An issue to own

When online news site Business Insider published an article listing 20 places that might be the next Silicon Valley, everybody was surprised that two counties in Arkansas made the top 10.

Even more unanticipated was Craighead County’s perch at the number one spot on the list (Saline County was eighth). Business Insider analyzed U.S. Census and Labor Bureau data, weighing demographic factors such as the level of broadband accessibility, the size and readiness of a work force, a vibrant local economy and the presence of a small college or university.

Craighead County’s 100 percent broadband accessibility helped achieve its top ranking, as did its low unemployment rate and the burgeoning growth at Arkansas State University.

This latest distinction comes on the heels of an April 2010 study which found Arkansas to be the most competitive broadband state in the nation.

This past May, the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts in Hot Springs earned international recognition from the United States Distance Learning Association. The school’s Office of Distance Education received a Bronze Award for Best Practices in Distance Learning Programming. French instructor Jenni Deacon also won a Gold Award for Excellence in Distance Learning Teaching.

After an eternity of low rankings in state comparisons, these top-end achievements are like a breath of fresh air. Especially so since they are clustered around innovation and technology—two areas sure to figure prominently in future successes of all states.

This online leadership attribute was echoed last week at Jonesboro High School, where faculty members updated a Business Advisory Council on new technology initiatives involving students.

Keyboarding, previously taught in the seventh grade, will become part of the second- or third-grade curricula next year. Teachers now understand that the smartphones they have been trying to make students turn off will soon become the first thing they turn on at school (or a tablet like the iPad).

The Lexington, S.C., school district announced last week that it would be distributing iPads to high school students in the Columbia suburb for homework and research. Next year, the iPads will replace textbooks, which cost far more than their e-book counterparts.

Now is the time (to modify an old typing drill sentence) for all good minds in state government to focus on building up this area—online, broadband, distance learning—where Arkansas already has a little lead. It will evaporate quickly unless we develop a truly innovative approach for staying out front.

Innovation often runs counter to conventional wisdom. Innovation takes vision, and vision often requires courage. Vision isn’t watching other states and trying to follow suit, often with fewer resources and different situations.It’s visualizing something that does not yet exist. Lack of vision is what creates some of the most uninspiring images dotting the Arkansas landscape today: small towns drying up, with shuttered schools and factories gutting local economies-and aspirations.

Conventional wisdom may say urbanization is inevitable, but that wisdom is all too often based on accepted assumptions. It’s as predictable as night following day that when a small community loses its school, it loses a lot. That’s why consolidation should never have been simply an education issue. It should never have been implemented without community economic impact studies, busing costs analyses and planning.

But change the assumption-instead of consolidating more schools, suppose the state decides to use strides in distance learning technology to re-establish local schools-and the conventional wisdom changes, too. Schools are community anchors, providing jobs, socialization and recirculation of local dollars in addition to keeping education closer to home for parents and children. Public schools are to small towns what colleges are to micropolitan areas like Jonesboro. Take away ASU and Craighead County disappears off the Business Insider list in a high-speed flash. Why, then, are we surprised at the local decline when a town loses its school?

In the past, technological barriers may have contributed to consolidation decisions. But in the future, geographical obstacles will create stumbling blocks. Busing is costly and inefficient, but required for consolidation. Consolidated schools take parents and children away from home more than neighborhood schools.

Since 2001, distance learning enrollment in Arkansas has increased 2,324 percent—from 112 to 2,715 students—but that’s still a drop in the statewide bucket of 450,000 pupils.

It’s time to stop tiptoeing around distance learning, and instead dive headlong into it as the cornerstone of 21st Century rural education. High success rates (95 percent in Arkansas) are the crown jewel to a technological leap in education with the power to revitalize not only local schools, but also local communities.

Rural education is an issue Arkansas needs to own, and there’s no time like the present. This happens to be National Distance Education Week, which is a great occasion to conceive a future where distance-learning technology is the core of rural school systems—with Arkansas as its champion.


One thought on “An issue to own

  1. You are right on the money. This is why the Weiner/Delight plan in February of last year was so innovative. It was this state’s prime opportunity to take the plunge in this area. They had two schools performing extremely well, financially sound, campuses in good to excellent condition – neither just had a high enough number of students to satisfy the powers that be in state government. The powers that be wasted a perfect opportunity to see what you are talking about in this article actually come to fruition. So sad that people in such important decision making positions have such a lack of foresight and vision.

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