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Distance learning can sometimes be a disconnect

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As I have mentioned in this space before, my wife and I are raising funds to move our family to Haiti, where we will teach at Cowman School. In the meantime, I am teaching high school language arts to several students there long distance over the Internet.

“Do you understand what plagiarism is?” I recently found myself asking one of my students as I stared into the webcam perched on top of my laptop.

“Yes, yes. I know what plagiarism is,” he answered from his classroom in Haiti.

Then, just as our discussion was about to get more interesting (and more personal), the image of my student’s face disappeared from the laptop and our Skype connection was lost for the remainder of the day.

Once again I was reminded of the limits of technology.

Online classes have been growing in popularity in the U.S. for several years now. They first gained acceptance at the college level and are now making inroads into secondary schools (can primary schools be far behind?). When I taught at Hauser, we used online courses regularly to enable students with failing grades to recover credits without having to make room in their schedules to repeat a class.

The more familiar I get with online classes, the more I find it is a love/hate relationship.

On the one hand, online courses provide amazing flexibility. If tomorrow morning, one of my students in Haiti wakes up in the mood for math, he can open his geometry course.

And he can spend 15 minutes there or three hours, with no bell to dictate a move to a different subject.

I have to love the flexibility online courses afford students, parents and schools. Without online curricula, in fact, there would be no Cowman High School in Haiti. The student body is much too small to be able to afford a full high school staff.

But that flexibility inherent to online classes is a double-edged sword. It becomes a test of self-motivation, discipline and time management for the student.

If I am physically present to distribute a vocabulary quiz, for example, my students are forced to prove their retention in that next 15 minutes.

If that same quiz shows up in their Yahoo inbox, though, it can be effectively ignored for hours, if not days.

On my end, this experience with long-distance education has reminded me that no matter how sophisticated our technology, there really is no substitute for a flesh-and-blood teacher’s presence.

And it’s not just to crack the whip and keep students on task. Fostering creativity, checking comprehension and discussing important ideas do not happen easily or naturally via satellite.

Technology falls short.

That Haitian classroom needs a teacher on site. And that reality continually motivates me to keep working to raise the finances necessary to move my family there.

Steve Gross is a former 10th-grade English teacher at Hauser High School who teaches secondary level English in Haiti.

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