Throughout the years, the face of education has changed dramatically. Public and private institutions are flourishing, distance learning has altered the face of instruction, and the demographics of the typical student are vastly different from previous generations. While this emergence of modern education has had many positive impacts on the country, it has also raised considerable ethical concerns especially in terms of accessibility to educational alternatives by minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged students.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the availability of technology in schools has increased exponentially during the last five years (Robelen, 1999). Internet access in schools has risen from 35 to 78% and Internet wired classrooms has risen from 3 to 27%. Many school districts are even equipped with satellite dishes and wide area networks. While this expansive growth towards technology is helping to equip students for the challenges of tomorrow, hardware requirements, training, and maintenance make it an expensive proposition. For school systems with sizable minority and low-income populations, advancing technology is usually not an option.
This paper analyzes the availability of distance education to socioeconomically disadvantaged populations. Special emphasis is placed on analyzing the results of programs that were initiated based on research regarding the accessibility of distance education among minority and disadvantaged populations. The Star School Program (which was one of the first government initiated programs that sought to use distance learning to provide equity in education for disadvantaged populations), the Los Angeles Urban School District ESL Distance Education Project, and the Australian Open Learning Initiative are highlighted in that section. Recommendations for improving equity in distance education conclude this paper.
Distance Education Accessibility by Disadvantaged Students
Distance education offers institutions the opportunity to disseminate information to a seemingly limitless audience. For students, this means the availability of educational resources that were at one time not even an option because of schedule, location, or family circumstances. While this would appear to favor the single parent or rural dweller, in actuality, those populations actually have fewer opportunities for high quality distance training. "The literature on computer equity reveals that many students -not only minority, disadvantaged, and inner city but also female, handicapped, and rural-have been hampered by inequitable access to computers and by widespread patterns of inequitable distribution and use of computers within and across schools" (Newman, 1991, p. 1).
In order to analyze the issue of accessibility to distance education by disadvantaged populations, it is essential to first operationalize the terms. For this paper, the term "disadvantaged" refers to populations with financial resources at or below the poverty level or communities that are without the tools necessary to provide academic alternatives (access to computer hardware, etc.) for their citizens. "At-risk" refers to any person or group of people whose life situation makes them susceptible to having below-average academic results.
Having access to technology is becoming more and more important for success in school. Even devices as simple as a telephone are missing from the homes of many disadvantaged students. According to research conducted by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the majority of people who are lacking basic technological services such as televisions and telephones live in rural areas and central cities. The following list illustrates the technology access demographics of United States residents according to socioeconomic status, residence area, race, age, and education level (US Dept. of Commerce, 1995).
· Socioeconomic Status by Location: The poorest households with incomes less than $10,000 per year in central cities have the lowest telephone penetration (79.8%), followed by rural (81.6%), and urban (81.8%). The rural poor are the lowest in terms of computer penetration (4.5%). In wealthy districts, regardless of location, the student to computer ratio is 54:1, whereas in disadvantaged districts the ratio is 103:1. Interestingly however, among the most likely users of on-line classes are low-income users in all areas (rural, central city, and urban).
· Minority Status: Native American households in rural areas have the lowest telephone penetration (75.5%). Rural Blacks have the lowest computer rates (6.4%), followed by inner city Blacks (10.4%), inner city Hispanics (10.5%), and urban Blacks (11.8%). Regarding usage of online services, minority groups surpassed Whites in percentage of searches conducted, courses taken, and accessing of government reports.
· Age factor: Regarding telephone penetration, the youngest households (under 25) in rural areas trail all others. In terms of computers, rural senior citizens possess the lowest penetration (11.9%), followed by seniors in central cities (12%). These two groups are also very low ranking in terms of modem penetration as a percentage of computer households. The youngest households with computers in rural areas rank number one in taking online courses (21.7%).
· Education factor: With some exceptions (most notably, telephone penetration for the two lowest education categories), the fewer number of years of education, the lower the telephone, computer, and computer-household modem penetration. Central city households generally have the lowest telephone and computer penetration rates, while rural households with computers consistently trail other areas with respect to modems. For those taking online courses, the highest degree of participation is among those with the lowest level of education located in urban (31.8%) and rural (24.3%) areas, and the lowest in the central cities (13.7%).
· Understanding the availability of technology to disadvantaged populations is critical when evaluating their access to distance education since many programs require access to a computer, modem, telephone, or fax machine. Distance education is supposed to make access to education easier, not create more barriers. For the rural poor, the added expenses often put these programs out of their reach.
The results of the survey conducted by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration uncovered some interesting facts. One of the most startling statements was that low-income, poorly educated minorities were the most likely to enroll in distance education courses. The author believes that this is highly unlikely and feels that the statistical significance of the findings would diminish with a larger sampling. A possible explanation of the finding is that the survey considered all forms of distance education, not only those that were dependent on technology. Mail-order courses and video courses, such as those available through ICS (International Correspondence Schools), would most likely cater to the demographics in question. Due to their vocational nature, these programs would be ideal for the single parent or older adult wanting to finish high school or acquire a skill in the privacy of their own home. Secondly, many distance education courses do not have stringent entrance requirements and procedures that might alienate students who are returning to school.
Even though it is apparent that distance education is improving the educational opportunities for some students, the disparity between those with access and those without is still very high. "In about 1/3 of the states, lawsuits have been sought or are seeking to remedy funding disparities correlated with lower achievement for students from poor communities. Concerns about our changing school populations, the plight of our cities, and the perceived failures of public education have all fueled cries for educational reform that meets the needs of all our children" (Neuman, 1991).
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, "in 1997 only 63% of schools with 50% or more minority students have Internet access, compared with 87% of schools with 20% or fewer minority students. Also lagging in Internet capabilities were schools with a majority of low-income students" (Robelen, 1999, p. 3). The federal government is aware of the inequalities and has past legislation to help disadvantaged school districts. "Federal, state, and local funding policies appear to have mitigated extreme differences in the average availability of computers among special populations. In particular, federal compensatory education programs have supported the acquisition of substantial technology for schools serving disadvantaged populations, particularly at the elementary levels" (Glennan & Melmed, 1996). In addition to technology funding for school districts, entirely new initiatives have been established in an attempt to reduce the number of disadvantaged children and adults without access to quality education alternatives. The government initiated Star School Program and the Los Angeles Unified School District ESL Distance Learning Program are examples of such initiatives. The next section describes those projects among others and analyzes their results.
The Star School Project
In an attempt to reached disadvantages and underserved children, the federal government initiated the Star Schools Program Assistance Act (20 USC 4081). The Act was designed to "improve instruction in mathematics, science, foreign languages, and other subjects, such as literacy skills and vocational education...to serve underserved populations, including disadvantaged, illiterate, limited-English proficiency, and disabled students through distance learning technologies" (Education Acts Amendment, PL 102-103. 1991, August 17). In it's first stage, the Stars Program chose 60 schools which educated "underserved and at-risk populations" including those with high concentrations of poor, rural, and minority students. The study included primary, secondary, and high school students. The courses offered to Star Schools varied by location. Full courses included college preparatory language and math classes and usually consisted of a studio instructor working in concert with the classroom instructor. Other courses were vocational or remedial in nature, and offered self-paced CBT.
It is not surprising that the findings of the study indicated that rural schools offered full courses most often, and the remedial courses were most utilized by poor inner-city schools. When evaluating the success of the program it became apparent that students in extreme rural areas that were given the opportunity to use distance education as a medium had much higher achievement on all scales than did the disadvantaged urban students. This could result from the fact that smaller towns tend to have increased parental and community involvement in education or that the location of residence does not reflect the economic status of the student. In any case however, the results also showed that test scores from all groups of participants were higher than those in similar non-Star groupings, but were still substantially lower than among urban advantaged students (Tushnet, 1995, P. 182).
Opinions regarding the success of the Star Schools Program are mixed. While results indicated that distant education increased accessibility and test scores for rural students, it did not improve opportunities for the urban poor. The team teaching approach was often difficult to manage, especially in the primary grades. In addition, the outcomes of the program's goal to increase accessibility for disabled students could not be substantiated. Therefore, with the exception of three rural schools, the majority of school districts who were chosen to participate in the Stars program did not see the benefits of continuing the programs once federal funding ceased in 1996.
The Los Angeles Unified School District ESL Distance Learning Program
For the last 15 years the United States has experienced a massive influx of immigrants from countries all over the world. The number of immigrants from Asia and Latin America is placing a burden on urban school districts. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has become the second largest educational service provider for immigrants in grades K-12 and the largest adult education district in the world (Bruno & Pedroza, 1994). Due to the fact that there are over 9 million people in California alone who speak languages other than English at home, the LAUSD has needed alternatives to teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) to Limited English Proficient (LEP) adults. One of the alternatives is through the use of distance education.
LEP adults are often hesitant to attend ESL classes for many reasons. These include lack of transportation, childcare, conflicting job schedules, embarrassment, or having to travel through unsafe neighborhoods at night to attend class. Therefore, "urban distance learning programs may provide the best low-cost, feasible, and viable alternative to meet the educational needs of these LEP adult students" (Bruno & Pedroza, 1994, p. 198).
To determine if distance education would be accepted by the ESL population it wishes to serve, a series of surveys and interviews with potential candidates was conducted. The results indicated that the majority of participants said they would use distance education if it were available, technologically convenient, and affordable. They sited issues such as access to instructors, fair assessment items, and adaptability of materials as important determiners of whether or not they would use the service.
There are many commonalities and differences between the Star School Program, LAUSD project, and Australian Open Learning Initiative. Each of the three programs strived to help disadvantaged students have access to educational alternatives through distance education. Each of the programs had success stories and provided a wealth of knowledge that will eventually change the way that education is delivered to those populations. In addition, the programs are also legitimizing distance learning to mainstream educators.
There are also notable differences in the programs. The Star School program had a limited scope and its complexity hampered the program's success. The Australian initiative, on the other hand, was embraced by the community, and flourished primarily because of its ease of use. Results from the LAUSD ESL program are still pending. The programs also differed in their administration. A national distance learning task force governed the Australian program, while the Star School program was publicly funded but allowed districts to individualize the offerings. Hindsight might show that this hurt the project since it appears that stereotypical courses were offered to corresponding groups of students (i.e. remedial for inner city students and college-prep for rural middle class). Lastly, the LAUSD and Australian initiative worked with adult students and seem to have much more encouraging results than the Star School program, which used distance education with children. This might be because children as young as K-5 cannot benefit from the technological aspects of distance education courses, which tend to be the most successful.
Besides the government initiatives discussed above, many colleges, universities, and private companies are sponsoring their own programs to prepare younger students for higher education. These programs typically do not involve funding, but do provide access to material, hardware, or telecommunications expertise. The E-rate program, for example, was launched in January 1998 and was designed to speed the telecommunications revolution in schools and libraries by awarding them discounts on a variety of services and equipment. The discounts ranged from 20 percent to 90 percent, with the greatest discounts going to schools and libraries serving the most economically disadvantaged students (Trotter, 1998).
Similarly, the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) and the Institute for Learning Technologies (ILT) at Columbia University have joined together to demonstrate how children contending with poverty, discrimination, and urban crowding can achieve high education outcomes when empowered by the full use of advanced digital information. Known as the Eiffel Project, the goal of the initiative is to develop and implement a large-scale technology-learning program that will demonstrate that small schools empowered with advanced media, can break the constraints of the traditional school, thereby enabling all children to achieve unprecedented levels of excellence. The consortium intends to improve the educational experience of disadvantaged children dramatically by connecting an increasing number of New York's urban K-12 schools to the Internet, developing and implementing innovative curricular strategies, and providing effective teacher. It is estimated that by the end of its fifth year, the project will directly benefit over 30,000 students, most from African-American, Latino, immigrant, and economically disadvantaged families in Harlem and Upper Manhattan, the South Bronx, Queens, downtown Brooklyn, as well as Newburgh, NY, and will serve as a national model for new educational processes suited for use in all educational settings (Columbia University, 1999).
Conclusions and Recommendations
Much research has been conducted concerning the effect of having or not having access to information technology. Evidence suggests that while there is inequality in the access possessed by disadvantaged students relative to more advantaged populations, it is less than the inequality that exists between large and small schools or between some states. In addition, school-level access tends to vary less than access in homes. Historically, it has been comparatively easier for federal and state governments to correct inequalities in schools through funding and policymaking (Glennan & Melmed, 1996). Often times however, districts that serve low-income and minority populations do not have the unified support of constituents and parents that is needed to manage the consistent grassroots effort necessary to lobby for additional funds. For this reason, untraditional alternatives to increase access are becoming more and more popular.
Distance education has become a popular alternative to improve access to education and technology. While in many respects it has become a panacea to some, it also raises many ethical questions. However, even with many areas still undefined, distance education is revolutionizing education mainly because of the opportunities it affords its participants.
In order to continue on the trend toward equity in access to distance education, there are several programs that should be considered. First, widespread community sponsored "technology centers" should be established in safe, publicly accessible places, possibly at the post office in very rural areas. These could be funded through business partnerships or through such programs as Furrs' "Apple's for Students" program. Taking computers out of a school-only atmosphere and making them more accessible to adult students should improve access. Another alternative would be for some of the library funding to be diverted to a "computer lab on wheels." Likened to the "book-mobile" of the 1970's and 1980's, which sent a mobile library to impoverished areas, a mobile computer facility could allow students to access online research or participate in courses that were supplemented with online components. To assist disabled students in obtaining adaptive equipment, such purchases could be made tax deductible or provided through university grants. The federal government could also subsidize the training of underserved population. Much like the subsidized apprentice programs where a portion of the salaries of apprentices are paid to the employer by the government or given as a tax credit, distance education programs could receive the same benefit for expanding opportunities to the disadvantaged.
Distance education programs are not the panacea for disadvantaged populations as was once hoped. They do provide a viable alternative and can increase access as long as there is community support for the project. Programs such as the Australian Open Learning Initiative and the Star Schools project are successfully raising awareness for the necessity of educational alternative to the under served. With continued initiatives and greater cooperation between federal, state, community, and private educational institutions, the 21st century should prove to be one of increased access and availability for all people.
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About the Author
Ms. Jamie Morley has a BS in Business Administration and an MA in Organizational Management from the University of Phoenix. She is currently enrolled at Capella University where she is pursuing a Ph.D in Education, completion May 2000. Her dissertation evaluates the role of learning style accommodation and curriculum design in distance education. Ms. Morley also owns a school that specializes in teaching high level computer engineering and networking classes through distance education. She is on the board of the International Distance Educators Association. She may be reached at: 11711 Herman Roser SE, Albuquerque, NM 87123: 505-292-4180; email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org