A teacher’s passion for the unique benefits of rural schools has shed some light on ways to save them when limited choice of courses and low enrolment threaten their closure.
Rural students needs to connect with classmates and teachers to succeed, according to Erin Khelouiati, a Thompson Rivers University who studied the subject for her master’s degree.
That’s because the intimacy of small communities is reflected in rural schools and that breeds a uniquely personal type of learning style among its students, said Khelouiati, who experienced the effect firsthand while teaching Valemount Secondary School’s 78 kids.
But low student enrolment numbers often force kids to take online courses, which threatens the school by diverting funding.
And a rural school closure can gut a community, said Khelouiati.
“The school is the focal point of the community. Once the school closes the rallying part of the school, the community is almost gone,” she said. “People that had young families would never think of moving to (a community) if there’s no school there.”
Online learning also hits the students’ grades as they lose touch with their community, said Khelouiati.
“Historically the success rate for secondary students in online courses is very low — 50 per cent is a conservative estimate and it’s probably quite a bit lower actually,” she said. “A lot of students would enroll in the course, drop out and would be in high school with no courses to take.”
Valemount Secondary appears to have found a solution after noticing a disturbing trend among a student population turning to distance learning at increasing rates.
“Kids were systematically withdrawing from school one block at a time to take courses elsewhere and we thought, ‘This is madness. We need to find a way to plug the dike quick,’” said Valemount Secondary principal Dan Kenkel.
Staff decided to implement Moodle (Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment) as a solution. Moodle is a web-based learning management system that can be used to complement face-to-face courses, or deliver courses completely online.
Now in its third year in Valemount, the system has revolutionized student retention, learning and success, said Kenkel.
Now kids can take courses when they want and learn at the pace they want while still having face-to-face interactions with teachers and classmates taking the same course.
“We’re seeing our completion rates and our success rates in Moodle classes are near 100 per cent,” said Kenkel. “Success rates in traditional computer learning and distance learning when you’re talking about a virtual classroom — that’s unheard of.”
TRU associate professor Nor Friesen said Khelouiati’s research could wake up a segment of education that’s struggling.
“Rural schools, both here and elsewhere in Canada, are looking for ways to survive. Erin's work and the example of Valemount school offer one potential solution. It is a solution that has not been imposed by headquarters in the big city, but one that developed locally, in response to local needs, and in keeping with rural culture and values.”
Khelouiati said she intends to discuss her research while team teaching a course at TRU called Rural and Small Schools in B.C. this year.
Her students may appreciate hearing that the system helps to sidestep a potentially grim future for educators.
“The future was looking like a building full of students taking online courses with no teachers in it.”