00:00 Saturday 17 November 2007  Written by Nora Strong

Momentous day in life of a little Heir Island girl

LUCKILY, I bumped into Margaret who told me that if I wanted to see a momentous day in the life of a little girl, I should watch Nationwide on RTÉ. Anna Humphries, a resident, with her sister, her mother and father on Heir Island, one of Ireland's most westerly islands, with a permanent population of just twenty-four souls, was going to school for the very first time. It was a journey that involved a stroll down to the pier, a ride on the ferryboat and then a couple of miles' journey to Lisheen National School on the mainland.

There has not been a Heir Island resident at the school for some years even though in 1972 there were twelve children who travelled every day from the island.

These days communications are so efficient and fast that Anna could more easily talk to a cousin in Australia than journey to school, no more than a few miles over land and sea. How long will it be before Anna is able to log on to her laptop computer and take all her lessons from a Virtual School without moving from her island home?

In some parts of the world this is already happening and has been for some years, with phone, video but now computers and satellites make it easier.

The magic of new technology and the hard work of creative educators have harnessed the energy of new techniques in the service of traditional education in the interactive learning labelled Virtual Education. This is where teacher and student are separated by time or space, or both, and the teacher provides the content of the course through multimedia resources, the Internet and video conferencing. Students receive the course notes and communicate with the teacher using the same technologies.

Just imagine if, in years to come we have Virtual Schools, especially for people like Anna who live on the islands, which makes travel to school difficult. You would have a Virtual Desk with Virtual Books. No doubt the more lively teenagers would be caught behind the Virtual Bicycle Sheds smoking Virtual Cigarettes. Girls would congregate in the Virtual Toilets to gossip behind Virtual Closed Doors and the boys would lean nonchalantly against the Virtual School Walls to talk sports (hopefully not virtual) or indeed vice versa.

GET SCARED OFF

Grown-ups of the pre-electronic generation are more likely to get scared off by this technology than children who never knew life without computers. Children are not hampered by the boundaries we are used to expecting, and take pleasure in the challenge of immersing themselves in the unknown. That, coupled with their inbuilt aptitude for picking up new skills, means children could well be more adept at using new computer systems than their teachers. Indeed they might end up teaching their teachers and parents while gathering enough momentum and self confidence to be able to tackle other kinds of useful skills like good old-fashioned spelling and maths. After all we all know that if we need the video programming, the iPod loading or the mobile phone fixing we only have to hail a passing 4-year-old to get the job done.

There is, however, the question of money. It certainly would not be cheap to reorganise the whole basis of teaching and schools. Although it would ultimately be less expensive to administer, the setting up costs would be phenomenal.

Talking to the mother of one teenager, she worries about the weight of the books her daughter carries everywhere she goes and we discussed how much better it would be if all her work and her books were loaded on to her little laptop. Much too cool to contemplate using one of those shopping trolleys that grannies use to drag their weekly purchases home, she lugs a huge bag full of books from classroom to classroom on her shoulder. "Anyway, Mum, we have to go up and down so many stairs a trolley would be useless."

Surely soon, even though she goes to a Real School, not a Virtual School, she will bring her laptop to her classes every day and her books will be on CD or DVD just slipped in for each different subject or topic. Homework could be emailed to the teacher as soon as it is done. The expense of buying a laptop would be mitigated by not having to buy the books, the CDs or DVDs presumably being free. So there are still advantages to moving towards Virtual Learning without actually asking children to work at home.

The thing is, we would have to expect that staying at home might not catch on. Certainly when adults started thinking about the benefits of home working many employment pundits thought that they would always opt to work from home if they could, as it would be so much more comfortable, convenient and sensible.

Whether you plumped for teleworking with a permanent job, self-employment including Internet-based work, freelance, part-time or a mixture of any of these, there was one insuperable problem - we actually like going to a place of work for social reasons. The chat over the coffee cups, the lunch breaks, the meetings with interesting and new people are all reasons why we enjoy going to a different environment rather than staying in the comfort of our own homes.

Many people say that they could never really get used to working from their home. They need the discipline of having to get up and go to work at a certain time and knowing that they can plan their recreation time separated not only by time but by place. They prefer the social life provided by going to the workplace to the solitude of home working.

Probably, children would also be a great deal better off socialising with their peers than sitting in lonely splendour at the kitchen table with their laptops.

Quite possibly Anna, and those like her in the future, will still prefer to make it to school rather than do their school work at home on-line, however rough the sea crossing is to get to the mainland.

It might be good to have the option though.

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