Imagine for a moment a developed nation which
rural schools as its elite and as models to be envied and emulated by
metropolitan schools. Imagine a system in which rural schools were the
prime beneficiaries of educational research, the
recipients of a steady stream of the nation's best educators, and the
bastions of the education world's power prestige, and resources. -
Over the past four years I have become
involved in rural education studies. The rural nature of Newfoundland and
Labrador presents a unique opportunity to do specialized work in this
field. Sixty percent (60%) of all schools are
officially classified as rural; fifty percent (50%) of the 472 schools in
the province have fewer than 200 students. Sixty-five (65) of these schools
have fewer than 50 students and only 14% of our schools have a student
population of more than 400 (NF
Department of Education Statistics, 1996). Given these numbers, perhaps,
the context makes rural education studies an obligation.
In this essay I will describe how I came to be interested in rural education. I will also outline some the projects and activities that I have engaged in over the last four years as this interest has grown and developed. I will conclude the essay with some thoughts about the future direction I would like to see rural studies take in this province.
At the very beginning, I would like to say that rural communities and small schools were not obvious places of affinity for me. My personal and professional background were urban. My experiences as a student and as a high-school English teacher were in large city schools. After graduating from Memorial University with an Arts Degree (English) and an Education degree (Secondary), I began my teaching career in Corner Brook. It never occurred to me at that time to consider applying for a position in a small rural community. My places of choice were the larger centres with their larger schools. This earlier attitude of mine has served to sharpen my appreciation of one of the perennial concerns of rural district: teacher recruitment and retention.
After eleven years as a high-school English teacher, I returned to university to pursue graduate work (M.Ed.; Ph.D) in curriculum studies and drama education in Toronto. I cannot recall at any point during my undergraduate or graduate programs at Memorial or the University of Toronto (OISE) ever hearing anyone speak of small schools or rural education. To be fair, I have to say that I did not seek out such knowledge either. Why would I? Nevertheless, upon reflection, I think it is remarkable, given the rural nature of this province, the extensive rural areas in Ontario and the rest of Canada, that I completed three education degrees and never once encountered small schools or rural education as a significant topic.
I did not set out to become interested in rural education; nor was it ever suggested to me by anyone that it might be an interesting or useful area of study. I think I was a typical urbanite, or townie as we say in Newfoundland, whose knowledge of rural Newfoundland and Labrador was at best vague and at worst stereotypical. West of the "overpass" was the old fashioned, the quaint, and the past. Something I knew very little about and had even less interest in. The point I am trying to make is that nothing in my experience or education pointed me in the direction of matters rural. So I have to conclude that some how rural education found me.Idle Curiosity
The impulse that initiated my interest in rural education was primarily idle curiosity (not necessarily a bad reason to begin any inquiry). Somehow, I do not remember how or why, I happened on Frank Riggs' Report of the Small Schools Study Project (1987). This was in 1992. The report introduced me to a term I had never heard of before: multi-grade classrooms. As I read about these classrooms, I was both amazed and curious. I had spent all of my educational life as a teacher and a student in single grade classrooms. As a teacher for eleven years in a large city high-school, I was responsible for just one subject, English; I never had more than one grade level in my classroom. This report informed me that in small rural schools, teachers ar e not only responsible for many subjects but often have to teach more than one subject and grade at the same time in the one classroom. This seemed like a truly impossible teaching situation. How could one teacher be responsible for more than one grade level and have to teach as many as twenty, thirty or more subjects? How could anyone manage in such a situation?Qualitative Inquiry
I decided I wanted to know more about these "multi-grade" classrooms. Specifically, I wanted to know how the teachers did it. From my urban, large school, single grade, I could not imagine how effective teaching and learning could possibly occur in such situations. To discover how they did it I started to plan a research study. At this point in time I was interested in multi-grading as a distinct phenomenon. I was not interested in small schools or the rural context. My intention was to conduct this study, find some straightforward answers to my methodological enquires, write a report detailing the strategies used by multi-grade teachers and move on to something else.
That was the plan. Four years later I find myself totally immersed in rural education studies and totally committed to sustaining and supporting community based small rural schools. How did this happen? How did I get from what was supposed to be a quick "how-do-you-do-it" study to where I am at today?
What happened was my intended straightforward inquiry starting to take a number of number of detours. The problem was I chose the "wrong" methodology for my intended purpose. I began my study by visiting some small schools. I spent some time in multi-grade classrooms, talking at some length to teachers about their approaches. This resulted in my original question developing into many questions. The participants in the study were quite willing to have me come to their schools and classrooms. They were quite eager to answer my questions. They were quite delighted that someone was actually interested in what they doing. These teachers, however, were not just interested in answering my questions. They insisted in asking me a few of their own.
They wanted to know, for example, when the
University was going
to start preparing teachers for multi-grade classrooms. With so many small schools and multi-grade situations in the province, didn't I think that this was an issue the Faculty of
Education should be addressing? Other questions they asked included: Why do the curriculum guides produced by the provincial Department of Education provide no advice or guidance as to how to implement the prescribed programs in multi-grade situations?
is it that when we go to a professional development workshop and ask a question about how to do something in a multi-grade classroom, the presenting "expert" confesses he has no idea what we are talking about? Why were the needs of teachers and students
in multi-grade classrooms and small rural schools almost totally ignored by all agencies responsible for education in the province? The teachers in the schools were willing to share with me the strategies and approaches they used in their multi-grade
classrooms. I, the expert educational authority, was unable to answer their questions. More to the point, I had to confess that it never occurred to me even to ask these questions.
My first rural school contacts also asked me one more question: What was I going to do with the information I was collecting? What they were really asking was: Was it my intention to use the data I was collecting to help improve their situation. They
were assuming and hoping that my interest in their work was an indication of my commitment to help. I think there was an assumption on their part that somehow I cared about their situation and was interested in doing something about it. At that point
in time their assumptions were mostly wrong; for the most part I was
interested in my questions not their problems.
To communicate with people in person where they work and live can a dangerous thing to do. To spend an extended period of time in a school and a community with the teachers, the students and sometimes the parents is a very different research experience than gathering data at a distance. It provides people with an opportunity to elaborate on issues and to identify additional research questions. This is very different (not necessarily better) than the receiving in the mail several hundred (pos sibly anonymous) completed questionaries with the appropriate boxes ticked to the predetermined set of questions.
These initial encounters with rural teachers in small schools changed the nature of my first research study and reset the course for my future work in rural education. Two things struck me very forcibly. One of these was the distinctive and inviting atmosphere of small schools. The human scale of the places, the relaxed informality, the family-like atmosphere, the style of interaction between teachers and students, were all very appealing to me. Secondly, as I talked with the teachers, and importantly the more they talked and the more I listened, increasingly, I became convinced that our system of education was not treating them in a fair or just manner. They appeared to have the most difficult of teaching situations yet they received the least help and consideration.
These initial encounters forced me to broaden
the scope of the
inquiry. I was still interested in the methodology issues (the how-do-you-do-it questions) but I decided to paint a more comprehensive portrait of multi-grading in the province. I
decided to document the number of multi-grade classrooms in the province and their great diversity in terms of the number of grades combined and the grade combinations that existed. Also, I was determined to provide the opportunity for multi-grade
describe the challenging nature of their teaching situations. I provided
them with a forum to express their frustrations and anger with the lack of
attention small rural schools had generally received from the educational
establishment and its leaders in the province.
The report of the study, Learning and Teaching in Multi-grade Classrooms was published by the Faculty of Education Publications Committee in 1993. One chapter of the report focused on methodology (my agenda); most of the contents of that report reflected the concerns that had been identified by rural teachers. The final chapter entitled "Future Directions" consisted almost entirely of their suggestions as to how the various educational agencies in the province could do a better job of preparing and supporting multi-grade teachers in our small rural schools.From Multi-grading to Small Schools
My curiosity about multi-grade classrooms lead me necessarily to be interested in small schools. With very few exceptions, multi-grade classrooms are a feature of our smaller schools where the enrolment does not warrant the allocation of one teacher per grade as dictated by Department of Education Guidelines. It is difficult to study multi-grading without becoming aware of issues and questions related to small schools.
Interestingly, for some teachers and parents in rural communities the existence of multigrade classrooms is the least of their concerns. A more pressing issue for them is the way that existing Department of Education funding guidelines discriminate against small schools. Funding is primarily on a per pupil basis; this means the total amounts of money coming into a school depend on the number of students. Invariably, this results in small schools not having enough money for even the most basic of resources. The extra provision made by government for small schools is woefully inadequate to compensate for the built in inequality of the funding arrangements.
The nature of the workload of teachers in small
schools is yet
another serious issue. Teachers have responsibility for many more subjects and courses. At all levels they are required to teach often in areas in which they have little or no academic
or professional background.
The first "small schools" issue that attracted my
school closure and consolidation. It was through my study of multi-grading that I became interested in this issue. I discovered that multi-grading has been used quite often as a weapon
in school closure battles between school boards and rural communities.
The existence of multi-grade classrooms or the threat of having to create them was used to convince people to agree to the elimination of schooling in their community. Parents were
told that multi-grading was an inferior and outdated form of schooling. If they really cared about their children's education, they were told, they would agree to have their children bussed to another community where they could attend a larger school
single grade classrooms.
As I became more knowledgable about multi-grading I
came to the
realization that these closure decisions were being made on false or misleading information. The fact is that multi-grading is a world wide phenomenon wherever there are small schools.
Many people believe that having more than one age group and grade level in a classroom is a preferred approach to education. In addition, research studies generally suggest that children learn as well in a multi-grade classroom as in a single grade
classroom. I began to wonder what other "facts" were being used to force
people to give up something they felt so strongly about and wanted to
This "wondering" has lead to the second major thrust of my research work in rural education: school closure and consolidation. I am particularly interested in community response and resistance to closure efforts on the part of school districts. I have been collecting case studies that describe how the drama of closure and consolidation has been played out in this province. In some instances, schools have been closed without protest; in others the people in rural communities have fought long and hard to save their small community schools. Sometimes the protests have been successful; most often they have failed. The beliefs and values that inform the bigger is better and the one best system ideologies are strong and deeply entrenched. Too often the views and values of rural communities are discounted and dismissed for being irrelevant. Too often their protests and appeals have been treated with contempt by those in positions of power and authority.
School closure and school consolidation are also
current issues of concern for rural parents and teachers. I am writing this article on November 13, 1996. In two weeks time the government will release a revised Schools Act. One section of
this Act will detail a revised version of school viability regulations. These regulations will set the criteria that will be used to decide the future of small schools in this province. Earlier this year (January, 1996) the government set minimum
standards for school viability in terms of grade enrolment. A k-6 school, for example, had to have at least 20 students per grade to be considered viable. Any school not meeting this standard would be labelled non-viable and targeted for closure. Under
regulations 150 rural schools became non-viable.
These guidelines were successfully challenged by
and educators and the government was forced to withdraw them. During September and October of this year the minister of education has toured the province conducting "public consultations
hearings." People have been provided with an opportunity to provide the government with input on the issue of school viability and the related issue of school busing. Everyone now is anxiously awaiting to see what the new version of school viability
will look like.
When someone asks me now what my primary research
interest is I tell
them rural education. That's not to say I am no longer interested in multi-grading and small schools and the pedagogical and organizational issues associated with these topics.
However, I find that Rural Education is a more inclusive term for the range and scope of issues and questions I am interested in pursuing. More importantly it situates and identifies my work within a very specific context - rural communities. I have
this change for several reasons.
The first reason is rather obvious. As I indicated at
beginning of this paper Newfoundland and Labrador is primarily a rural province and a province of small rural schools. Thus, to be interested in small schools in Newfoundland and Labrador
is to be interested in small rural schools. It is important to note that, while all but a few of our small schools are rural, not all rural schools are small. Because of many successful attempts at closure and consolidation we have a fair number of
larger schools (by our standards) located in rural communities. Small schools in urban areas are not the same as small schools in rural areas. The small private school in St. John's has little in common with a school the same size located in an isolated
fishing community on the south coast of the island.
A second reason for emphasizing "rural" was not so obvious to me when I began this journey. However, I am becoming convinced that it is the unique features and characteristics of the rural context that give primary definition and direction to my work. I do not think I can make a contribution to improving education in rural communities if I do not understand and appreciate the strengths and challenges associated with living in rural areas. Coming to this realization has both complicated and enriched the nature of my work. It would be simpler to ignore the context but to do so would make anything I do less valid.
I am still struggling to understand the rural context and its implications for education and schooling in Newfoundland and Labrador. Part of the challenge here is the sheer diversity of that context. In Canada rural communities are defined by default. Statistics Canada gives an urban designation to all communities with a population of 5,000 of more. All others by default are classified as rural. Newfoundland and Labrador follows this model as well. Thus, included in this general category are communities that differ quite substantially, and for research and development purposes, quite significantly, in population. Such a crude indicator gives no information about the degree of isolation or remoteness; not does it tell us anything about the infrastructure of the community or the services that might be available in the community or nearby. In terms of infrastructure one of the most important considerations is basic tele-communications connectivity.
Existing and emerging technologies are increasingly
making the size
and location of rural schools irrelevant to their capability of providing a broad range of course offerings. It is no longer valid to close a rural school because it cannot offer the
kinds of courses available in larger schools. Hence one of the traditional perceived "problems" in rural schools now has a possible solution. However, many rural communities in this province do not have the necessary telephone lines to enable students
and teachers to access the various services that are now available. Internet access is still problematic in many schools often the very ones which need it the most. There is little point in suggesting technological solutions for small rural schools if
technology assumes an infrastructure that does not exist.
I am becoming increasingly aware that the socioeconomic characteristics of rural Newfoundland and Labrador have to play a very prominent role in any investigation or discussion about educational provision and achievement. Our province is well known as the most economically depressed area of Canada. In many of our rural areas the depth of that economic depression is truly startling. Levels of unemployment exceed 70% in some instances. There are a significant number of families who are dependent on welfare and many, many others who fit the category of the working poor. In addition the educational levels of the rural adult population is significantly lower than the national average. When we consider what we know about the relationship of factors such as these and student achievement and participation in school, the rural context of education in Newfoundland and Labrador is truly unique. To plan a curriculum and to evaluate student and school performance without taking these and other rural factors into consideration (which is what is done all the time!) is to distort terrible the educational achievement of our rural educators. In terms of educational progress and human development many of our small rural schools emerge as some of best in the country when measured using a fair test.
Small schools may also benefit greatly from being
situated in rural
communities. Traditionally, rural parents and other members of the community have taken a great interest in their schools. There is much written about the special relationship that
often exists between school and community in rural places. Unfortunately,
this special bond between school and community is constantly under siege
as government attempts to force more and more communities to give up their
There is an emergent body of research data
purporting to show that
small schools have a positive effect on "at risk" children. The at risk factors focused on in these studies are those associated with socioeconomic factors. The conclusion of these
studies is that with student populations in economically depressed regions, a small school may provide these students with their best chance of success. Given the current economic conditions in rural Newfoundland and Labrador, closing our small rural
schools may be the single worst thing we could do in the name of reform.
Instead of improving matters for rural students we may in fact be
condemning them to failure.
The umbrella term, Rural Education, also allows me to include in my areas of interest Native Education. The Micmac, Innu, Inuit and Metis populations of this province go to school and receive their education in the rural areas of this province. These unique culture groups add to the diversity that defines and enriches the rural context.
I feel that I have only scratched the surface in my attempt to understand the contextual realities of rural schooling in Newfoundland and Labrador. Mythology, nostalgia, sentimentality, stereotypes, outdated notions, misinformation, lack of information, and urban indifference create barriers that impede the search for knowledge. One thing is crystal clear: to speak of rural Newfoundland and Labrador in generalities is to speak falsely. I have become very wary of anyone who attempts to make any general statement about rural Newfoundland or rural schools. A typical rural community simply doesn't exist.
The international field of rural education studies
problematic all our traditional, i.e. urban, notions about education and schooling in rural communities. It suggests we need to re-think and re-evaluate whose interests are being served when
centralized governments set out to improve rural schools. Historically, rural education reform has always assumed that improving rural schools meant making them more like urban schools. This has resulted in the closure and consolidation of small
community schools and various attempts to find ways of delivering an urban
curriculum to rural students. Today, however, there is growing realization that rural education reform must proceed from a very different paradigm. The uniqueness of the context, the
particular cultural and economic aspirations of rural citizens and the views of rural people must be the starting point for change. Perhaps, most important is the view that rural education change and improvement must, in the first interest, serve
of rural communities and rural children. It is rural citizens who must be the prime decision makers as to what is best for their communities and their children. The role of the rural education studies should be to provide rural communities with the
knowledge they need to make their own informed decisions about education and
Ultimately, we have to come back some fundamental questions: What is the purpose of education and schooling in rural communities? Whose interests are being served by current practices and provision? Should not the primary aim be the sustaining and developing of rural communities? Some would argue that the success of rural education is measured too often in terms of how many young people choose to leave their home communities and move to the cities and towns. Intended or not the outcome of education in rural areas has seen in many instances their de-population and eventual demise.
In the first part of this essay I have tried to trace the progress of my journey so far in becoming interested in rural education. I have tried to show that what started as idle curiosity has been transformed into a commitment to understanding and improving the provision of education for children in the rural areas of our province. In the second part I will suggest some future directions that might consider in terms of further developing rural education studies in the faculty. I will also suggest some resources and connections that that I have discovered over the past four years that may prove useful to others.II
Centre for Studies in Rural Education
I think the time is right for the Faculty to
establish a Centre
for Studies in Rural Education. There are several such centres in the US and a few in Australia. There are none in Canada. Such a centre would be an important step forward for
Newfoundland and Labrador. It would send a clear signal to the people of the province that the university recognizes the significant number of rural schools in the province and is committed to working on their behalf. Such a centre would provide a
meeting place for all those with an interest in pursuing research and development work in rural education studies. One very important role for such a centre could be to develop a data base of information about rural schools in this province which would
available to any faculty member or graduate student who wished to develop a research project in rural studies. Another function of such a centre would be the compilation of both local, national and international resources specifically related to rural
education. Such sources would include both published materials and electronic links and resources. Establishing connections with rural education scholars and other rural research and development centres world wide would also be part of the proposed
Newfoundland and Labrador is not unique in having a large percentage of rural schools. Other Canadian provinces and territories, many US states, many parts of the UK, especially Northern Scotland and Wales, as well as other places have similar challenges as we do. One role for the proposed centre would be to establish and maintain contacts with individual scholars and organizations in other places who have a special interest in rural education.
One such organization in North America is The
Education Association (NREA). The NREA is the national organization in the United States for people interested and involved in rural education. Membership includes university teachers and
researchers, rural teachers and administrators, and school board personnel and parents. This group has an annual conference and features a wide variety of presentations and forums dealing with a wide range of rural education issues. Although most of the
participates are from the US, others come from Canada, Australia, and the UK. It is often claimed that small rural schools have more in common with similar schools in other contexts than they do with larger schools in their own province, state, or county
. The presentations and discussions at the NREA conferences certainly confirm this. The NREA publishes one of the two main journals in rural education studies, The Rural Educator. (The Journal of Research in Rural Education, published by the University
of Maine is the other.)
Last year the First National Rural Education Congress was held in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Organized by the SELU, College of Education, University of Saskatchewan, this was the first time that a national conference on rural education had been organized in Canada. Plans were made at this conference to create a national organization for those interested in rural education. Following the American model this organization will be open to everyone: university researchers, k-12 educators, school board personnel and parent groups and organizations. The second annual conference is scheduled again for Saskatoon in February 1997. At that time final plans will be made for organizing a national organization. Starting in 1998 the conference to be held in different parts of the country. I think it would be a good idea for that third conference to be held here in Newfoundland and Labrador. Having a Rural Education Centre in place would certainly facilitate the planning of such a conference. I have had preliminary discussions with the Minister of Education, Roger Grimes, the NLTA president Art Baggs, and Dean Piper of the Faculty of Education, MUN, about the possibility of Newfoundland and Labrador hosting this Rural Education Congress in 1998. All have ex pressed support for this idea.
A third group that a connection could be established with is the Small Schools Network. This is a national organization for "all those interested in small schools" and is run by John Davis of The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) in Toronto. This group publishes a regular newsletter (the current editor is Wynanne Downer of Corner Brook) and holds an annual conference. Their next conference is being held in June 1997 here in St. John's.
The Centre for Studies in Rural Education could function as a link and connector for rural educators in this province and organizations and groups such as these and others world wide. It could facilitate contacts, promote exchanges between teachers, administrators and researchers in Newfoundland and those in other parts of the world.Curriculum Development
I would like the Faculty to consider establishing
at the graduate
level a program focus or specialism in Rural Education Studies. We have the potential in this province to develop a world class program in rural education. Many of our graduate
students come to us with years of experience in small and rural schools. The context provides us with a ready made laboratory for extensive field work in all discipline areas from a small and rural school perspective. There is an opportunity here that m
others in similar contexts have developed to the advantage of the institution and the rural communities it serves. The most recent example I have come across is Northern College in Scotland. (Memorial University and Northern College recently signed a
memorandum of agreement). Iain Maclean, the college's Director of Development, recently visited this province. One of the reasons he was here was to recruit teachers from Newfoundland and Labrador for the graduate program in rural studies offered by
Northern College. Mr. Maclean informed me that Northern Scotland is very similar to Newfoundland in the number of small rural schools. Northern College has developed their rural program with these schools in mind but also with a view to marketing these
to rural educators world wide.
The very least we should do is to continue to develop new courses that address rural issues and to include these in existing graduate and undergraduate programs. We should also continue to address the special circumstances created by small and rural schools in all existing courses at both graduate and undergraduate levels. We need to be preparing our teachers and educational leaders for the actual context in which many of them will work.
Our undergraduates will, in many instances, have
teaching experience in a small rural school. In such situations they will have to teach a large number of courses, frequently in learning areas that were not part of their degree programs.
Invariably they will have to teach more than one grade level in the same classroom at the same time. In small rural schools, the principal is also a full time teacher. This places very challenging demands on such an individual who must find the time to
do two full time jobs in the time allotted for one. Distance learning is a integral part of many rural high-schools and provides access to programing that would be otherwise unavailable to students. However, the presence of distance learning in a school
often changes everything from bus schedules to teaching assignments. This creates special organizational and planing demands for principals. The recruitment and especially the retention of teachers in rural areas is another topic that has to approached
somewhat differently if we are preparing educational leaders for rural districts. We need to focus more attention at both the graduate and undergraduate levels on the unique characteristics and demands of the rural context per se. For many students
to a small rural community is a definite cultural shock.
At the present time the Faculty offers a number of courses through a variety of distance learning formats. This enables individuals who live in rural areas of the province to take courses without having to come to St. John's. I think we should continue to develop and offer programs and courses through distance learning. However, I have a number of reservations about this approach to education.
In my view, distance learning is, as the telephone commercial says, the "next best thing to being there." For me, teaching at a distance will never take the place of working with students in person on campus. I have been a teacher for twenty-seven years. For twenty-six of those years my students and I shared an actual space. We could see and hear each other in real time. Teaching at a distance doesn't allow for that. I miss meeting with the students as a group once or twice a week in a classroom setting. I find it very strange interacting with people whom I may never see in person. I miss not being able to see the students' reactions to what I am saying in their eyes, their smiles, their frowns, their looks of puzzlement or interest. There can be no silent or subtle sharing of an understanding, no non verbal indications of agreement. Perhaps my preferred teaching style does not lend itself very well to distance teaching. At the beginning of the term I like to establish a sense of community in the class by having people interact together and share their experiences. I like joining my students for a cup of coffee at break time. I especially like having them drop by for an in-person chat about their research papers or points of interest raised in the class lectures or discussions. And I remain unconvinced that accessing a library on-line is equal to visiting a library in person and browsing around the periodical shelves and book stacks. Many of the most interesting items I have found in libraries over the years I have discovered when something other than what I was looking for caught my eye. And a key board and a terminal will never take the place of a live librarian.
In the view rural students, being able to take courses at a distance is crucial. Before distance learning, students had to travel to St. John's to take a course. For rural residents this mean a much greater investment in time and money compared to students who lived in town or close enough to drive to commute. They were clearly discriminated against because of where they lived. Students who learn at a distance are aware of the differences I described above. However, in their view, what they lose is more than compensated for in what they gain.
Given the point of view of the students, I think we
to develop and offer distance courses. Also, I think we should be
constantly monitoring and evaluating our delivery formats to ensure that we are offering the highest quality distance
learning experiences to our students.
One of the key issues for me is to ensure that distance learning not become a form of "learning in isolation" for the student with little or no direct human contact. A very important element in the distance course I teach is the biweekly teleconferences that I requested be one of the delivery modes I would be using. Although my students and I are all in our separate places at various points around the island and Labrador, we do manage to create a living verbal community that provides some sense of human contact. At least we can hear each other's voice and this helps us to imagine the rest. Although we also communicate by E-mail and have a list server, we all agree that the live teleconference is a very important dimension to our course.
Scheduling some in-person gatherings for students
is another way of humanizing distance learning for the participants. There is a distance graduate program in education currently being offered by another university in the Atlantic
Region taking this approach. Teachers from around the province, enrolled in
this program meet at regular intervals in Gander with their instructors.
These meetings are a very important component of this program for the
A second important issue is the creation of barriers that exclude people in rural communities from taking distance courses. There is little point, it seems to me, to create distance programs and courses and then erect technical barriers that exclude people who may not have access to the hardware, soft ware, or infrastructure, or do not have the expertise required to participate. Distance learning eliminates the barrier of physical location in terms of access to education. It should not create a whole new set of barriers in terms of technical demands. This is where knowledge of context is important. Knowing whom you are attempting to help, where they are located and what their capabilities are must be the basis of distance programs if we are to meet the needs of our rural teachers. Otherwise we may end up excluding those who are in most need of our help.
Distance learning should be available through our
faculty in a
variety of formats providing access to those with the most up to date machines and technical skills and to those seeking to learn in more traditional distance formats. Distance learning
should supplement and complement our campus based programs, but it should
not in any way replace them.
Research and scholarly writing on rural
Newfoundland and Labrador has been a tradition with the Faculty and other educators in the province. Earlier I have referred to the work of Dr. Frank Riggs. Previous to this important work was done
by Ishmael Baksh and Amarjit Singh in 1977 (Society, Culture and Schooling), 1979 (The Teacher in the Newfoundland Community) and 1980 (Teachers' Perceptions of Teaching). A record of some of the other significant work that contributes to our
understanding of rural education in Newfoundland can be found in back issues of the Morning Watch (see especially Vol.1, no.3) and Society and Education in Newfoundland Volume I & II (edited by A. Singh & I. Baksh). The former NTA Journal and the
Prism also contain important contributions to our research base. "Dealing with individual differences in reading in a one-room school" by Lary Sipe and published in the Summer edition of NTA Journal in 1974 is a good example of rural educators in the
attempting to share their experiences with colleagues.
A number of teachers in the province have completed Masters' Theses which focused on rural issues. Among those are: E. Smith, who described a whole language approach to literacy in a four/five multi-grade classroom; L. Barr-Bailet, who examined the provision for science education in small rural schools, C. Vincent who focused on the effects on rural students when they make the transition from attending a small school in their community to being bused to a larger school in a distant community. J. Howard investigated a sample of small schools which went against the norm and performed on standardized tests at or above the provincial average. P. Ryan inquired into the capabilities of teachers in small rural primary schools to deliver a new French program that assumes a high level of oral competency on the part of the teacher.
In addition there other graduate students who have also
and small schools issues as their focus and are at different stages in their work on thesis, projects and paper portfolios. Most recently Dr. Jean Brown has published an article
entitled "Grandy's River Collegiate: Can a Rural School Survive in an Urban Landscape?" in the Alberta Journal of Education. The newest member of the Faculty, Dr. Ken Stevens, the new Chair of Tele-Learning, brings with him a wealth of experience in
education research and development.
There are strong traditions and current expertise here for us to build on. There is a steady stream of graduate students coming into the faculty who bring with them an interest and expertise in, and a commitment to, rural and small schools. By combining our efforts and interests we could create within this Faculty a centre of excellence in rural education studies.Conclusion
The title of this essay is "Why Rural Education?"
attempted to provide a very personal answer to this question. First I described how I became involved in rural schools and how that initial inquiry has been transformed into a much
broader set of interests and a deep commitment to improving educational
provision in rural areas. In the second part I shared some ideas for the
future development of rural education studies in the Faculty.
To be involved in rural education is very challenging, rewarding and frustrating. This is a particularly difficult time for the rural areas of the province. The rural areas have always endured tough economic conditions and have somehow survived. The current period, however, is one of extreme crisis. The cod moratorium has threatened the continued existence of many rural communities. Even in those areas not directly affected by the moratorium unemployment is at all time high. Many people have left their home communities. The decline in population and school enrolment is dramatic in many areas. This coupled with an ongoing erosion of rural services through an endless round of cutbacks and layoffs have created grave concerns and doubts among the people about their futures. There is a sense of unease as people wait and wonder what is to happen next. There is also a conviction among many that the government's hidden (perhaps not so hidden) agenda is another round of resettlement. To have the task of providing education to the children of rural Newfoundland at such a time in such a state is very challenging. I have been following this developing situation closely with a particular interest in how this general condition is affecting the schools. I continue to admire and be impressed with our rural educators who struggle on a daily basis to provide quality learning experiences in communities under siege. One thing is very clear. We ignore this situation and its impact on education and schooling in this province at our peril.