Educating Rita: Digital Learning in the Sixties



By 04/08/2011

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Educating Rita” makes the case both for digital learning and for end-of-the year external examinations. You can get the movie from Netflix; I recently saw a live version on stage at the Huntington Theatre in Boston, but the play’s season has come to an end.  Rita is the protagonist, but the play’s most heroic figure is the end-of-the-year examination.

Rita is taking courses from University of the Air, known today as “Open University,” an idea invented by the British in the 1960s. Students, even those without the usual academic credentials, could enroll in a public university which offered courses on television supported by materials sent through the mail.  Students like Rita came from all walks of life, including Liverpudlian hairdressing salons.

To complete a course on British prose and poetry, Rita has to pass an external examination by writing an essay that demonstrates she can write serious literary criticism.  To help her get the hang of it, she is entitled to a weekly visit with a tutor, who in Rita’s case is a university lecturer moonlighting in order to get the extra cash needed to support his vast consummation of hard liquor, served neat.

As the story begins, the drunken slob faces a serious challenge. Asked to suggest a solution to the problems encountered by stage directors of Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” Rita writes a one line essay:  “Do it on the radio.”  That answer, he explains, won’t survive the scrutiny of the external examiners.

Exactly how Rita learns what is needed to pass the examination is hard to figure out from anything that happens on stage.  Her instructor seems more interested in her remarkable figure than helping her figure things out. So it must have been off-stage, when she was getting her on-line instruction, that Rita gradually learned how to think and write.

By the end of the story, the instructor is so besotted he embraces Rita’s anarchic view of literature—what’s good is what you like—but clever and hard-working Rita, knowing she has to pass that external examination, learns how to turn a phrase to good advantage and wins a “good pass,” which in the days before grade inflation was high praise indeed.

I leave the rest of the story for you to watch on your telly. But like all literary critics, I cannot resist giving away the moral to the tale:  if the technology is not 21st Century, the basic design for Educating Rita today, online, is there for all to see.

– Paul E. Peterson




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