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Online Classes Prevalent in Rural Tennessee Schools

The majority of online courses offered to students in rural southwest Tennessee schools are social studies courses and career and technical education, according to a recent report. 

Researchers from the federal Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia surveyed administrators at 17 rural high schools across southwest Tennessee for "Online and distance learning in southwest Tennessee: Implementation and challenges." The report examines how rural districts are using online and distance learning in schools and what challenges exist for rural schools attempting to expand such courses.

The report found that more than 80 percent of the schools offered online or distance learning courses in the 2012-13 school year, primarily to provide dual-enrollment credits for students. Online courses were delivered over the computer but not necessarily in "real time," while distance learning courses utilized technology to allow a teacher to teach a class in real time from another location. Nearly 35 percent of the online courses offered were in social studies, such as U.S. history, sociology, or world geography, and career and technical education. Career and technical education courses like agricultural business and finance accounted for more than 25 percent of the online courses.

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The schools that participated in the survey overwhelmingly reported that online courses were offered to provide opportunities for students to earn more credits before graduating high school. Rural students are less likely to attend college than their non-rural peers, and research has found that students' participation in dual-enrollment programs can increase the likelihood that students will graduate from high school and attend college. The survey also found that 77 percent of schools offered online courses because those classes were not available at the school.

Nationwide, rural schools have relied on distance learning for years, mostly to provide advanced or enrichment courses to students. A 2005 survey by the National Research Center on Rural Education Support found that 85 percent of districts surveyed used distance education at some time, most often for foreign language, algebra, or psychology courses. Some rural schools have turned to online or distance learning to offer elective courses and social studies online in the midst of budget cuts. Rural schools also report a lack of technology and the cost of online courses as two of the biggest hurdles in offering online courses. 

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