January 2010

Virtual learning

By David Feela

A young mother told me she sat her baby down in front of the web camera, just after the baby had learned to sit, and tried to enroll her in a premier online preschool program.

Because her daughter couldn’t complete the registration herself, the mother filled in all the pertinent information. She rattled her baby’s favorite toy to get her to smile for the camera (her first school photo) then changed her diaper off camera so she’d be ready for her first day.

You see, she didn’t want the baby ridiculed by other students for appearing at school with dirty diapers.

Unfortunately, before the first lesson materialized on screen, the baby played patty-cake with the keyboard and the server lost its connection.

Okay, I admit I only imagined how things might be if the popularity of online schools continues to expand, because I couldn’t help thinking about my former mentor in education. Public schools are still in business, though I wonder for how long. Students are opting out of the classroom in record numbers, too often to avoid dealing with the problems they encounter within their non-virtual lives.

A former high-school English instructor, Janet McCabe, took the time to educate me as a young teacher in the school district where I worked. She offered this advice nearly 30 years ago for streamlining education: Just issue a diploma with the birth certificate; then schools could get on with the difficult job of teaching those students that actually want to learn.

I laughed when I first heard her say this, but she was serious.

Mrs. McCabe was a demanding teacher. She expected much from her students and some of her expectations had to do with competencies larger than mere reading and writing. She wanted her students to respect the opinions of others, the dead and the living, to listen even when they didn’t want to listen, to be patient, and most importantly to demonstrate they could negotiate those treacherous chasms between having relationships with their peers and being able to foster and maintain meaningful relationships with their teachers, especially the ones that required something out of them that proved difficult to master.

Online coursework may be the answer for people busy with jobs to hold down and families to raise, but teens ought to be steered toward the Internet as a substitute for school with great caution. It’s not that the Internet can’t instruct, but I seriously question its ability to teach.

I sat in my mentor’s classroom to observe her teaching more than once, but I’ll never forget the day when her students were quietly reading a passage out of a Hemingway novel and one student sighed heavily, then reported “I’m bored to death!”

Mrs. McCabe looked up from her task of grading the same old vocabulary quizzes and smiled, the most genuine grin I’d ever seen cross her face. “If you’re bored at your age,” she replied, “I can’t imagine how you’ll ever survive until you’re 50.”

David Feela writes from rural Montezuma County.