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Blue Ribbon K-12 Panel to Discuss Distance Learning: Fewer, Farther Teachers Better for Kids?

Governor Dennis Daugaard’s Blue Ribbon K-12 panel convenes today (listen live online 09:30–16:30 CDT here!). The panel, chaired by Republican legislators Rep. Jacqueline Sly (R-33/Rapid City) and Sen. Deb Soholt (R-14/Sioux Falls), will hear what appear to be reports on the listening sessions the panel held around the state this spring, a presentation on teacher labor supply and demand from expert Richard Ingersoll, and a discussion of “Innovation in South Dakota Schools.” As Bob Mercer points out, “innovation” means distance learning:

This traces back two decades to then-Gov. Bill Janklow’s decision to wire the schools across South Dakota for Internet capability and capacity. The task force likely will consider at some point in the next two months whether to recommend incentives for school districts to use technology to receive more distance courses and to share their teachers with other school districts in subjects where there are needs.

…It’s also worth noting that current state Education Secretary Melody Schopp, a former teacher and a former school board member, began her career with the state department as part of the “wiring” wave of personnel during the Janklow initiative [Bob Mercer, “Today’s Blue Ribbon Meeting,” Pure Pierre Politics, 2015.08.19].

I’m not aware of any rigorous studies comparing the effectiveness of distance education with traditional face-to-face teaching in South Dakota’s K-12 system. Readers, I welcome your submission and debate of relevant research on whether kids learn as much and as well from online lessons as from in-person teachers.

But I’ll ask you to consider this question: is the only solution to South Dakota’s teacher shortage to reduce the number of teachers? Do we serve our children best by reducing the number of adults actively participating in their upbringing? Tune in today, and perhaps we’ll hear what South Dakota’s education experts think.


  1. Michael Wyland 2015-08-19

    OK, I’ll start. Many SD school districts have small K-12 enrollments. Districts with small enrollments have fewer students taking courses. This is especially likely when discussing courses like advanced sciences, foreign languages, advanced math, and some technical (formerly vo-tech) courses.

    Distance technology gives small school districts the opportunity to collaborate or contract for delivery of specialized coursework that they couldn’t economically justify hiring an on-site teacher to deliver – even if a teacher with the required skills and experience were available in the small school district.

    The above statements don’t mean I think it’s a panacea or without limitations. It should definitely be a component of any larger solution.

  2. Spencer 2015-08-19

    Yes, distance learning does better rural education in many instances and can cut entry level course positions in our regent system that should be cut. Dual credit is offering a wide array of courses to the advanced students who can handle that level of learning. However, I have yet to see an example of distance learning that involved average or below average students that did not devolve into an academic train wreck. Worse yet, after having the below average students take online courses designed for below average students, mainstreaming them back into a general education environment proved almost impossible for most of the students. Most of them ended up dropping out. Supervision is also another issue with all of the students. After having students take an entire suite of online Ag courses due to not having an Ag teacher for a semester, it amazed me how many more students chose to literally do nothing for an entire semester. The reality is that if all students are left to their own devices about half of them choose to fail. Supervision is even an issue with upper tiered students. I discontinued the DDN Physics and Chemistry programs in our school after realizing how much of a disserve they were to students. The students had taken all of the DDN Chemistry chemicals and mixed them all together making any “lab work” nearly impossible for the rest of the year. The Physics exams were so buggy that students figured out how to game the test by clicking until they selected the correct answer. Cheating on everything was rampant, and the instructor did nothing to prevent it and scolded me for being too strict.

  3. Porter Lansing 2015-08-19

    Better than online lessons are online lessons (essentially an e-book) taught by a teacher with two-way Skype cameras. The teacher has a monitor showing each student; broadcast from the student’s notebook computer’s camera. A student elected “sergeant-at-arms” monitoring discipline in each class; also with a “call an adult” anonymous button on each students laptop for problems. (The most difficult task in this paradigm would be getting capital “C” Conservatives to accept change of any kind. e.g. – Just watch the comments on this proposal for proof of the distaste of new things among y’all.) The students would embrace it as much as they embrace traditional classrooms; which is with a solid “meh”.

  4. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-08-19

    Spencer, thanks for that valuable firsthand perspective. The distance instructor scolded you for cracking down on cheating? We should revoke that instructor’s license.

  5. MC 2015-08-19

    During the 2009-2010 School my son spent a lot of time in the hospital. During the time we worked with the school to set up some type of video conference, and modified distance learning. We also incorporated some home school techniques. Our goal was so when he did leave the hospital and rejoined his classmates in the classroom he would be up to date. The idea worked very well.

    I have to echo Spencer’s thoughts on supervision. For us there was always a parent in the room, or a nurse and the hospital teacher. For us supervision generally wasn’t a problem.

    We also experimented with the Pebbles project. That worked well, until we had to shut it down. (it ran Windows 2k and some security flaws)

    Distance learning, video classes, are valuable tools and should be included in the educator’s tool box. Should entire class be taught this way, no. There should be at least some adult oversight

  6. Memommamo 2015-08-19

    I took an LDL (long distance learning) class back in the late 1990’s. Creative Writing…. I believe one of the goals back then was to offer classes that rural students wouldn’t normally have the chance to take. I think it was only offered for one year… probably due to student behavior. Our class supervisor got in trouble for calling out the teacher for being unfair – and not calling on the students in our class – and for not reprimanding students from the other school for making crude remarks…. The teacher got upset that the supervisor usurped her authority – and ultimately the supervisor had to supervise our class via television from the secretary’s office for the remainder of the semester. So, with no real supervision – we figured out how to shut the mics off (and crawl underneath the camera so we weren’t detected) – so that we couldn’t have class due to “technical difficulties.” If there wasn’t a staff person on hand able to fix it – we didn’t have to have class.

    I can’t remember all the classes that were offered – but I know in addition to Creative Writing there was Spanish. I see the merit in offering these classes via digital network – but, well, kids are smart (even when they are being dumb).

    I have a friend who teaches a few online classes at one of our fine SD universities. She had half the students fail – because they simply didn’t do the coursework. One person (a high school student) claimed they didn’t know when the class was done. The funny thing about it is, my friend showed me that the online teaching software they use actually keeps track of each page opened, how long it was opened, each course video watched, etc. – making it virtually impossible to say you did the work when you really did not. The person received a failing grade because it was proven they didn’t even open the syllabus.

    Technology has come a long way since the 90’s. I don’t think we should be outsourcing teachers – but if we can offer classes that the rural schools can’t typically offer due to staff shortages (foreign languages, etc.), then I think it is worth looking in to.

  7. Donald Pay 2015-08-19

    Unless you have highly motivated students, an absolutely riveting teacher leading the class and 100 percent adult supervision, distance learning is a detriment to education. It can be the equivalent of using a TV as a babysitter. If you have a highly motivated student who needs and wants to take a class they can’t get anywhere but through distance learning, then it might work out if the student has impulse control beyond their years. But for the vast majority of kids, it wouldn’t be advisable for all the reasons cited in other posts.

    Rapid City Area Schools ran a one year pilot program of a computer-aided educational alternative for highly motivated, smart students. We got some money from Janklow to test it. It seemed to work for most of the students, but there were “drop outs” from the program. We were thinking about expanding the program to provide a way for district teachers to make more money. We couldn’t have done the program without additional state money, however, and the next year Janklow didn’t come through with money. We heard he wanted to run the program out of Pierre, rather than have a district get the credit and the money. Anyway, it never got off the ground after Janklow pulled the plug on us.

  8. John 2015-08-19

    Great comments from Spencer. Distance learning will rarely work with labs, but there are times and places for it. It requires high quality – something SD refuses to pay for so condemns itself to an uneven result of mediocrity.

    Addressing small class size: again one answer is found in consolidating districts. WY does fine getting along with fewer than 50. The idea that SD can afford x3, nearly x4, that number is the height of fiscal irresponsibility and recklessness – both for the students and taxpayers.

  9. MOSES 2015-08-19

    If you think Soholt and company will do anything keep beleiving.Lets just keep having those meetings and kicking that can down the road,

  10. grudznick 2015-08-19

    You know I still fear the BluRT-F will come up with something that will have all the teachers begging for to come back, but I don’t know about this “distance learning” business. I do know that when I sat in the back of the room when I was a kid I learned less than when the teacher made me sit up front by her table. But that might not be due to the distance rather due to me messing around in the back of the room with the Haugen brothers.

  11. grudznick 2015-08-19

    Mr. H has identified a teacher in another tier of the SILT (Seven Indisputable Levels of Teachers.) He identified a Bad teacher.

  12. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-08-19

    I have to agree with the previous commenters. Distance learning will not work for high schoolers. In addition to all the other excellent reasons, students that age need to have a relationship with their teacher. They need to know that she cares, that she’s interested and invested in them.

    In all my decades working with mostly younger people, I learned there is a Magic Wand that changes everything. It’s the Relationship. If theyou knew I liked them and enjoyed working with them, results were significantly better.

    It’s impossible to have a valuable relationship with the instructor via distance learning.

  13. MOSES 2015-08-19


  14. larry kurtz 2015-08-19

    Mr. Pay, paying for a presence with a live teacher? How revolutionary.

    Make it so.

  15. Heidi Marttila-Losure 2015-08-19

    I took classes in the 1990s via telecommunication, as it was called then. I took Spanish, journalism, and Honors English from teachers in other small towns. Some teachers from Frederick offered a class on Lakota Arts for students from Frederick and elsewhere (I didn’t take that one, though looking back I wish I had been able to fit it in somehow).

    There were microphones on the tables, and the teacher in the other school could hear us easily. We saw her on a TV screen in our room, and she saw us on a TV screen in her room. We didn’t have any sort of monitor in the room except on test days. I think the secretary mailed our homework to the other town, and then passed it back to us once it was graded.

    Did it work for me? Well, it’s probably no surprise for those of you reading: The quality of the experience depended on the quality of the teacher. I learned quite a bit from two good teachers, not much at all from from a mediocre one (though, to be fair, part of that bad experience had to do with the fact that it was the first year the system was in place, and it was down a fair amount of the time–for many classes she had to send us a VHS tape of her lecture to watch).

    I really appreciated the opportunity to take classes that would not have been offered otherwise. Those journalism classes were apparently pretty influential.

    I am of two minds about the importance of a relationship with the teacher. One of those teachers I’ve seen regularly at the grocery store or wherever. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t recognize me, which I’m not sure is because it was it was distance learning or because I no longer look like my high-school self. Either way, I learned everything I needed to learn from that class, with or without any significant relationship with her. I am fairly certain that if you asked teachers in Finland if they feel it’s important to have a relationship with their students, they’d look at you oddly. Their job is to teach, and it’s the students job to learn–mutual respect is about all they’d expect.

    Also, in my experience, some of the “cool teachers”–the ones the kids said they liked the best–weren’t actually very good teachers. Easy classes helped keep them popular. Kids won’t know they’ve been cheated until the get further and life and realize they missed something.

    But I could also tell you, almost verbatim, when something a teacher said made a difference for me at a key point in my life. I wouldn’t say I had a special relationship with any of those teachers, but at some point, for a few minutes, they took the time to have a conversation that had a lasting impact.

    I guess I would say distance learning works well for motivated students, with good teachers. It probably shouldn’t be the only way teachers and students interact, but I doubt anyone is proposing that.

  16. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-08-19

    MC, I’m glad distance learning got your son through that tough spell in the hospital. Teachers should definitely have the tools available (and know how to use the tools) to help kids work through special circumstances to keep up with class. That’s tailoring the class to meet individual needs, just like every nowadays says we’re supposed to.

    But MC, your son was in a different, temporary situation. It sounds like his desire to keep up with the other students for when he returned to school alleviated the need for the kind of disciplinary supervision required in an everyday distance learning classroom.

  17. O 2015-08-19

    Part of the discussion of distance learning has to be the question of “what is the other option?” When a school can put a qualified teacher in the class for instruction that is one discussion that can be rich with comparative data and anecdotes about student performance/success, but when a school cannot place a teacher in a classroom (remember there is a shortage AND I do believe the price of teachers is about to go up in SD), then the question is more if distance learning is a viable way to provide the academic opportunity to students rather than have them be at a loss because of the geography/economics of many of our small communities. I don’t see it as a general answer to the SD shortage, but as a potential answer to a specific element of the SD shortage.

    Many on this forum extol the merits of consolidation, isn’t distance/on-line delivery a way to achieve some those same economic efficiencies?

  18. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-08-19

    Memom, that’s an interesting combo of experiences. The authority conflict between remote instructor and on-site supervisor could arise in any team-teaching situation. Teaching and discipline have to go hand in hand, and every adult in the room needs to be on the same page. That requires serious, planned collaboration. And as you proved as a student, to really maintain a positive classroom environment, you can’t just be looking at a screen. You have to be in the room, interacting with the kids, and able to sense all that is going on.

    Of course, part of the problem with the DDN Creative Writing class in the 1990s appears to have been that it attempted to replicate the standard, assembly-line classroom experience that came in for critique during today’s Blue Ribbon presentations. Put a bunch of kids in a room same time every day, and sometimes you get monkey business, even when a teacher is there in the flesh. Individualize the course with today’s tech—prepare videos, interact via class blogs and wikis, do one-on-one via e-mail or whatever private social media channel school policy allows, and you don’t need to have all the kids in the problematic group setting. They can engage with the instructor when they are ready, during study hall, during lunch, in the library, at home, whenever. But that individualization requires the teacher to be available online throughout the day… even if we minimize the discipline issue, good distance learning is a lot of effort!

  19. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-08-19

    Moses, I want to be an optimist, but today’s meeting (I heard a majority of it online) sounded more like a dog-and-pony show, a lot of talk, much of it drifting from the task force’s mission and delaying serious discussion and action. Stay tuned for a longer post on the topic tomorrow morning.

  20. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-08-19

    I like the discussion Heidi invites us to have about the teacher-student relationship and how distance learning affects that relationship. The teacher-student relationship doesn’t mean pals for life; for the purpose of this discussion, it means the sum of our interactions in the classroom during the students’ time in the district. We build that professional relationship through every opportunity we have to observe the students, to figure out their personalities, skills, and needs. We build that relationship through every interaction in school.

    An off-site teacher is at a fundamental disadvantage to the on-site teacher because the off-site teacher will have fewer, less varied interactions with students. The off-site teacher doesn’t get to be in the classroom every day, doesn’t get to catch news and conversations between classes in the hallway, doesn’t just happen to be the adult available to help on the spot when a student needs an adult present. The off-site teacher will never happen to be in the hall at the right moment to tell a bully to knock it off. The off-site calculus teacher won’t see her students’ science projects and art works in the other teachers’ classrooms and school display cases. The off-site history teacher won’t get a chance to sit in the teachers’ lounge and confer with the on-site English teacher about students’ reading or behavior problems. We can still build a strong teacher-student relationship by wire and wave, but it’s harder.

    We interact differently and less richly with students viewed through a video feed or text messaging as sure as all of us here, no matter how engaging our tapped prose, interact differently and less richly in this comment section than we will when you all come to my house for the big South Dakota Blogosphere Picnic on September 12! I love the comment section, but if online interaction scratched every itch, a picnic would be superfluous, wouldn’t it?

  21. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-08-19

    O makes a good point that distance learning is part of the solution, for part of the problem. If we can’t get Mohammed to move to McLaughlin to teach math, we take McLaughlin to Mohammed via Internet classes. And I’m sure we’ve talked in other comment sections about how many small towns can rely on the Internet to bring all sorts of opportunities to their hardy residents to make up for the absence of some big-town amenities. (O, do all of our small communities have the broadband capacity to handle full multi-media distance learning, with 100 kids at once all uploading hi-def video presentations while their parents at home are all teleconferencing with their distributed corporate teams around the world and using their industrial design cloud software while streaming music from abroad?)

    But that still feels like second best, the option schools should pursue only when they’ve failed to offer teachers enough incentive to come to town to teach.

    And boy, I heard Rep. Mark Mickelson’s ears perk up when he heard NSU say they offer their online courses for free to the schools… but those online courses still take time, talent, and money to produce and deliver. That money is still going to come from the South Dakota pot. Will we see any cost savings plugging small schools into shared, quality online instruction?

  22. CLCJM 2015-08-20

    My experience with distance learning was not good! It was work related and was to help my commuter skills as they applied to my job. Problem was the specific tasks I needed to learn were not typical of the applications the instructor knew best and was teaching to the other students. He suggested I send him samples of what I was doing but I was processing confidential information so I couldn’t do that. I think there might be some role for some upper level subjects with very motivated students and then only with an trained adult in the room! I also found that I often couldn’t hear what was being said very well and that students were at all different levels in their computer skills and that often held others back. I’m sure that the same thing would happen in a regular classroom.

    I know that at least one area where there are big shortages is in Special Ed, particularly in what is called cluster classrooms in the Sioux Falls district. My daughter works in those classrooms as an EA and they work under very stressful conditions with classrooms often overcrowded and understaffed. You need a much higher staffing ratio because there are often frequent and severe and disruptive behaviors.

    So do we raise wages for only certain specialties? We’re losing teachers in all categories so I don’t think that will fix it! I think the over all plan by conservatives is still to prove that public education can’t work and so must be privatized. The hatchet job done during the economic crises wasn’t necessary but gave them what they’d been salivating over forever! My daughter after working for the district for 5 years suddenly had all of her previous raises taken away in one swipe. Does this sound like an incentive to keep people in South Dakota? I think a lot of people started heading for the doors at that point. They could see the writing on the wall. Educators in SD are not valued and their salaries and benefits are not safe! Even if they get raises, there’s no guarantee that they will be there in the future. Pierre has done one time monies before but that does nothing for long term solutions.

    It’s time to do what is right and adequately fund education including salaries for teachers AND paraprofessionals!

  23. Anthony D. Renli 2015-08-20

    I teach distance learning classes to adults, so I may be able to give a little bit of a different perspective on the topic.
    Right now probably three out of every four weeks I’m teaching corporate clients or more recently students who are leaving the military various IT Admin classes. What I have found:

    Adults are (at least on paper) more mature, motivated, and responsible than high-schoolers. A measurable percentage of adults do not have the discipline and motivation to deal with distance learning. Adults, whose companies are paying thousands of dollars for train a single user, will sometimes blow it off. Log into class and stuff the web/play games all day. Adults who are paying thousands of dollars of their own money sometimes blow off distance learning because the NEED to be in a class with other students.

    While there are some classes that MIGHT work through distance learning, in my opinion the vast majority will not. For any core requirement (or any class that requires a lab), it’s a serious disservice to the students who do not have a choice about being there. Yes – many of the AP classes may benefit from distance learning because we are looking at a, by definition, more advanced motivated group. That would be the exception, not the rule.

  24. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-08-20

    Nick, I can’t find any family connection to the 19th century’s great agnostic. But boy, I sure hope our Legislature isn’t being led down the primrose path by some agnostic secular humanist conspiracy! :-D

  25. Nick Nemec 2015-08-20

    My thoughts too. ;)

  26. Nick Nemec 2015-08-20

    It appears the only path the Legislature is being led down is the path to obfuscation and inaction.

  27. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-08-20

    CLCJM, would you agree that distance ed is not applicable to special ed, that those kids require lots of personal, in-person attention?

  28. larry kurtz 2015-08-20

    The babysitter industry will love distance learning but the lunch lady business would go to Zell in a hand basket. Retailers won’t have back to school sales and teachers will see the squalor in lots of South Dakota homes. Bus businesses would cease to exist and kids will get fatter.

    Try harder, group.

  29. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-08-20

    Anthony, thanks for sharing your experience! When even adults prove to perform questionably in distance ed situations, do we dare expand distance ed for kids as our primary delivery model?

    On surfing and gaming, I’ve seen graduate students at DSU slacking off and surfing even with the prof live in the room. (You should have seen me in class in 2008 on primary nights—how could I not check the Clinton/Obama results?) Web connectivity is great for distance and traditional classes, but it also brings on a whole new set of classroom management issues.

  30. CLCJM 2015-08-20

    Oh, of course, Corey, the cluster classes have a enough trouble trying to teach with all the distractions and the absolute need to completely individualize for each student! No. I brought that group up because that’s where there is a shortage due to the challenges AND low pay! Distance learning wouldn’t solve that shortage even if it worked well for other situations which from the comments above it does not!!!

  31. Paul Seamans 2015-08-20

    Part of the education funding problem could be solved by school consolidation, but that ain’t going to happen. People will all protect their own turf. I was reminded of this yesterday when I took the long way home from Mitchell. Driving down Hwy. 34 I passed the new Sanborn Co. School in Forestburg and then 10 miles later I drove by the new school in Woonsocket. They should have been consolidated. Small town South Dakota will not give up their schools until they don’t have enough students to make a school feasible.

  32. A lifetoucher :) 2015-08-21

    We will never be able to duplicate what a live teacher can do positively in the classroom. Our students need human interaction, and in my opinion, it needs to be in person and not via Skype for the majority of their lessons.

    Distance education does help meet the needs of our smaller school districts, but I would venture to guess if you would ask students, they enjoy a live animated teacher interacting with them… in person… who guides them through their learning adventures while developing those relationship skills they will need to be successful citizen in the work place.

    Please, dear South Dakota, keep in mind that we have to educate the whole child and not just get them through subjects. Your tax dollars are a great investment in our future if we put those dollars toward education and keeping teachers in the classroom.

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