Digital learning offers real school choice for rural students

Victor Joecks

Jan. 22-28, 2012 marks the second annual National School Choice Week. Across the country, parents, community organizations and elected officials are highlighting the importance of giving parents the power to determine which educational choice is the best for their child. Participants in National School Choice Week are holding more than 390 events promoting educational options, and more than 25 governors, including Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, proclaimed Jan. 22-28, 2012 School Choice Week in their respective states.

Celebrities, including Bill Cosby, and political players from both sides of the aisle, like Dick Morris, James Carville and Joe Trippi, have all announced their support for school choice.

A wealth of empirical evidence also shows that school choice benefits not only students who select other schools, but also students who remain in the established public school system. Researchers have conducted 10 "gold standard" random-assignment studies on voucher programs, and nine have concluded that all or some of the participants benefitted academically. One found no difference. Eighteen of 19 empirical studies done of the impact of vouchers on public school students have shown that vouchers positively impacted students who remained in public schools. One showed no effect.

For parents and students in Nevada's rural communities, however, the promise of choice and vouchers may seem to ring hollow. Even for the many parents who recognize the merits of vouchers and charter schools, a more pressing question remains: "If I live in a county with only a few thousand students or in a county, like Esmeralda, with only a few dozen, what educational entrepreneur is going to open a new school in an area where the students are so few and far between?"

It's a legitimate question, but the good news is there's a solid answer: digital learning.

While the dispersed population of rural areas may present challenges for opening a brick-and-mortar school, digital learning is available for rural students, just like urban and suburban kids. Digital learning is a broad field that encompasses many programs that harness technology to help kids learn. By taking online courses or enrolling in a virtual school, students in Elko, Ely and Tonopah can all take classes from some of the best math teachers in the country.

Digital learning offers many benefits, but two of the biggest are that it 1) improves access to high-quality teachers, while 2) personalizing and customizing the learning process.

Teacher quality is the most important factor in student achievement, but quality teachers are in short supply. But what if you take the best of the best teachers and have them teach an online course for potentially thousands of students? You've not only improved teacher quality and significantly reduced costs, but you've opened a world of options for rural and smaller communities.

Today's public school system generally treats students in a standardized manner. Teaching is based on a child's age, rather than his or her capability. Digital-learning programs, however, can offer instant feedback and lessons tailored to a child's particular ability and learning style.

Digital learning may be a new term to many people, but it's not a new concept: It's something that we all do, instinctively, every day, well outside the schoolroom. Don't know what the word "bleb" means? You're more likely to look it up online than in a paper dictionary. Can't remember what Article 3, Section 1 of Nevada's constitution says? You're more likely to Google it, than to go rummaging to find a hard copy of the constitution.

These same principles offer enormous potential for increasing learning and education options — even in the smallest of Nevada's communities.

They show why National School Choice Week should be celebrated by Nevada citizens in every corner of the state.

Victor Joecks is communications director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit