Techwit: Martha, distance ed and a captive audience

Posted: Sunday, July 21, 2002

I once heard someone say, "I wouldn't mind traveling if it didn't mean having to go somewhere." Thanks to the Internet, that problem's been solved, especially in terms of getting an education. Students all over the world are using computers to log on and learn from their living rooms, a phenomenon called "distance education," or "distance ed" for short. These days it's as commonplace as not going to the library.

Techwit By Jason Ohler

Distance ed is particularly loved by "returning students," a euphemism for typewriter-era adults desperately in need of re-education who don't have schools close by. Distance ed also holds great promise for re-training another segment of society, the growing prison population. And who better to teach prisoners than other prisoners. At least that's the premise of a new federal program called Inmates Teaching Inmates Through Information Technology (ITITIT) in which celebrity inmates teach prisoners all over the country using the Internet. They like to do it because it lets them perform community service while they're still in the slammer. The word on the street is that the first to step up to the electronic podium will be none other than the queen of spruce-and-moose and coifed-and-cultured kitsch: Martha Stewart.

No one knows how Ms. Stewart will fare with her recent legal troubles. But I'm betting someone on her team is already making preparations to broadcast her lectures on good living from a minimum-security facility somewhere in the U.S. that has a good growing season. Rumor has it that her first course will be called, "Up Front and In Prison: Living the Good Life Regardless of Your Living Conditions."

Because ITITIT will be supported by federal dollars, Professor Stewart will need to make her courses available to all prisoners equally, regardless of status or infraction. This means she'll face the special challenge of teaching to both minimum and maximum security inmates at the same time. Tricky business, but she's clever and I know she can do it. Here are some snippets of programming I foresee that will demonstrate her extraordinary technique in this area:

"For those of you doing decoupage at the club house during arts and crafts hour, don't forget to add ribbon to your project to give it that far away look. For those of you doing hard time, just remember that metal scraps from shop class and bits of laundry collected from fraying prison uniforms can be used to make wonderful knickknack gifts for family members on visitation day."

"Decorating your immediate surroundings with wall hangings, beveled mirrors and even a flat screen TV can add character to the dreariest of accommodations. For our more restricted students out there, weaving confetti paper through the bars on your door gives an early American quilted appearance, reminding us of simpler, more wholesome times."

"While golfing, be sure to collect all the used balls you can. Dip-dyed in bright colors, they will make wonderful ornaments for the holidays. If splitting rocks is your main source of exercise, then remember to do so with a sense of panache and proportion. It will give you the raw ingredients you need to create an exciting menagerie of earth materials that is uniquely you."

With so many famous inmates to draw on, ITITIT promises to flourish. Too bad John Gotti passed away; he could have offered a great course in organizational management. I expect that courses in creative accounting by Ken Lay and Dick Cheney will fill quickly.

Cynics will see the inequities in our penal system and wonder why Martha Stewart isn't doing hard time. But they have to realize that to her having anything less than 220 percale bed sheets is cruel and unusual punishment. Besides, the real point not to miss here is this: Distance education promises to deliver education to many who need it. And in the case of serving the prison population, you couldn't ask for a more captive audience.

Jason Ohler is professor of educational technology at the University of Alaska Southeast and can be reached at © 2002 Jason Ohler.

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