Completely unable to spend an entire month away from a work or education environment, I visited a school during my recent trip to Australia. But even though the school year was in full swing, and the teacher was in front of the class, there weren’t any students at the School of the Air.
The school was founded in 1951, to provide education to the children that lived in remote communities in the outback. Families were supplied with radio equipment and mailbags, and their children connected with teachers and classmates who lived up to a thousand kilometers away. Fifty years later, the school started using the Internet, and now the kids log in to special school software and see their teacher on webcam.
School of the Air, and the rental bike
When I arrived at the school’s headquarters in Alice Springs, a teacher was just in the middle of a math lesson. She was at a large desk in what looked like a radio studio. A screen displayed the lesson in progress, with a handful of spritely six-year-olds chirping answers to the teacher’s questions. “How many groups of animals are there?” “Two groups!” “And how many in each group?” “Three!”
Two groups of three
A guide from the visitor centre then showed a video about the school and told us a bit more about the system. 171 students in an area the size of central Europe log on to their classes at their assigned times, but they don’t have more than four hours of online classes per week. The rest of the time they study at home with their tutor – usually a parent, but some families hire a “govvie” (governess), who is often a recent high school grad spending a year doing something else before they head off to university.
For things like science experiments, which are often very interactive, the teacher will usually show the experiment on the screen, and the students will do it at home, with their tutor. A notebook on display showed notes from a girl who built a sun dial, and in the main area of the visitor centre was a grade eight science project: a model of an energy- efficient house.
Science project by a School of the Air student
After grade nine, the kids leave for boarding school to finish their education. Before that time, they have only met their classmates in the flesh a few times a year, at “school weeks”, when they travel hundreds of kilometers to the school.
“How are their social skills?” asked a worried visitor. “Great!” The guide’s face lit up when she described the students. “They have no inhibitions. They spend their days with adults, and are very good at interacting with a range of different people, maybe better than kids who only ever see their classmates.” And when they meet their classmates at the end of the school year, they continue conversations they had been having online only until that moment.
That reminded me of something. “Do they often make friends who live very far away?” I knew the answer before I asked the question, but I just wanted to hear it. “Oh yes, definitely!” And she related some tales of kids talking for hours online after class ends, parents dealing with outrageous phone bills, good friends who never met in person.
It’s still a unique situation for elementary school students, but the concept of having friends you have never met should not be so strange anymore in the digital age. It’s just that many people only hear the horror stories of abducted children and murdered dates.
When Shelley came to visit me from New Zealand a few years ago, her dad was worried that I might be a scary serial killer or something. I’m not, and Shelley is still alive and well.
When I told people that I would be staying in London with a friend I’d only ever talked to online, they weren’t really worried about my life so much as about me being bored. “What if you don’t get along?” And that would be coming from people who I had talked to far less in the past months than I had talked to Richard.
Needless to say, we did get along, and here is a photo to prove it:
This is pretty much like the conversations we have online. (Notice the props: iPod and wine glass)
Victor took the photo, and said “It looks like a superhero fight!”. Yes, it does, and I am clearly winning! There is also a photo in which we look like normal, well-behaved people, but we’re actually getting a toy tortoise drunk just out of frame, which only goes to show that you can’t believe everything you see online. Although I guess that’s the opposite of what I was trying to say…
What it comes down is this: The world is a big, big place. Not just kids in the Australian outback live miles apart, but we all do. Scientists collaborate with people all over the world, and at conferences finally put a face to the author of the manuscripts they’ve read. The web is a wonderful way to keep in touch with people you have met in person before, but also to meet new people. And unlike the “Real World”, where you are forced to deal with people in your vicinity (neighbours, coworkers, fellow commuters) whether you like them or not, you actually have a choice in the virtual world. You can virtually hang out with whomever you want. If you don’t like them, you stop talking. If you do like them, they might one day let you stay in their homes.
And that is how, for the second time this summer, I watched someone teach math: