Memory of Tragedy Shows March of Technology

by Rose Fernandez
National Parent Network for Online Learning

This week in 1986, I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison working on a master degree in nursing.  One morning I went to the medical library between classes.  Just as I was walking through the turn-style leaving the library in a hurry to walk to class, I overheard something from a student on his way in about the Challenger blowing up.  I had to wait to get back to my apartment later that afternoon to find out what had really happened and how.

This memory reminds me of just how much learning and going to school has changed since I paid my own tuition.  These days my husband and I have two sons in college, so paying tuition and getting our money’s worth has taken on new significance.  Exponential increases in that tuition bill aren’t the only things that have changed from mother to sons.

I registered in person for my classes back then standing in long lines and running from one end of the campus to the other to get signatures that allowed me to enroll in each one.  Just registering took the better part of a whole day.  Finding midway through that one course was closed meant everything might need to be changed, so the hunt for signatures started all over again.  My boys register online in minutes.

I didn’t have a computer of my own.  There were “computer labs”, but those were mostly for computer science majors.  No one I knew used a computer for “word processing” as it was called.  I wrote my whole thesis on a typewriter.  It was top-of-the-line since it had a ribbon cartridge that could be changed to a correction tape cartridge every time I made a typing mistake.  Each revision to the text meant typing the whole thing over again.  I went through a lot of those cartridges.

My notes were on mountains of index cards that sat next to the mountains of Xeroxed journal articles that were some of my sources.  I had found each of those journal articles in index books at the medical library.  The index sent me to the journal stacks to locate each journal issue.  Then I stood in line at the copy machine and spent a nickel a page on the several hundred articles I needed for my research.  I carried them home and left them there, so all of the writing had to happen in one place and depended on having just the right page at hand.

My thesis work back then was as different from how a student writes one today as the difference between how I learned the details of the news that day and how we do today.  News then was just on TV or radio.  There were only landline phones, so reaching out to others had to wait till you found a payphone or got home.  There were no smartphones with twitter and Facebook and the worldwide web.  There was no online anything, no sources, no indexes, no spellcheck.  There was no cut and paste or saving your work to revise and print later.  There were no personal computers in dorm rooms.

Lots of learning happened before the internet age, but it happened more slowly.  College kids today can accomplish more in an hour with a laptop than I could in a day.

One memory of a tragedy that is seared in the mind draws points for comparison and the differences are stunning.  Whether today’s schools and educators are embracing the revolutionary tools of online learning to benefit all learners is unfortunately variable.  In many cases, teachers may have new tools to aid their work, but students are banned from online resources during the school day.

Many kids are in schools that still function much like they did in 1986, maybe most of them in our urban high schools and grade schools.  That has to change.  Holding kids back from all that learning can be in 2013 is also a tragedy.


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