Digital Learning in Rural America

By Jeff Schneider

In 2014, my wife Mary and I were teaching within a school district located in the state of South Dakota. My first venture in working simultaneously within multiple schools in the state occurred when a Superintendent in a district located 60 miles away had heard about an experimental course delivery method that my wife, Mary, and I had pioneered around Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and transdisciplinary learning. At the time we were each teaching Sophomore Biology and English II classes and decided to combine the two into one Problem-Based Biology/English course, thus offering two credits within one block period. The Superintendent of the neighboring district approached the superintendent of the school where we were teaching at the time about potentially sharing my wife and I as a combined resource. In South Dakota there is a lot of highway distance between schools and qualified teachers are difficult to come by smaller communities. There was a real need, but we were uncertain, to say the least. With the guidance, mentorship, and encouragement of the PAST Foundation, we agreed to expand our horizons and give this experiment a try. This seemed like a good opportunity to expand our PBL practice as well, so we accepted the challenge.

South Dakota is a big state, so this new arrangement required a lot of driving. It was also an opportunity for these two school districts to use the Digital Dakota Network (DDN) to deliver PBL courses to the schools simultaneously for the 2013-2014 school year. If you are unfamiliar with DDN it is a dedicated system that is similar to that of Zoom (but a dozen years before Zoom came into existence) and is administered by the state of South Dakota in order to deliver virtual content to schools. This was in 2014 and the innovation didn’t end there. In addition to being present in THREE buildings ,with Mary supporting me in two of those buildings, I was also traveling 107 miles one way to the third school which was just too far for both of us. The PAST Foundation, with their penchant and experience with Design Thinking, came up with a workable solution to this distance issue. I would work with the science teacher at that school as a mentor in a virtual capacity. It was a rocky start as at first. This was a new younger teacher and I think he saw my presence in his class as a penalty. Eventually he began to see how I used PBL in a classroom and how much more efficient and effective it could be with Applied STEM. Over time I became a true STEM mentor for him. I began working with several teachers at this remote Tribal School, delivering PBL Professional Development to a range of interested teachers. Slowly we were changing the culture of the school for the better. This PD extended later that same year to teachers in a neighboring Tribal School.

There was a real need but we were uncertain, to say the least. With the guidance, mentorship, and encouragement of the PAST Foundation, we agreed to expand our horizons and give this experiment a try. This seemed like a good opportunity to expand our PBL practice as well, so we accepted the challenge.

PBL101

Fast forward to the fall of 2020, Mary and I are now Educational STEM Innovators with the PAST Foundation in Columbus, OH. The same Superintendent from South Dakota reached out to the PAST Foundation for help once again. The pandemic has exacerbated their problems with delivering content and effective teaching and learning as well as a shortage of qualified teachers. The PAST Foundation’s CEO, Annalies Corbin tapped me to repeat the success that I had had in South Dakota in during 2014 through 2016 with the hybrid teaching model that Mary and I had piloted along with our colleague, a mathematics instructor based in Columbus, OH (You can read more about that model HERE). I set about creating a PBL 101 course for the school staff. During the Spring and Fall of 2020 I have met with the staff (18 teachers) for six virtual PD sessions to discuss the main points, intricacies, learning outcomes, and challenges that are encompassed within the label of Problem-Based Learning. I have challenged them to implement something at the end of each PD session. They would then come back with a bit of experience and we discussed the learning outcomes that they had seen in their classes.

It has been very satisfying to watch several of the teachers recognize parts of their practice in the tenets of PBL and Design Thinking. This is of course the goal of any PD, but with Design Thinking it is particularly rewarding when you see a teacher excited and empowered to allow their students to be curious and engaged with Problem-Based Learning content. A Teacher-Centered model is the way that is generally taught in our K-20 educational experiences. Teacher talking equals teacher-directed which equals Teacher-Centered. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is not the way the human brain learns intuitively or instinctively. The human brain learns and develops through trial and error. We attempt to walk and fail. We try something a little different and fall over and again until we ultimately succeed. No human has ever learned to walk without falling down.

There is no failure in listening to a lecture, taking notes, working from a textbook, then taking a test… until we fail the test. By then it is far too late to learn! I had the great opportunity to allow these teachers the time and grace to see this for themselves. Now they are empowered by knowledge and the leadership of their administration to learn again alongside their students. Failure is a useful tool when you understand the problem.