Back to school (with a twist)

Article by Margaret Rush

Education – September 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine

SNOW-TOPPED MOUNTAINS peek into my office window. Green pine trees sway gently in the wind. Billowy clouds slowly ease in and out of my view, partly filling the blue sky. When we left the hub-bub of the city many years ago, Salida is where we chose to sink our roots.

But not all has been right for me in paradise. It’s not that I’m tired of the sweet smell of wildflowers, or the damp softness of a hiking trail beneath my feet. Far from it. Crisp sharp air off fresh snow thrills me more than ever.

So why the restlessness? What could be calling me?

Cradled as I have been in the beauty and simplicity of small-town living, an inner curiosity has awakened, and grown into a drive to know. To know what? To know the inner workings of the very self that lounges so contentedly among the pine needles. What does it mean to be “me?” my soul has been asking. “What is this subtle sensation that the trees are somehow part of me?” And, “Who is delighting in that wild rabbit making wrinkly faces just a few feet away from me?”

The most persistent question of all has been, “Where can I find these answers?” A trip to the library and a stack of Ken Wilber books helped a little, and a lot. A little, in that one author, does not an education make. And a lot, in that there was a sense of being on the right track. But, how do I get the train moving when I don’t know exactly where I am going? I looked at the local community college catalogue. Computer classes, language classes, geology, and English. Good classes, nothing wrong with them, but not nourishing food for my growing passion of wondering.

Unsure on how to follow my yearning to know more, I considered moving back to the city where there was access to a University. Had my joy of living in the solitude of the “boonies” finally ended?

No! This is an era of technology. What does the “world” part of “world-wide-web” mean? It means New York, Hong Kong, Salida, Los Angeles; it means anywhere and everywhere. In my case, it means I can pursue a master’s degree in transpersonal psychology without leaving the mountain valley I affectionately call home. You see, I am going to school online.

Do you hear those crashing sounds? Those are my defenses falling away and breaking into little pieces as they hit the floor. They are the excuses that would have kept me from going to school in a “real” classroom: “I am too old; I will feel funny sitting next to all those young people; I’ve always been shy about asking questions; I’m self-conscious in a group; the others are surely smarter than me, more sophisticated than me, more experienced than me; my life is full; I have too many other commitments right now; I’ve lived in the country for too long; I wouldn’t fit in; and I don’t remember things as well as I used too.”

FEAR NOT, fellow homespun folk, online classes fit our needs to a “T.” Here is what a typical school day looks like for me: I wake up, and leisurely share breakfast with my husband. While still in my bathrobe and slippers I turn on my computer. If it is the first part of the week, I open the lecture. The lecture could consist of text, audio, streaming video, or all three. This morning I see that there is a reading assignment, and a threaded discussion question. (A threaded discussion is where students “post” our comments and questions at any time of the day or night. The comments stay there for all to see and reply to. It is a requirement to post a certain number of times a week — for how would the instructor know if students were there, if he never heard from them?)

I have all week to read, digest, and if necessary, re-listen to the material. When I post, my instructors, as well as my fellow students, reflect on and answer my response. Likewise, I contemplate theirs. Unlike classes where the self-assured students monopolize the class, in this set-up, all contributions merit equal attention.

How different an experience this is for me than when I went to college for my bachelor’s degree. I remember attending a chemistry class in an auditorium where the professor was so far below me that he appeared to be six inches tall. He would not have known if I attended class, or not. Unlike then, now I always have a front row seat.

WHAT ABOUT the face-to-face experience of talking to another human being? Isn’t conversing with a computer screen a bit weird? Not as much as one might think, for two reasons. First, we students do meet each other. I don’t know how all online classes are run, but at least in my program, we are required to attend an eight day, on-campus portion each summer. Therefore, the names on the screen do have a personality attached to them. Interestingly, I can recognize a post without knowing who wrote it. People’s writing styles are as familiar to me as their names. Secondly, because I sit alone in my room, there is a container for my thoughts that is uncensored and unjudged. My heart can speak, instead of my “social face” which has a reputation to uphold. In addition, the body language of another, or the social class, their age, or extraneous sounds or movement aren’t present to distract me. Hence, I interact with the material more deeply than I would in a physical classroom. Moreover, I have time to thi

To my surprise, I feel bonded to my fellow students. More so, in fact, than to the students in any class I have taken on a physical campus. Part of the reason for that, I assume, is the relaxed casualness of functioning in my own time and space. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, I have found others who are asking the same kinds of questions I am. This situation reminds me of the summer I participated in the bicycle trip, “Ride the Rockies.” In the evenings when I would wander around camp, there would be such a comforting, overwhelming feeling of no longer being a freak. I have a normal female body, but leg calves as big as a man’s. Low and behold, ALL the female bicycle riders had the same large calves. I had found my “own kind.” Likewise, my online classes are populated with those who have the same interests that I have.

The Internet is indeed a net that “inters,” and, equalizes as well. From my little perch on the mountainside I am not able to throw my net wide enough. However, with the help of technology, I am interrelating with people from all over the United States, Canada, Mexico, Ireland, and Japan. Furthermore, my voice, coming from a computer sitting on a leftover door for a desk, carries as much weight as any one else’s.

[Margaret Rush in class]

SOME OF THE STUDENTS in my class are working, some are traveling, some are retired, and some are immersed in volunteer activities. The nice thing about online learning is flexibility. A 1 a.m. post is as easy to read as a 1 p.m. post. All that is needed is a computer and an Internet line. The computer doesn’t even have to be one’s own.

I did find, however, that a rural Internet telephone line has its limitations. Twenty-four kbps doesn’t pull down audio or streaming video without creating large breaks in the transmission. (I finally figured out the best option is to record the lecture with software that takes out the silent spaces, and then listen to the broadcast later.) In addition, I had trouble sending diagrams with too many bites.

There were other kinks in online learning, as well. Mainly, it takes a lot of time to read all those posts and comment on them. The time commitment turns out to be more demanding than taking conventional classes. Three times my surge-protected modem has gone out at very inappropriate times, like when I had a paper due. A strong sense of self-discipline and self-motivation is required. I have to stay home and log in while my husband goes skiing or hiking. Long ago my friends stopped calling because my phone-line is always busy, and finally, to some people there is a stigma connected to online learning. I met a student who is getting a residential transpersonal psychology degree from Naropa University, the same university I am attending online. I introduced myself as a fellow student.

He said, “Yes, but online is not the same.

I told him that I have met teachers who believe more learning can take place online than on campus because once an online class opens at the beginning of the week, it stays available until the end of the semester. Anything covered in the previous weeks is right there, available for review as often as needed.

He acquiesced graciously and said, “I take it back, I can see where that would be a real advantage.”

As you can see, online learning has meant that I can have my cake and eat it too. I can live my simple, unhurried lifestyle, where I don’t have to allow enough time to find a parking place on campus before class, where I don’t have to walk from class to my car in the dark, where I can set my own schedule, where I don’t have to move to a bigger city to find educational opportunities, where I don’t have to fit into fashion trends, or be young or hip; and yet, at the same time, I have the wealth of the world’s knowledge at my fingertips. My goodness, what a privilege. What a time period to be living in. When I wrote my master’s paper, I didn’t once go out of town. The Salida library, through their inter-library loan program, good-naturedly provided me with all of the books I needed–I had over forty references!

LIVING IN THE “BOONIES” does not mean being brain dead, although some of my city friends might disagree. Maybe it did at one time. However, if that were ever so, thanks to technology, it doesn’t mean it anymore. Thanks to my online education, I feel like a woman-of-the-world, and at the same time, like a woman who lives a simple life away from the traffic, pollution, and stress of a big city. I am a woman who sits on mountain tops marveling at the sound of honeybees as they pollinate wildflowers, as well as, one who has an understanding of some of the concepts put forth by such authors as Abraham Maslow, William James, Carl Jung, Roger Walsh, Frances Vaughan, Charles Tart, Sri Aurobindo, Stanislav Grof, John H. Engler, Mark Epstein, Thich Nhat Hanh, Chogyam Trungpa, Charlotte Joko Beck, Pema Chodron, J. Krishnamurti, A.H.Almaas, Ram Dass, Paul Gorman, The Dalai Lama, Stephen Levine and Jack Kornfield, among others. I am grateful.

Margaret Rush helped build her own house near Salida, and completed the Ride the Rockies bicycle tour before tackling a long-distance graduate degree.