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THE CUTTING EDGE / CYBERCULTURE

The Open Road as a Way to Learning

TECHNO TRAVELS / A Family Exploration

September 22, 1997|MARY PURPURA and PAOLO PONTONIERE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As freelance writers who home-school our children, we have more control than most over our work and learning environments. That gave rise to an idea: Could we use modern information technologies to take our lives on the road? What would a portable home office look like? Could these technologies enhance, in any way, the experience of home-schooling?

As we explored the issues of mobility and feasibility, other questions came up. We live in San Francisco and write frequently about technology, but, based on an inquiry from 9-year-old Aliseo--"Who uses teeny tiny cellular phones when most of the people in the world don't even have a regular phone?"--we began thinking about the utility of these technologies outside of metropolitan centers.

In theory, technology makes geography less important, and thus it should create new opportunities for people in rural areas. But is this really happening? The insistent promise of the Internet is its potential to build community, to create a democratic forum where all contributors come to the electronic table as equals. But does it remain mainly a phenomenon of people of a certain educational level who live in certain urban areas?

We decided to seek answers to some of our questions in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, because of its proximity to our home base of San Francisco, its abundance of remote communities, and its continuing status--even at the end of the 20th century--as a frontier. Our portable home-school home office would be a Fleetwood recreational vehicle.

We aim to answer four large questions in four stories over the course of four weeks: How can technology enhance home-schooling? How has technology changed life in remote areas? In what ways can digital community enhance the real-world kind? And do portable technologies live up to their promise?

For a more detailed, day-to-day accounting of this project, take a look at our travel diary at http://www.latimes.com/cutting.edge

We welcome your questions, comments and suggestions on the bulletin board located at the same address.

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From President Clinton on down, there seems to be a growing consensus among politicians, businessmen, educators and parents that computer education--even for the very young--is not only desirable but necessary for a child's future success.

Home-schoolers, though outside the mainstream in many respects, are part of the program on this issue. Many home-schooling families rely heavily on technology, with the children doing all their research and writing, for example, on the family computer.

This is not true of our family. We don't have a television set, for the same reasons we don't allow the children to park for hours in front of the computer: We don't believe that spending long periods in front of a cathode ray tube is a healthy activity for young people, and we consider a lot of what's available on TV, on the Internet and on CD-ROMs to be of questionable educational value.

That said, we do think the family computer offers some great opportunities. We do something somewhat unusual in the world of home education in trying to apply the pedagogical ideas of Rudolf Steiner--founder of the Waldorf schools--in our home-schooling, and finding support for this approach hasn't been easy.

We had heard about a packaged curriculum, Oak Meadow, that drew on Steiner's ideas, but we were disappointed with the product. However, by buying the curriculum, we learned about the company's Web site (http://www.oakmeadow.com), which includes a bulletin board. There we were able to ask specific questions about resources and techniques and get answers from people who are trying to do what we're trying to do.

Mary now exchanges e-mail with three other Waldorf home-schooling mothers to share information, inspiration and ideas. One of the cyberfriends, it turns out, lives just a 40-minute drive away; we now see each other regularly so the children can play or do organized activities together and so the mothers can swap experiences.

Thanks to the same bulletin board, we've found out about other helpful Web sites, especially Waldorf Without Walls (http://www.waldorfwithoutwalls.com), a site and newsletter dedicated specifically to Waldorf home-schooling. This is the Internet at its best, putting people with obscure interests together and disseminating information that's otherwise difficult or nearly impossible to find.

The Internet offers opportunities for research and learning too. We believe it's important for these excursions to be chaperoned, not so much because there's material that's inappropriate for children on the Internet--though that certainly is a real issue--but because it can be so frustrating to have to wade through 300 barely related Web sites to find a glimmer of what you're looking for.

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