Rural Distance Learning

This was a poster presentation of a paper given at the Annual Conference of the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation, Prince George, CA on September 25-27, 2014.

The full paper opens with the following:

If this paper were instead a hit TV drama it might open with a vibrant colourful shot of a bucolic rural landscape with a deep commanding voice-over narration, “The story of any rural community can be told through the lives of two separate but equally important groups,” The visuals would filter into grainy black and white images of economically hard hit rural communities.  The narrator continues, “the people who choose to move away and those who decide to stay in their rural communities.  What role can distance education play in these stories?”  Just as TV viewers’ understandings of truth and fiction can be blurred watching procedural dramas like those in the Law and Order franchise, whose signature opening was parodied above, so too are the various social, economic, and environmental facts of rural communities around the world blurred by the idyllic myths of what is rural.

The text of the poster reads:

Rural Distance Learning

Distance education is one mode of addressing barriers to education for rural residents. Historically, some of these barriers grew from the constraints of social classes, gender restrictions, or geographic places. In current literature, distance education is increasingly used to refer to coursework delivered via the Internet. This paper adopts a wider view to include any current forms of technology used to facilitate learning at a distance. These may be the use of the Internet via hard wire or mobile devices, public broadcasting via television or radio, and the mailing of print and audio-visual materials. The reason for utilizing this broader scope is because the exponential growth in the adoption of wired and mobile Internet capable technologies around the world does not equate to universal access. Rural communities do not necessarily have adequate Internet access. While many think of distance education as synonymous with e-learning, it is important to acknowledge that the technologies to connect to e-learning may be a barrier for some rural learners.

Rurality is subjective. The multiple definitions used around the world vary significantly as they often define rural in terms of isolation, population total and density, prevalence of an agricultural economy or the natural environment. Reports around the world describe young people leaving rural communities to pursue higher education, and the challenges of rural communities to attract them back. This paper asks, what if learners chose to stay in their rural communities to obtain their higher education?

Impact of Rural Distance Learning

What does it mean for rural residents to pursue higher education while staying connected to their communities? Literature focused on rural distance learning often shows its success in addressing employee training needs such as safety standards or recruitment to particular professional staffing shortfalls such as nursing. Distance education can also contribute to developing a well-rounded person by enhancing personal growth, critical thinking, and public participation in society resulting in fundamental social, cultural, political, and economic changes. The learners’ personal growth can have profound effects on the rural communities in which they live.

Applying the lens of the seven capitals of community resources — natural, cultural, human, built, social, political, and financial, — highlights how distance education can help reinvest community resources to strengthen rural sustainability. This is adapted from the 2013 book titled Rural Communities: Legacy and Changeby C. B. Flora and J. L. Flora. Studying from home, learners’ can reduce their environmental footprints and contribute directly to their rural economies through their living expenses. Not only can rural learners maintain community connections, such as with family, friends, work, church, musical bands, and service groups, they can also build new communities of interest around their academic pursuits and break down the sense of isolation some rural distance learners experience.  Distance education can enhance a rural community’s multifaceted approach to sustainability.