by Kristin Brekke Vandersnick, Heidi Marttila-Losure and Wendy Royston, Dakotafire Media
with additional reporting by Doug Card, Britton Journal and Langford Bugle; Jody Moritz, Faulk Cunty Record; and Sheila Ring, Onida Watchman
Education officials say distance education is an answer to South Dakota’s teacher shortage, but not the answer.
“Our goal is always to have a quality teacher in front of the students. Distance education is a second option if you can’t find that quality person,” said Rob Monson, executive director of the School Administrators of South Dakota.
The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Teachers and Students  showed its support for distance learning in its final report addressing the state of K-12 education in South Dakota. Its 29-point proposal to the South Dakota Legislature last month included a $1 million investment in “statewide innovations in learning”—essentially, the use of technology, including distance education—“to ensure that every student has access to equal educational opportunities and high-quality instruction.”
Whether or not the Legislature follows that suggestion, technology is already connecting students across the state with remotely located teachers, either to cover required classes or to expand course offerings.
“Some places are using distance education more than others—some out of sheer need,” Monson said.
Arlington (S.D.) High School used e-courses to fill a clear need two years ago, when several students opted to pursue math classes offered via distance education. Students who opted not to take the online class had to make do with an uncertified teacher.
Distance education filled the Faulkton (S.D.) School District’s need for a Spanish teacher after its instructor retired. Eight students there are taking Spanish remotely from the Statewide Center for e-Learning at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D.
“We are hiring the best applicant for the vacant position as we can,” Faulkton Superintendent Joel Price said, but distance education is filling the void, because “South Dakota is in a teacher shortage that won’t go away any time soon.”
Other school districts, such as Agar-Blunt-Onida in central South Dakota, are using distance education to offer students classes that would otherwise lack funding or a teacher’s time or knowledge of the topic.
“It gives us a real opportunity to expand class offerings,” said Jeremy Chicoine, ABO secondary principal. “The opportunities out there are limitless.”
Students must decide if distance coursework is a good fit for them
Chicoine said distance education works better for the students of the 21st century than their elders may expect. Because students today are “digitives”—or “digital natives”—navigating technology is intuitive to them, he said.
“Those of us not raised with it struggle to grasp it. But for digital natives, there’s no intimidation factor compared to those of us raised in a traditional classroom,” he said. “The kids have really embraced it, have really run with it, and we’ve had a largely positive outcome.”
But tech skills are just the first requirement. The kids who really thrive in remotely taught classes are “the high-achieving, upper-end kids who are self-motivators,” said Britton-Hecla (S.D.) Superintendent Steve Benson.
Layna Darling, an ABO High School student who has taken several distance-learning courses, agreed that distance learning is not for everyone. “It requires a lot of independent (learning) and time management,” Darling said, “which can be difficult for some students.”
Students who require more interaction with teachers, or who learn best from interactions with other students, may do well in some distance-learning classes but not others, because the amount of interaction varies greatly from one course to the next.
“Last year, I took a history class online that included a lot of student-teacher involvement,” Darling said. “I interacted with the teacher and my fellow students directly through discussion posts and online chat rooms.” In contrast, her math class this year has little student-teacher interaction, she said.
Scheduling some distance-learning classes can provide an additional challenge.
The Spanish class offered to Faulkton students is “synchronous” (all participants are “present” at the same time). Because the instructor and other students’ schedules differed from Faulkton’s by 10 minutes, some students had to arrive late or leave early.
“Asynchronous” courses (students can access course materials on their own) offer more flexibility for students, but also have less teacher oversight.
Some classes are a hybrid of both models. And some also offer “dual credit,” or simultaneous credit for high school and college requirements for the same work.
While distance classes may seem “hands off,” somewhere a certified teacher is doing the work.
Distance educators have to follow the same rules as classroom teachers: They are monitored and evaluated by the South Dakota Department of Education to ensure that the coursework provided is thorough, effective and meets standardized and disabilities requirements. Students with special needs receive individualized education programming, and providers are required to provide progress reports to parents.
Not everything from the teacher’s perspective is the same, however.
“It’s definitely different from having students in a classroom,” said Heather Fergen, a former ABO Elementary principal who also taught distance courses for three years. “I can’t tell what they’re looking at—their cell phone or their paper.”
Fergen now creates materials for TeachersPayTeachers.com, a company that uses distance education to convey continuing education to teachers in Oregon, North Dakota, South Dakota and Oregon. The teachers work independently, and she is the facilitator for their online forum with weekly discussion questions.
“The biggest downside is not having face-to-face time,” she said, adding that she calls each student during the first week of class, “so they know there’s a real person on the other end.”
Can remote classes be quality classes?
Whether students learn as much in classes taught remotely can be difficult to judge.
Sen. Corey Brown (R-Gettysburg), who is a member of the Blue Ribbon Task Force, argues that the results from online courses can be better than from courses taught in a classroom.
“The common (perception) might be to assume that you’re going to have some kind of lesser experience, but you’re not … if you really target the right students and the right subject matter,” Brown said. “In most of those cases, the performance and the testing and the follow-along of those students that have gone through these courses indicate a much higher achievement rate than the average across the state.”
Since the students in online classes tend to be higher-achieving, however, a fair comparison between online and regular classes is hard to come by in rural schools—there would have to be similarly high-achieving students in a typical classroom to make that comparison.
Still, some studies have suggested that online learning can be a better experience for students—for example, a 2009 report conducted for the U.S. Department of Education found that “(o)n average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”
The report, which looked at a variety of research comparing online versus classroom learning from 1996-2008, suggested that the ability of technology to adapt to individual students’ needs helped them learn better. It was cited in a 2009 New York Times article, “Study Finds that Online Education Beats the Classroom.”
Arlington Senior Johanna Jensen’s experience suggests the quality of the teacher—whether online or in the classroom—makes a difference.
Last year, she was among students who took a distance education class instead of staying in the classroom with an uncertified teacher. This year, the district hired an Arlington native who had taught math out of state, and Jensen is now in the class with the new teacher. She said those who took the distance course are excelling compared to those who stayed in the classroom last year—but with the new teacher, they are also realizing “we’re quite behind also.”
Jensen said she has had a mix of positive and negative experiences in distance learning, but one class offered remotely—a pharmacy tech class—will give her an exceptional edge in the future.
“By the time I graduate, I’ll be a pharmacy technician, and I can work in a hospital or general pharmacy,” said Jensen, who job-shadowed at pharmacies, including the one inside Watertown (S.D.) General Hospital, for the class.
Some challenges remain
Despite the benefits, some educators argue that distance education should be used sparingly.
“We want to be careful,” Langford (S.D.) Area Superintendent Monte Nipp said. “Using distance ed to enhance a curriculum is good use of it, but to use it solely to replace a teacher is different. That would just be shifting the burden to the distance-learning people.”
And it’s possible the same teacher shortages would surface at the other end of the e-learning pipeline.
For example, when many schools—including Langford—turned to the Statewide Center for e-Learning to provide online courses in Spanish for their students, the center had trouble finding enough Spanish teachers.
“If there truly is a teacher shortage, it’s going to be just as hard for (Northern State University’s) e-Learning Center to find a physics teacher as it is for a school,” Nipp said. “The theory is that we can put a teacher in Aberdeen in a studio, and now they can teach to four or five schools, rather than each of those schools having their own teachers … (but) you still need a person.”
Nipp said the goal is still to have a certified teacher in front of a class.
“Every school district has their own core values and beliefs and culture,” he said. “I think that’s what makes South Dakota schools kind of special and unique is that we … don’t all do things exactly the same way,” even though they are held to the same overarching standards.
Nipp added that distance classes may not provide much savings or free up teachers’ time. Working with the e-Learning Center is free to school districts across the state, but someone is required to monitor the class on-site. In Langford, at least so far, those individuals are certified teachers, though Nipp said some schools using more distance-learning classes may be using paraprofessionals as classroom monitors.
In the end, schools recognize that educating students is about more than teaching math equations and proper sentence structure—and transferring those intangible extra interactions from the classroom into distance learning will require some careful design work.
“Our preference is to hire a teacher who will be here, in the room, developing a relationship with the students,” Nipp said. “That’s what we’re trying to keep.”
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series on South Dakota’s teacher shortage. Read about the following other installments here:
- Some S.D. schools have given up on filling teacher vacancies 
- Changing the way we educate educators could be one answer 
- Mothers can bring experience to classrooms through ‘encore careers’ 
- Educators go extra miles to keep programs on the road 
- OPINION: Promotion, autonomy, compensation are factors in Dakota teacher shortage