Bill Linnane on going digital
Back in 2014, I decided I wanted to teach. I realised that at the ripe old age of 40, I was a bit late to the education party, so I sought to find a niche which would theoretically blend my three main passions - forcing people to listen to my thoughts, the internet, and not leaving the house.
I went on to enroll in an MA in eLearning. I had no idea what it was, or what it would entail, but it sounded right up my alley - learning through and with technology, and the course was delivered entirely online, despite the fact that it was actually run by Cork Institute of Technology, a 25-minute drive from my house.
This was going to be it, my rebirth as a Great Educator, appearing like Big Brother in the homes of my students to instruct them in how to think; this was better living through technology, all hail the new digital messiahs. Except obviously, it didn't quite go like that, as having three young kids (and a fourth on the way), a full-time job, and the growing realisation that I actually don't especially like having to learn new things meant that I admitted defeat at some point in the first semester and dropped out, bringing the number of third-level courses I have dropped out of to an impressive three. I did my usual shrugging of my shoulders, thought, ah well, put it down to experience, and didn't think much about eLearning until this year, when it came into its own.
What we call eLearning was once known as distance learning; some of us are old enough to remember the kids in Skippy The Bush Kangaroo using the radio for their education via the School Of The Air, while in more recent times the Open University and Khan Academy offer a vast array of qualifications without a physical campus. But eLearning goes beyond that - how many of us used a YouTube tutorial to learn how to change the filters in our car, how to build a playhouse out of pallets, or figure out how to illegally download the latest blockbusters? eLearning is everywhere, and our take-home from the last few months is that it will become more prevalent in the years ahead, and our kids' schools are surprisingly well prepared for it.
From the first week, they were sending out homework packs, email updates, messages of support, getting us to download apps on our phones and log into websites to share homework and stay connected (special mention goes to my daughter's maths teacher, who set up a Maths Memes page where the class share goofy jokes with each other). So the schools can't be faulted for the trailing off towards the end of the school year. We, however, can.
We started the home-schooling programme with great gusto, and ended it as wrecks. We never really thought teaching was an easy gig - even wading through the effluent of the Irish education system - homework - is an arduous task, but nothing really prepared us for hours of schooling every day. And by 'hours' I mean 'no more than three'.
And this is where online education is tricky - without the structure and rigour of physical school, without being monitored by some benevolent Big Brother, how do you ensure people actually try? Do we learn as well at home, or do we even exercise as well at home as we do in a gym setting? Is there an element of being around other people which pushes us to excel? It depends on the person, and sadly for me, home is where I go to lie down, eat chips and put my brain and body into power-save mode.
The take-home from our attempts at eLearning is that schools are farther along the transition to digital than we thought. My children's teachers showed that even in such strange circumstances as a pandemic and lockdown, they did not stop teaching, and we learned that while dropping your kids off to school may be a luxury in the future, technology means they won't be left completely adrift.
Of course, school is about more than just lessons - there is a social aspect that is crucial for children to learn about how to work with others, and how to communicate with other people, so that they don't end up like those poor kids in Skippy, thinking they can translate the clicking of a kangaroo into a cry for help from a well.