As rural towns struggle to adjust to economic changes and face global competition in manufacturing and agriculture, some communities are looking to technology as the answer. The increased availability of fiber optic networks and high-speed Internet access has particularly impacted rural schools. Students in small towns can now access advanced courses and materials throughout the world. Branson, Colorado has flourished as a provider in this new world of online education.
The town sits far from any major highway, amid rolling hills covered with scrub brush, in the heart of ranching country. Fewer than 100 people live in the town. Main Street is unpaved, and the local school is housed in a two-story red brick building, which was built in 1922.
Jay Aufderheide, the town's former school superintendent, says Branson was small then, and has only gotten smaller over the years. "At that time, the town was like 2,000 residents," he says. "Then some time shortly after that school was built, about half the town burned down. And not too long after that, half of the half that was remaining burned down. And so, since the (19)20s and (19)30s, Branson has been very small, but these folks are survivors."
The small band of survivors includes 65 students in the Branson schoolhouse. Despite the small number of kids in the building, the school district has an enrollment of nearly 1000. Most of them are students of Branson School Online, the district's five-year-old Internet-based education program for kids from kindergarten through grade 12.
Branson On-line students and teachers come from all over the state - from urban and rural areas. They're attracted to the program for many reasons. Some students have medical problems, some are teenage parents, some are on probation. Other kids have demanding work schedules or, like Ryan Lutz, just weren't satisfied with their local public schools. As he explains, "I had a lot of distractions and just overcrowding, it was hard for me to work. I work more diligently now than when I went to brick and mortar school."
Branson teacher Elizabeth Davis also comes from a traditional 'brick-and-mortar' school system, and likes her virtual classroom better. "When I taught in brick-and-mortar," she recalls, "I had 150 students over five or six class periods a day. At Branson, a full load for a teacher is 24 students. I know my kids so much more." And she appreciates the work schedule that allows her to stay home with her own children.
Like most of her on-line colleagues, she lives hours away from the actual town of Branson… even if she's only a click away in cyberspace. Students work their way through online course materials, which can range from strictly text-based reading assignments to computer-simulated chemistry labs. Homework assignments are e-mailed to teachers, who respond by e-mailing or calling with feedback.
Branson Online's incoming director Kris Enright says the technology of online education is really just a springboard to a new theory of teaching. "The technology is increasingly becoming a transparent medium," explaining that the unique quality of the school is not the high-tech wizardry -"online-ness" - as he calls it, but the opportunity to tailor the curriculum to each student. "It's the individualization, it's the ability to diagnose exactly and prescriptively what a student needs."
And while Mr. Enright definitely sees the need for brick-and-mortar schools, he also makes a strong argument for change. "The brick and mortar traditional model was based on a factory model. The kids come in, we apply a treatment, we give them a curriculum, and they all need to come out at the end looking somewhat similar."
Whether Branson On-Line graduates will also look somewhat similar remains to be seen. In a recent study of so-called 'distance education,' 72% of school districts offering Internet or video-based learning programs said they planned to expand them. As more U.S. schools dive into the world of on-line learning, educators will begin to form conclusions about what works and what doesn't.