those enrolled in a traditional course.[27]

The research literature on comparing distance education with traditional education is inconclusive. This has led a number of researchers to call for an end to distance v. traditional classroom comparisons.[28],[29],[30],[31] Hannum, et al. write that school administrators often do not have a choice between distance education and traditional education because schools that use distance education do so out of necessity, as is the case with rural schools. These schools do not have an instructor available to teach some of the courses needed, or they do not have a large enough number of students eligible for the specific courses to warrant hiring a teacher. Therefore, Hannum, et al. argue research should instead focus on how to develop quality distance education courses.[32] Also, Rice writes that when significant differences are found between traditional and distance education, the dissimilarity is more likely to be due to factors unrelated to education delivery methods, such as disparities between student cohorts or a teacher’s experience.[33] Though some may feel that the debate between distance education and traditional education is important, such a debate is not necessarily pertinent to rural school districts where distance education is essentially the only option. These school districts must adopt distance education if they are to receive the benefits of being able to offer a wide variety of coursework.

Disadvantages and Advantages of Distance Education

In addition to the debate between traditional and distance education, studies often examine the disadvantages and advantages of distance education itself. The majority of research on disadvantages of distance education has to do with online education. Watson writes that one of the biggest problems with online education is that the judgment of quality assurance rests with state-led programs. This takes decisions away from local schools that know what works in their communities better than state governments,[34] and this is especially true for rural schools which are typically located in more isolated communities that are not on the periphery of state agendas.[35] Another disadvantage is that online courses result in a lack of social interaction with peers, which may be particularly harmful to younger students.[36] In addition to the disadvantages of online education, ITV also comes with its own disadvantages. It is the method of distance education that mostly resembles a traditional course, allowing students and teachers to talk with one another as if they are in the same room,[37] but one of its biggest disadvantages is that it ignores a student’s need for face-to-face interactions with his or her teachers and fellow students. Such interactions and relationships are key components in achieving student retention and satisfaction.[38]

For rural schools, however, the benefits of distance education outweigh any potential disadvantages. For instance, in a survey of 126 students enrolled in an online distance education course, the most common response when asked about the benefits of distance education was that the students enjoyed the autonomy and freedom in assignment schedules given by the course.[39] This illustrates that, contrary to any disadvantages, distance education actually does achieve student satisfaction, and this can lead to retention. Perhaps the biggest advantage of all is being able to provide more choices in coursework to enrich the lives of a school’s students. Cavanaugh, et al.’s meta-analysis found that being able to offer a better variety of courses results in “broader educational opportunity for students,…access to resources and instructors not locally available, and increases in student-teacher communication.”[40] Disadvantage or not, if students do not receive the coursework which could have showcased their talents and broadened their knowledge, then they are obviously worse off than without such coursework, and this is more apparent in rural areas where teachers who are certified to teach certain courses, such as foreign languages, are more difficult to recruit and retain.[41] In response to loss of control from the local community, schools have the ability to work out agreements with surrounding schools to ensure that they have a say in what teachers teach.[42] Without distance education, some rural students may never have the opportunity to take a foreign language course, and this is while learning another language is becoming increasingly important.

Distance Education as a Necessity for Rural Schools

The Benefits of Rural Schools to their Communities

Rural schools provide their communities with many benefits. One definition of social capital is, “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network…to membership in a group which provides each of its members with the backing of the collectively-owned capital.”[43] The support contributed by small, rural schools to students and the wider community can overcome shortages of social capital.[44] The small classroom sizes of many rural schools can account for any differences seen in educational achievement between rural schools and their town and urban counterparts. One effect of small schools is that students in poor rural areas do better academically on average than students in poor urban areas.[45],[46] Rural schools are also more likely to provide safer atmospheres for their lower-income students than urban schools.[47]

In addition to the above benefits of rural schools, students from rural schools are more likely to state that they are more content with their school, that their teachers are more accommodating, and they feel safer, compared with urban students.[48] The small communities in which a great portion of these schools exist also benefit their schools by providing better community support, often acting as a community center in their districts.[49],[50],[51] Rural schools contribute toward more democratic inclusion, a greater ability to overcome the effects of poverty, and they also make their communities more susceptible to positive social change by providing feelings of community.[52] Quality rural schools are a necessity in order for the economy and government of the U.S. to flourish,[53] and rural schools are often their community’s largest employer.[54] All of these benefits demonstrate the importance of rural schools to their communities and the region in which they exist. Children, families and other residents of rural areas benefit greatly from their schools.

Distance Education for Rural Schools

Despite the aforementioned benefits, Carr and Kefalas write that rural schools are not succeeding in preparing their youth to attend college and return with the educational and professional skills necessary for rural communities to survive.[55] Small, rural school administrators often ignore the needs of a handful of students interested in and eligible for advanced courses due to economic efficiency reasons. For example, these administrators often prefer assigning instructors to courses that are able to generate larger, more cost-effective enrollments.[56] In Setzer, et al.’s NCES survey of 5,500 public school districts, 93 percent of small districts stated that using distance education to offer courses which would have otherwise been unavailable is very important to their school’s survival.[57] Distance education gives small, rural schools a method for enhancing their curriculum by being able to provide students with expensive, low-enrollment classes like physics, music theory or calculus as well as AP courses.[58]

Dumas High School, located in rural southeastern Arkansas, is one example of a successful school that uses distance education.[59] When the state of Arkansas mandated that all public schools offer a curriculum which includes more advanced courses in mathematics, such as trigonometry, and advanced courses in science, such as physics, Dumas High School sought help in providing these courses through implementing an ITV form of distance education.[60] After the school fully implemented its distance education program, a study by American College Testing (ACT) found that Dumas High School was able to offer a wide variety of courses compared to similar small schools.[61] The study also found that the school had experienced significant improvements by being able to introduce more courses into its curriculum, and by decreasing the racial/ethnic achievement gap in a majority of subject areas.[62] Also, ACT college readiness exam scores increased in most subject areas, creating a 10 percentage-point reduction in the number of students having to take college remedial courses.[63]

As seen in the case of Dumas High School, rural schools often have difficulty providing certain categories of courses even when a larger number of students desire them. This is often due to a challenge rural schools face in teacher recruitment and retention.  Over 84 percent of rural school district administrators reported experiencing difficulty in filling vacant teacher positions in the results of Dadisman et al.’s 2007 survey from 44 states.[64] Unique teaching conditions cause such difficulty in filling vacant teacher positions.[65] In Schwartzbeck’s survey of over 3,000 rural school superintendents, the results illustrated that out of all the obstacles facing recruitment and retention in rural schools, one of the largest obstacles is low salaries, next to the isolation of rural districts.[66] Distance education is one way to overcome the challenge of having to recruit new teachers. Teachers of distance education courses are able to live in less isolated areas, if they so desire, and their salaries are equivalent to the salaries of traditional education teachers. Most distance education programs join a consortium between several schools, with a specific school that supplies each distance education teacher paying the teacher’s salary. Each school in a consortium typically supplies one distance education teacher to the grouping of schools; therefore, the schools are able to share several teachers for the cost of one teacher.[67] Because traditional and distance education teachers are paid equivalent salaries, teachers unions generally do not fight against distance education adoption. Unions, however, do argue for limiting distance education class sizes so that the teachers are not overwhelmed.[68]

In addition, a major excuse for school consolidation is the challenge in providing a depth of courses, but consolidating can lead to a loss of the aforementioned benefits that rural schools can provide. Distance education can fix the problems rural schools face, such as small numbers of students eligible for certain courses or the challenge of recruiting new teachers, and it allows the positive effects of small, rural schools to continue.[69] Students who reside in rural areas deserve the chance to receive all the benefits of schooling that their urban counterparts receive, though it is clear from the above research that they are not receiving the coursework they need. A solution to this problem is the implementation of distance education. With distance education, rural schools can overcome the challenge of not being able to recruit and retain teachers, rural schools will be able to avoid consolidation and the negative effects that come with it, and rural schools will have the opportunity to provide the variety of coursework of their urban counterparts. Without distance education, none of this would be possible.

Concerns in Adoption of Distance Education

Although rural schools need distance education to overcome their unique challenges, addressing cost and implication concerns is an important step towards creating effective policy. On the bright side, Irvin, et al. write that “as familiar adults and close student-teacher relations are characteristic of small rural schools, it is likely that there are school personnel who could provide the connection and support often absent from [online distance education].”[70] Rural schools must be aware of such possibilities before deciding to adopt distance education courses.

Concerns about Cost

Aside from many of the disadvantages of distance education previously mentioned, Figure-5 shows that cost is a large barrier to expanding distance education.

Figure-5. Percent of districts indicating that various factors were preventing them from expanding distance education courses

Source: National Center for Education Statistics (2005) (Setzer, et. al, 2005, pp. 17)

Online program start-up costs are often high because of up-front costs needed for course development or for purchasing courses from vendors. On top of these up-front costs, online courses need updating regularly,[71] and it is typically suggested that a distance learning facilitator is hired to manage paperwork and troubleshoot technical problems, adding even more cost to a program.[72] The funding source for online education depends on each particular situation. Typical funding for state-led online programs is through state legislature appropriations, while the funding for district-led programs is through each district.[73] Luckily, the federal government does provide discounts for schools wishing to connect to the Internet, with support ranging from 20 to 90 percent of cost depending on urban/rural status or on the level of property.[74] Unfortunately, rural districts often face challenges in receiving federal funding. One reason for this is that the federal government currently measures students in such a way that causes urban students to be worth more funding than rural students. Though rural school organizations have lobbied Congress to change this funding distribution method for over a decade, Congress has yet to act.[75]

ITV programs can also come with high costs. One study on ITV even found that, “some districts would have incurred substantially fewer expenditures if they provided classes in traditional settings, albeit in very small class sizes rather than through ITV.”[76] Up-front costs for ITV can range from $7,000-$28,000, with recurring transmission line costs ranging as high as $3,600 per year.[77] In addition, certain hidden costs often come with the adoption of ITV, such as system malfunctions. Sipple and Brent estimate that around five days each year are lost in using ITV.[78] According to The Rural School and Community Trust, the best option for schools that wish to use ITV is to form a consortium with other schools. Consortiums allow schools to collaborate through shared classes and also share technical support costs and teachers. Strange writes that in an ideal consortium, “no funds exchange hands for instructional costs. All schools and/or districts agree to provide at least one course per year and all are free to enroll students in any ITV class, based on a predetermined set of operational policies.”[79] Still, a potential problem with ITV adoption in rural areas exists in that the required T-1 line may be a challenge to obtain. Not all telecommunications companies are willing to provide such a connection in rural areas, and such a challenge can usually only be overcome through statewide action.[80]

Even with such large cost barriers, Dumas High School proves to be an excellent example of how schools can overcome the high costs of adopting distance education if they use the correct method suitable for a school’s particular area and situation. When confronted with a new state mandate that required the school to offer more coursework than what was available, Dumas High School used the state of Arkansas’s AdVentures program for gifted and talented students to apply for and receive a state grant to run its distance education program. They were able to do so by using the AdVentures program as a reason for offering advanced coursework through distance education, and they were then able to meet the state’s mandate by offering the extra courses.[81] By obtaining the grant from the state, Dumas High School was actually able to offer more advanced courses to the entire student body which helped the school to have significant increases in achievement.[82]


Another major barrier to the adoption and expansion of distance education has to do with institutionalization “the process by which social processes, obligations or actualities come to take on a rule-like status in social thought and action.”[83] Meyer and Rowan write that, “education is highly institutionalized in modern society. Its categories of students and graduates, as well as its ritual classification of production procedures…are all derived from highly institutionalized rules and beliefs.”[84] In other words, through the process of institutionalization, education has taken on a set of norms which people believe to be “proper education.” Examples would be the way society requires teachers to dress, societal norms for how schools are structured, or even society’s expectations for how a classroom should operate with students receiving lectures from face-to-face teachers in traditional classroom settings.

Meyer and Rowan write, “educational organizations function to maintain the societally agreed-on rites defined in societal myths…Education rests on and obtains enormous resources from central institutional rules about what valid education is”.[85] Distance education violates the societal myths about how classrooms are supposed to operate, and such myths can cause a backlash against alternative programs such as distance education, and this is particularly the case if those who wish to implement alternative programs do not recognize and deal with such barriers.[86] Those who desire to implement distance education must realize that there are core values involved based on these societal myths. Natriello writes that, “distance learning initiatives threaten core values both by creating units based on principles different from those governing traditional programs and by increasing the chances that traditional programs themselves will be re-examined and reformed along the lines of the new initiative.”[87] If a school seeking to implement distance education is to be successful, it must recognize these institutionalized barriers and showcase the distance programs in a way that causes any resistance to change to be broken down.

Though institutionalization barriers can be extremely difficult to overcome, it is possible to overcome them through a strong commitment from those involved in pushing for distance education implementation. One example of a school district that overcame an institutionalization barrier is from the case of Cleveland City, Tennessee. Though the state of Tennessee is largely rural and contains sparsely populated areas that could benefit from distance education, only two school systems in the entire state used distance education at the time of a survey of the school district in 2005. In the survey, school administrators stated that one of the biggest barriers their schools faced to distance education adoption were resistance to change,[88] which is an institutional barrier. Despite little experience of distance education in Tennessee and despite institutionalization barriers, Cleveland City was able to overcome such barriers through a focus on breaking resistance to change through teacher training. In breaking down the barrier of resistance to change from the teachers, Cleveland City adopted an online education program that has had an excellent success rate.[89] As this example shows, a school system can overcome the barriers to distance education if the right methods for the particular area are used. Other school districts could follow the example of Cleveland City by offering a method of teacher training that works to break down any barriers to change, and state governments could fund this training.


For schools that cannot afford to hire the required number of teachers to teach all necessary courses, distance education may be their only option if their students are to receive the benefits of a wider variety of coursework. The same goes for schools which do not have a large enough student population to support advanced courses.[90] All schools must fulfill their responsibility to do all that they can to enhance the lives of their students. Therefore, what this means is that all students must have the same opportunities to gain the knowledge that they will need to pursue their particular interests. As previously mentioned, there are significant barriers to adoption of distance education, but it is possible to overcome these barriers as seen in the cases of Dumas High School and the Cleveland City, TN school district. Dumas High School was able to take advantage of a state grant program for gifted and talented students to fund the costs associated with implementing distance education, and Cleveland City was able to overcome barriers of institutionalization through providing training to teachers that worked to overcome resistance to change.

Further Research

Even though examples of successful implementation of quality distance education programs do exist, it is clear from this study that there is a need for further research from the university and government levels to inform policymakers, particularly state and local policymakers, on the issues surrounding distance education. Schools across the country are implementing distance education, even when such a limited research base exists. Much of the current research on distance education focuses on adult education, while younger learners usually have fundamentally different characteristics than adults.[91] Schools that adopt distance education need further research on K-12 learners and distance education program effects. Though some of the differences in effectiveness between distance and traditional education have been inconclusive in research so far, this is not the only area that future research must focus on. Schools in rural areas may not have any other viable options than to adopt distance education programs. These schools desperately need research on effective and non-effective aspects of distance education, not comparisons of whether distance courses are as good as traditional courses. In addition, rural schools must find ways, through research, to overcome some of the disadvantages of distance education, on cost-saving methods, and on methods to aid schools in implementation of distance programs. Improvements in data collection are paramount to this effort, particularly state and district-level data which identifies schools that may be a good fit for distance education, or those schools that are experiencing challenges in implementation and expansion.


Based on the research presented,  this study shows that the debate between distance education and traditional education over differences of effectiveness is irrelevant to rural schools  that need to adopt distance education because the benefits of doing so far outweigh any costs. This study recommends that that any future research which concerns distance education’s effectiveness should take the special case of rural schools into account. Instead of focusing on the differences of effectiveness between distance education and traditional education, future research should focus on ways to improve the quality of distance education courses. Schools that have a specific need to adopt distance education, such as rural schools, particularly need this.  Another recommendation is that state policymakers work to reduce the barriers to distance education adoption and access, particularly for the districts with a higher need of distance education such as small, rural schools. States typically regulate the amount of distance education courses by mandating that schools can offer a maximum number of courses through distance education. Instead of regulating the quantity of distance education courses, states should regulate the quality of these courses.[92] Though it is possible for individual school systems to overcome many barriers and implement a successful distance education program, such as the case of Cleveland City, TN, policymakers should make it easier for schools to successfully implement distance education, particularly for schools where adopting distance education is a necessity.

This study also recommends that state education agencies work to develop methods which will place both traditional and distance education on equal accountability levels. States and local districts should develop ways to ease the worries of parents that their children may not be getting a quality education if enrolled in distance education courses. The first step in doing this is to ensure quality distance programs. As previously mentioned, one way to do this is to ensure that teacher involvement is high.[93] Kingdon writes that it sometimes takes a dramatic change in a condition before the condition becomes a problem in the minds of people.[94] Talk of school consolidation often attracts the attention of district residents, but by then it might be too late. Kingdon also writes that conditions can become problems in the minds of people through constant feedback.[95]

A final recommendation is that the federal government should end its policy of allocating a disproportionate amount of funding to large, urban schools and away from small, rural school. As referenced above, the way the U.S. Department of Education’s funding formula is currently set, poor students in large school districts, such as Philadelphia, receive three times the amount that an identical student receives in the rural school district of Aliquippa, PA, and this is the case even though there is a higher percentage of students living in poverty in Aliquippa than there are in Philadelphia.[96] Local school districts have an extremely difficult time in coming up with the funding for distance education on their own because the method most widely used for receiving local education funding is through property taxes. This is while property value is more likely to be lower in rural areas because of farmland, forested areas and mining areas which are worth much less than the densely populated business and residential districts that are found in urban areas. Though some rural areas charge higher property tax rates in an attempt to overcome this, they still generate far fewer tax dollars.[97]

In addition to inadequate local funding methods, state education departments in the largely rural states are typically ill-equipped to allocate large amounts of funding to distance education adoption.[98] For these reasons, the federal government should end its discrimination of rural students and equitably allocate funding throughout the nation. Distance education programs can often be expensive, and it may take state aid to achieve the needed adoption and expansion. As stated repeatedly, some schools may have no choice but to adopt distance education if they are to fulfill their obligation to enrich the lives of their students.

In summary, this study recommends that further research be conducted, particularly on effective uses of distance education, that state education agencies work to develop methods which will place both traditional and distance education, on equal accountability levels, and that the federal government create a more equitable system of funding so that rural schools will more easily be able to adopt the distance education that they need. The barriers to adopting distance education can often be very burdensome; therefore, those that have the ability to reduce any barriers also have the responsibility to do so. Rural schools offer many benefits to their communities, and these benefits depend upon the ability of rural schools to provide the coursework that rural students need. Rural schools need distance education, and the benefits of adopting distance education for rural schools far outweigh the costs of failing to do so.


Characteristics of Major Distance Learning Technologies

Source: The Rural School and Community Trust (2004) (Hobbs, 2004, pp. 27)




[1] Denise Casey, “A Journey to Legitimacy: The Historical Development of Distance Education through Technology,” TechTrends, Vol. 52, No. 2 (2008): 45.

[2] Kerry Rice, “A Comprehensive Look at Distance Education in the K-12 Context,” Journal of Research on Technology in Education, Vol. 38, No. 4 (2006): 427.

[3] U.S. Government Accountability Office, No Child Left Behind Act: Additional Assistance and Research on Effective Strategies Would Help Small Rural Districts (Publication No. GAO-04-909), 2004, accessed November 2011,, 15.

[4] Elizabeth Beeson and Marty Strange, “Why Rural Matters 2003: The Continuing Need for Every State to Take Action on Rural Education,” Journal of Research in Rural Education, Vol. 18, No. 1 (2003): 4.

[5] J. Setzer, Lori Lewis, and Bernard Greene, Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students:  2002–03, National Center for Education Statistics, 2005, accessed April 2011,, 1.

[6] John Watson and L. Kay Jonson, “Online Learning: A 21st Century Approach to Education,” in Bringing Schools into the 21st Century, edited by Guofang Wan & Dianne Gut. (New York: Springer, 2011), 206.

[7] Setzer, et al., “Distance Education Courses for Pubilic Elementary & Secondary School Students 2002-2003,” 10.

[8] Vicki Hobbs, The Promise and the Power of Distance Learning in Rural Education, The Rural School and Community Trust, 2004, accessed April 2011,, 8.

[9] Tom Clark, “Online Learning: Pure Potential,” Educational Leadership, Vol. 65, No.8 (2008): 1.

[10] Watson and Johnson, “Online Learning,” 207.

[11] National Center for Education Statistics, “Percentage of public school districts and schools with students enrolled in technology-based distance education courses and number of enrollments in such courses, by instructional level and district characteristics: 2002-03 and 2004–05,” Digest of Education Statistics, accessed April 2011,

[12] David Brown and Kai Schafft, Rural People & Communities in the 21st Century: Resilience & Transformation, (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2011): 62.

[13] National Center for Education Statistics, “Percentage of public school districts.”

[14] Casey, “Journey to Legitimacy,” 45.

[15] Rice, “Comprehensive Look,” 427.

[16] Setzer, et al., “Distance Education Courses,” 14.

[17] Emily Bouck, “How Size and Setting Impact Education in Rural Schools,” The Rural Educator, (Spring 2004): 40.

[18] Julie Aronson and Mike Timms, Net Choices, Net Gains: Supplementing High School Curriculum with Online Courses, WestEd, 2009, accessed April 2011:, 2.

[19] Setzer, et al., “Distance Education Courses,” 8.

[20] Robert M. Bernard, Philip C. Abrami, Yiping Lou, Evgueni Borokhovski, Anne Wade, Lori Wozney, Peter A. Wallet, Manon Fiset, and  Binru Huang, “How does distance education compare with classroom instruction? A metaanalysis of the empirical literature,” Review of Educational Research, 74(3), (2004): 6.

[21] Bernard, et al., “How does distance education compare” 7.

[22] Cathy Cavanaugh, Kathy Gillan, Jeff Kromrey, Melinda Hess, and Robert Blomeyer, The Effects of Distance Education on K-12 Student Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis, North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 2004, accessed April 2011,, 20.

[23] Bernard, et al., “How does distance education compare” 36.

[24] Ibid, 39.

[25] Yong Zhao, Jing Lei, Bo Yan, Chun Lai, Sophia Tan, “What Makes the Difference? A Practical Analysis of Research on the Effectiveness of Distance Education,” Teachers College Record, Vol. 107, No. 8, (2005): 1843.

[26] Zhao, et al., “What Makes the Difference?,” 1857.

[27] Barbara Means, Yukie Toyama, Robert Murphy, Marianne Bakia, and Karla Jones, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, U.S. Department of Education, 2010, accessed April 2011,

[28] Wallace Hannum, Matthew Irvin, Jonathan Banks, and Thomas Farmer, “Distance Education Use in Rural Schools,” Journal of Research in Rural Education, 24(3) (2009): 13.

[29] Rice, “Comprehensive Look,” 442.

[30] John Watson, Keeping the Pace with K-12 Online Learning: A Review of State-level Policy and Practice, Learning Point Associates, 2005, accessed April 201,:, 113.

[31] Watson and Johnson, “Online Learning,” 218.

[32] Hannum, et al., “Distance Education Use in Rural Schools,” 14.

[33] Rice, “Comprehensive Look,” 434.

[34] Watson, “Keeping the Pace,” 12.

[35] Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas, Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2009): 166.

[36] Rice, “Comprehensive Look,” 439.

[37] Marty Strange, Distance Learning Technologies: Giving Small Schools Big Capabilities, The Rural School and Community Trust, 2010, accessed April 2011:

[38] Rice, “Comprehensive Look,” 440.

[39] Ibid, 437.

[40] Cavanaugh, et al., “The Effects of Distance Education,” 5.

[41] Zoe Barley and N. Brigham, Preparing Teachers to Teach in Rural Schools, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, 2008, accessed November 2011,, 2.

[42] Cavanaugh, et al., “The Effects of Distance Education,” 5.

[43] Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” In Handbook for Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, edited by John. G. Richardson, (New York: Greenwood, 1985): 245.

[44] Cragi Howley and Hobart Harmon, Small High Schools that Flourish: Rural Context, Case Studies and Resources, (Charleston, WV: AEL, Inc, 2000): 143.

[45] Zoe Barley and Andrea Beesley, “Rural School Success: What Can We Learn?” Journal of Research in Rural Education, 22(1) (2007): 2.

[46] Frank Beck and Grant Shoffstall, “How Do Rural Schools Fare Under a High Stakes Testing Regime?” Journal of Research in Rural Education, 20(14) (2005): 2.

[47] Emily Suski, “Actually, We Are Leaving Children Behind: How Changes to Title I Under the No Child Left Behind Act Have Helped Relieve Public Schools of the Responsibility for Taking Care of Disadvantaged Children.” Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy, Vol. 14o. 2, (2007): 255.

[48] Bouck, “How Size and Setting,” 39.

[49] Ibid, 39.

[50] Stephen Provasnik, Angelina KewalRamani, Mary Coleman, Lauren Gilbertson, Will Herring, and Qingshu Xie, Status of Education in Rural America (Publication No. NCES-2007-040), National Center for Education Statistics, 2007, accessed April 2011,

[51] Mary Raywed and Gil Schmerler, Not So Easy Going: The Policy Environments of Small Urban Schools and Schools-Within-Schools, (Charleston, WV: AEL, Inc, 2003): 4.

[52] Teresa Jordan and K. Jordan, “Rural Schools Under Scrutiny,” The Rural Educator, 2004, 3.

[53] Paul Theobald, Education Now: How Rethinking America’s Past Can Change Its Future, (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2009) 137.

[54] Brown and Schafft, “Rural People & Communities,” 62.

[55] Carr and Kefalas, “Hollowing Out the Middle,” 171.

[56] Hobbs, “Promise and the Power,” 6.

[57] Setzer, et al., “Distance Education Courses,” 14.

[58] Hobbs, “Promise and the Power,” 5.

[59] American College Testing, Breaking Barriers: A Case Study of Two High-Performing Schools, 2006, accessed November 2011,, 15.

[60] Ibid, 27.

[61] Ibid, 28.

[62] Ibid, 3.

[63] Ibid, 9.

[64] Kimberly Dadisman, Maggie Gravelle, Thomas Farmer, and Robert Petrin, Grow Your Own and Other Alternative Certification Programs in Rural School Districts, National Research Center on Rural Education Support, 2010, accessed April 2011,, 2.

[65] Barley and Brigham, “Preparing Teachers,”  2.

[66] Terri Schwartzbeck, Cynthia Prince, Doris Redfield, Helen Morris, and Patricia Hammer, How Are Rural Districts Meeting the Teacher Quality Requirements of No Child Left Behind?, Appalachia Educational Laboratory, 2003, accessed April 2011,, 4.

[67] The Rural School and Community Trust, Distance Learning Technologies: Giving Small Schools Big Capabilities, 2003, accessed Nov. 2011,

[68] National Education Association, Distance Education, accessed Nov. 2011,

[69] The Rural School and Community Trust, Alternative Ways to Achieve Cost-Effective Schools, 2003, accessed April 2011,, 2.

[70] Matthew Irvin, Wallace Hannum, Thomas Farmer, Claire Varre, and Julie Keane, “Supporting Online Learning for Advanced Placement Students in Small Rural Schools: Conceptual Foundations and Intervention Components of the Facilitator Preparation Program,” The Rural Educator, 31(1) (2009): 31.

[71] Aronson and Timms, “Net Choices,” 11.

[72] Hobbs, “Promise and the Power,” 22.

[73] Watson and Johnson, “Online Learning,” 216.

[74] John Sipple and B. Brent, “Challenges and Strategies Associated with Rural School Settings,” In Handbook of Research in Education Finance and Policy edited by Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske, (New York: Routledge, 2007): 615.

[75] Marty Strange, Jerry Johnson, and Ashton Finical, (2009). Many Children Left Behind: How Title I Grant Formulas Favor the Few at the Expense of the Many in Pennsylvania, The Rural School and Community Trust, 2009, 1.

[76] Sipple and Brent, “Challenges and Strategies,” 615.

[77] Marty Strange, Distance Learning Technologies: Giving Small Schools Big Capabilities, The Rural School and Community Trust, 2010, accessed April 2011,

[78] Sipple and Brent, “Challenges and Strategies,” 615.

[79] Strange, “Distance Learning Technologies.”

[80] Ibid.

[81] American College Testing, “Breaking Barriers,” 28.

[82] Ibid, 27.

[83] John Meyer and Brian Rowan, “Institutionalized Organization: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony,” In The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis edited by Walter Powell and Paul DiMaggio, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991): 42.

[84] John Meyer and Brian Rowan, “The structure of educational organizations,” In Organizations and Environments by M.W. Meyer and Associates, (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1978): 80.

[85] Meyer and Rowan, “The Structure of Educational Organizations,” 84.

[86] Watson and Johnson, “Online Learning,” 205.

[87] Gary Natriello, “Modest Changes, Revolutionary Possibilities: Distance Learning and the Future of Education,” Teachers College Record, Vol. 107, No. 8 (2005): 1889.

[88] Kathy Murphy, “Factors Associated With Successful High School Distance Education Programs.” East Tennessee State University, 2005, accessed October 2011, 185237/unrestricted/MurphyK041405f.pdf, 79.

[89] Ibid, 81.

[90] Watson and Johnson, “Online Learning,” 210.

[91] Rice, “Comprehensive Look,” 435.

[92] Hobbs, “Promise and the Power,” 20.

[93] Zhao, et al., “What Makes the Difference?,” 1857.

[94] John Kingdon, “How Do Issues Get on Public Policy Agendas?” In Sociology and the Public Policy Agenda edited by W. J. Wilson, (London: Sage, 1993): 42.

[95] Ibid, 45.

[96] Strange, et al., “Many Children Left Behind,” 5.

[97] Carl Johnson Jeffrey Maiden, “An Examination of Capital Outlay Funding Mechanisms in Oklahoma,” Journal of Education Finance, 36:1, 2010, 3.

[98] U.S. Government Accountability Office, “No Child Left Behind Act,” 13.


2 Responses to “ K-12 Distance Education: The Case of Rural Schools ”

  • The New York State Center for Rural Schools

    […] “K-12 Distance Education: The Case of Rural Schools”, has been published in the Cornell Policy Review by Bobby Hall.The Center announces a new data tool focussing on Achievement Indicators. Still in […]

  • Helen Ernst

    Thanks for a terrific article. I’m working on a paper for a workforce development course at University at Albany. My paper is suggesting development of MOOCs to support NYS Rural high school students. The MOOCs would expose students to STEM areas and high need industries across New York State. I’m challenged to find a simple way to determine number of high school students in New York State in Rural communities. All the counts seem to be by school district or county. Did you find any aggregated State counts for rural districts?

    Regards, Helen

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