I was fortunate to attend the SCORE Rural Education Summit last week where many great minds came together to discuss education reform and impact to Tennessee. Many topics held my interest – parent engagement, business partnerships, and legislative reforms. I was fortunate to be selected as a speaker on the topic of on-line and distance learning, a topic that encompasses all mentioned areas. The Putnam County School System (PCSS) has been using this format since 2007 to bring equity to a middle Tennessee rural community. VITAL (Virtual Instruction To Accentuate Learning) has after four years and many lessons learned, increased usage from 38 credit recovery students Year 1 to 600+ credit recovery and credit advancement students in Year 4. Our system is now able to offer equitable course content to all three high schools from our smallest (300 students) to our largest (2100 students). I would venture to say that of many things we have done in our system to innovate and improve, nothing has had a greater impact than virtual learning.
To distinguish for the novice virtual reader, I will begin by clarifying differences between distance and on-line learning. Distance learning is real time using video equipment between schools. For example, last school year we had an AP Calculus teacher, in real time, reaching students at 3 locations. The equipment allows for back and forth interaction between teacher and student and provides for archiving of lessons, which may be viewed and reviewed by students. In contrast, on-line learning can take place anytime and anyplace that a student has access to a computer and Internet. Some students may take courses independently with little assistance while others may choose to complete courses in a virtual lab (located at all 3 high schools) under the supervision of a lab facilitator. The instructor in this case communicates through a social networking system designed for on-line learning. With both, course content in our system has expanded offerings across the county to include advanced and dual credit opportunities as well as classes that might not otherwise have been available – Mandarin Chinese, Oceanography, AP Statistics, and AP Microeconomics – to name a few.
With legislative changes this year, and with Board approval, PCSS has applied for and received a school number for the VITAL: Upper Cumberland e-Learning Network. The intention is to expand course offerings to interested school systems across middle Tennessee and to create a consortium of on-line and distance learners. Utilizing Tennessee trained and highly effective teachers, courses will be offered not only in Putnam County, but also to any county interested in joining the network. There are many marketers of on-line learning that have entered Tennessee with the recent legislative changes. Our system is not in the business of “selling content” but instead is moving to create partnerships between rural systems with limited resources. This first year is a leap of faith effort to move toward a goal of systems working together to create every opportunity for every student regardless of zip code, which in turn, will create a better Tennessee.