Feature: Rome tutor says she's in her element with online teaching during pandemic


ROME, Jan. 19 (Xinhua) -- Kate Nicholls has been extolling the virtues of online distance learning long before the coronavirus pandemic made it a reality for many students and their teachers.

The pandemic has had a dramatic impact on the way young people are taught in Italy -- as it has in many countries. All Italian schools were closed last year starting in March as part of the country's initial coronavirus lockdown, effectively mandating at-home learning at all grade levels. Most schools reopened for the fall semester in September, but by November a new decree sent 4 million older students in Italy back into some kind of distance learning program.

The government postponed the return of high school students -- generally aged 14 to 18 in Italy -- in January while sending younger students back to school. Some private schools and a handful of regions in Italy have gone their own way and resumed full in-person teaching amid arguments over the correct balance between health concerns and student needs.

For Nicholls, much of the controversy is missing the point.

"Online teaching is wonderful, and I can't for the life of me figure out why more teachers and tutors aren't embracing it," Nicholls told Xinhua. "There's a world of knowledge just a few clicks away on the computer, much more than can be accessed in the classroom."

Nicholls said having so much information available when she tutors her students makes it easier for her to tailor lessons to a student's interest and to appeal to students who might not otherwise be enthusiastic about lessons. It also allows students to be matched with teachers and tutors who are the best match, regardless of geographical limitations.

"The idea that a student must attend the nearest school is a dated notion," she said.

Nicholls' roots are in the theatre, including a period working with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. She also cultivated a flair for writing along with what she called "a natural curiosity" that led her to lion-related research. But she didn't start teaching until she moved to Africa with her five children 25 years ago -- in Botswana and South Africa. She homeschooled the four youngest, and soon afterwards nearby families started to bring their children to her.

"From that point on I was a teacher," she declared. Nicholls moved to Rome in 2016 and aside from writing a memoir about her time in Africa, Under the Camel-thorn Tree, published last year, she embraced teaching full time.

Despite her enthusiasm for online teaching, the pandemic has been a challenge for her. Health restrictions have made it harder for her to see her children, for example. At age 66, she is also cautious about becoming infected. Before the pandemic, she also tutored a mix of online and in-person students, but since the outbreak began everything has been online and she says she misses that balance.

Still, she predicted that the pandemic will ultimately change educational systems around the world.

"There are a lot of criticisms about online learning, including the idea that it isn't personal, but I have discovered that it is tremendously intuitive," she said. "We're seeing some of the benefits now, and when the pandemic is gone we'll be able to merge them with other methods and start to make education more effective and more enjoyable for more students."

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