In the 1980s, the computer revolution really took hold. My boss, Dick Byers, asked me to come into the office to do some work. He paused a few seconds and then, before I could reply, said, “Laura.”
(Byers, in the ’90s, is perhaps best known for buying Tootsie Roll for 35 cents and later selling the company for about $150 million.)
At the time, we had a desk-sharing arrangement, where each worker carried a computer, a printer and a mouse. Then in 1991, my boss talked to each worker briefly, mainly about logistics of setting up a file-sharing system with people who shared a shared computer. Then the screen went black.
Remote learning used to be a badge of honor; to be an adept digital scholar, you needed to go remote, and achieve virtual mastery. But now it seems that’s more of a disadvantage. Not every teacher in the world is interested in seeing you work. No wonder many learners are fed up with the many obligations of remote learning. In my own case, I worked in Arizona; my old boss retired in Florida; and he couldn’t listen to a minute of my audio lecture (he’d just come in to check things out). When my colleagues and I worked in a central office on a day when classes were cancelled, we were forced to go into a nearby coffee shop to do the job. That also didn’t work well.
But once you succeed at remote learning — no pressure! — you are freed from the peculiarities of home life, like having to work late, go out with a co-worker, or prepare an elaborate dinner party. You can think more creatively and more quickly; and you can have more fun, so why not?
When a colleague invited me to an open house at her home a few years ago, I thought she might do some basic lessons that involved computer skills and basic vocabulary. I’m a math fan, and I’d be honored to do some addition, but maybe it would be tough to explain this number to a toddler. Fortunately, she had an iPad and a microphone, and that’s where I found herself. I wanted the iPad and the microphone, because I had set my bedside alarm to wake me in time to make it in time to be on my phone call with my coworker. No wonder some people tune out when they can’t make a phone call.
When I got home, I found my roommate laughing out loud, despite the mess. She pointed to the microphone, and it seemed like I’d done a heck of a job. She told me that we’d had fun explaining multiplication to our small children, and she also provided some suggestions for when I might want to do a less improvisational session.
Instead of focusing on technology, though, I pushed the minister of education at the university that I work at to put out an invitation for a significant online seminar on how to organize a study session — even if you need to do some math to solve the real problem. I’ve even suggested that some people just use Skype, which seems like it would be easy to set up.
Somewhere in our education system, this new digital landscape seems to be getting lost. Can’t we just access the information at our fingertips, wherever we are?
But real knowledge and true discipline isn’t learned in a matter of hours; it’s learned in a lifetime. So why not figure out how to make a bit of distance work for you?
When kids are in school, they might study and learn a lot about different subjects. But then they leave high school and begin to develop independent skills, like driving, or navigating directions, or baking an apple pie. Those are so important for success in life that our public schools are relatively free of curriculum, focus on teacher instruction and strive to prepare students for life skills they will need. Yet the same shift also happens to children’s independent learning, giving up the desk. When they are older, parents say, they have the home electronics or the computer and need to learn it. That’s when we forget the benefits of learning where we can.
A full-time resident of this world should begin to work remotely with students, and be ready for any requests and requests. Do not do anything that will make any teachers feel uncomfortable. If they make comments, don’t take it personally. Teach that there are a lot of tricky environments you are running into, and you should prepare yourself to learn to operate in them.