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Many nights ago, my daughter (KF) sighed and said to her dad,"it's been such a long time since I was able to lay my head on your shoulder." She snuggled against him while he held her tight and finished the bedtime story. Flat Daddy flew out to New Mexico to present at a tech conference and to see KF for the first time in person in over six weeks. Flatdaddy is my husband's Facetime nickname. Being that we are both teachers I couldn't help but compare our temporary separation and online communication to the blended classroom. For all teachers worried about online learning as a destructive opponent of classroom teachers, there is no replacement for the real deal. But it has me questioning the following: what can technology provide for students that couldn't be there otherwise, what can teachers provide that a computer will never replace?
When real daddy arrived in October we took a day together to heighten the senses by strolling under a golden canopy of autumn cottonwoods through the city of Santa Fe and breathe in the scent of green chiles roasting on each corner. We ended up along railroad tracks teetering on the rails. We crouched down to examine the spikes and showed our daughter how the date on the spike heads placed some rails as old as 1916 and as new as the 1970s. We ended the day dancing the Folklorico hat dance in (mostly) rhythmic unison. With the city as our classroom, we provided educational experiences that literally touched us. The virtual world is unable to offer this.
One to one mentoring, hands on activities, physical exertions, body language and stimulation of all five senses is possible in a classroom with a teacher. Nuances in communication that are lost in email or video chat help students establish comprehension and direct understanding. Email allows me share an idea but meeting someone in person helps me clarify it. Every night while I am 2,000 miles away from my husband, I use video as an opportunity to summarize or review my daily activities, he used video to remind me of the bills or chores that need my attention. Prior to our time together the virtual world can be used to set a stage, create anticipation for a planned adventure. It is an incentive only if the promised engagement takes place.
What can technology provide beyond the four walls of classroom? That was actually the focus of Flatdaddy's discussion at the NTMIE technology conference, Creating Cool (with Ipads). Online tools allow students to transcend regional differences. One of our favorite activities is to point our Ipad at the window and remark at how dark it is back east or how sunny and lovely it is out here. Being seven, my daughter is fascinated by time zones and will ask her dad "what life is like in the future." A textbook might offer a definition and a worksheet activity on time and movement but the video call puts knowledge into context.
Out here in New Mexico my daughter is one of 22 students in a classroom. Online she is the sole focus of her peer group. Teachers can not give students individual attentions that they crave or attention is given to students who abhor it. The online world gives the student the power and authority to determine the time and place of their audience. It can offer instant response or be purposefully asynchronous. People need different amounts of time to respond to a question, some need a momentary disconnect while others expect quick answers. The social network is a population that students can determine, they are no longer limited to an immediate vicinity.
My transformation as a New Mexican has made me realize that there is nothing in Vermont that can emulate the roasted green chile. If I did not live here I would never really know what it is like to feel dry in a semi arid plateau, at altitude, four weeks without a sprinkle of rain. For this physical classroom I am grateful. My desert life seemed distant from Hurricane Sandy but the virtual world of Twitter kept me in touch with friends frantically scrambling out of flood zones and assured my daughter that Flatdaddy was safely stranded in the Cleveland airport as evidenced by Facetime chats. In the storms that face education today it is important for teachers and students to embrace the escapism of the virtual world, to venture outside the norm but to return to that classroom with heightened senses.