For kids living in small rural towns, accessing the same type of learning opportunities that kids have in larger or more affluent cities can sometimes seem like the impossible dream.
In an effort to offer students in small communities more opportunity, Nebraska state senators passed a bill in 2006 that would help establish distance learning opportunities throughout the state.
Distance learning allows students to use technology while at their own school to access classes at other schools that might not be offered in their own buildings.
The advantage of distance learning is that it allows schools to share the expertise of their teachers to reach more students. The challenge is that the classes are delivered live, so students still have to make room in their school schedule to sit in on the DL class each day.
Terry Miller, Director of ESU 13, appreciated the access distance learning was giving students, but wanted to offer even more learning opportunities for them, and so the Nebraska Educational Virtual Academy, or NEVA was launched in 2008.
Miller first looked to the staff at the Valley Alternative Learning Transitioning School (VALTS) in Scottsbluff, where teachers were already effectively using technology to connect with students in an alternative school setting. By doubling the VALTS staff to four core teachers, he was able to utilize their expertise to create and teach the NEVA courses.
Teachers were each tasked with developing one or two online courses in each subject area, which they then uploaded to Moodle, a learning management system kids access online that can be customized to fit the needs of students and instructors.
In contrast with distance learning, virtual learning environments can be accessed by students whenever they find time, day or night. The option can be more convenient for kids with busy schedules, but requires discipline and initiative to stay on top of coursework.
Students communicate with NEVA teachers through Adobe Connect Pro, Skype, Google chat, email, text, and phone calls. They work with each other through blogs, discussion, boards, wikis, Google docs, and Google groups.
Even though students are often accessing their NEVA classes at different times, NEVA teachers work hard to promote interaction with them, and encourage collaboration among students. Teachers like Beth Still work with students at all hours through Google chat and Skype, wanting NEVA students to feel connected and comfortable asking for her help.
NEVA classes appeal to a variety of students. Some may need to earn an additional credit toward graduation. Others may want to take advantage of a class not offered at their school. Still others have jam-packed schedules and would still like to take additional courses, so they could turn to NEVA.
As rural districts continue to build on both distance learning and virtual learning environments, these resources will soon be more widely accessible for all students, regardless of their location or school size, promoting collaboration and access to the best teachers and courses throughout the state.