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John Eggers: Do we still need school buildings?

Mr. Mercer and his son, Eric, were exploring a small piece of newly purchased property near Mizpah, Minn., in 2114. Hidden among a clump of wild roses and cedar trees were a pile of old boards and pieces of slate from a chalkboard. A field mouse,...

Mr. Mercer and his son, Eric, were exploring a small piece of newly purchased property near Mizpah, Minn., in 2114. Hidden among a clump of wild roses and cedar trees were a pile of old boards and pieces of slate from a chalkboard. A field mouse, whose house was disturbed, ran into the weeds as Eric and his dad rummaged through the boards. Beneath the pile was a cement foundation.
“Looks like there was a building here at one time, Eric,” Mr. Mercer said.
As they looked further, they spotted a metal box underneath the boards. “See what’s in that box, Eric.”
Eric opened it and inside was a small rectangular wood box with some flowers painted on top. The top was held in place by a small brass latch. Eric opened it and inside were a couple of well-worn pencils, a piece of chalk and a hard rubber eraser. Eric turned the box over and underneath he read, “Ruth, 1934, Mizpah, Minn.”
“I believe that’s what you call a pencil box,” said Mr. Mercer. “Ruth, no doubt, used it in school.”
“What’s a school?” Eric asked.
Schools as we know them today will no longer exist in 2114. School buildings are still constructed today, but before long, one of the questions that communities should begin to ask is “Do we still need a school building?”
As you know, it is now possible to get a high school diploma by attending a virtual high school where everything is online. Colleges and universities have been operating “schools” without campuses for many years and more and more classes are being offered online every year. Online learning is big business.
At one time, our college campuses were filled with meandering summer school students but today’s campuses are pretty quiet. All of those summer school students who used to spend six or eight weeks are now bringing their computers to their lake homes where they can take online classes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week right at the kitchen table while watching loons swim by the dock.
I have been teaching online classes since 1997 right from my kitchen table. No classroom is necessary, just a way of connecting to the Internet, which has become very easy. I am sorry to say that I can even connect to the Internet at the Northwest Angle.
Let’s say a community does build a school in 2014 and the building lasts 50 or 60 years. How much different will education be in 2064 or 2074 than it is today? Will that building be needed or will students have other ways they can acquire learning? Today, many high school students already receive their classes online and never see the inside of a classroom.
In 2011, 25,000 Minnesota high school students enrolled in Minnesota’s Post Secondary Options program and attended one of Minnesota’s colleges or universities. Students who are homeschooled take online classes and/or attend college. Students in Minnesota’s Virtual Online High School can have a graduation ceremony in their backyard.
None of these students attend what we call a high school building.
You see, the future is already here.
I’ll be the first to admit that online learning is not for everyone, just as learning from a textbook is not for everyone. We have found, however, that children are very adaptable and online learning put in the hands of a creative teacher, can make learning fun and meaningful. Online learning is just another teaching strategy.
A big advantage of online learning is that it can be continuous. When Ruth attended her country school in 1934 and when students today attend schools, they are locked into the school calendar. This means they start learning at a certain time and they stop learning at a certain time and, over the summer, you can say, our students’ brains take a rest.
With online learning, students can take a class 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Learning can be continuous, which it is.
The big question is, “Yes, but can students learn as much and as well?” If the answer to this question is “no,” all of our virtual colleges and universities, plus high schools and all of our online classes being offered would be shut down. But they haven’t been shut down and, to the contrary, they are thriving.
I won’t be around to see the time when there are no more school buildings as we know them today. Like Ruth from Mizpah, I enjoyed my time in those hallowed halls of ivy. To this day, walking into a school building with its noise and chatter and books and bells has a special meaning for me.
In 1934, our countryside was dotted with quaint little schools. Today, they have all become decayed boards like those found by Mr. Mercer and Eric. Will the school buildings of today 50 or 60 years from now find the same fate? There are a lot of field mice out there looking for homes.
JOHN R. EGGERS of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.

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