Freddy's steady, yet somehow I yearn for more

29th October 2010 at 01:00

Followers of classic British cinema may recall the key role that a railway platform plays in David Lean's Brief Encounter. It's where Alec and Laura first meet and start to fall in love after he helps to clear some grit from her eye. That platform is the weekly departure point for a dangerous, burgeoning romance.

The slight problem is that they are both married, with children. It's a real dilemma for Laura in particular. Her husband, Fred, is so kind and steady, yet such a bore compared to the dashing Alec.

I have an unsettling feeling that I am now turning into Laura. I, too, have had much the same morally traumatic experience after waiting for a connection at a platform - this time the virtual-learning platform.

I have been similarly married for some time to a kindly provider. He is my "Fred". A sizeable dowry was exchanged with our local authority, intended to solidify our commitment to each other. Dear old Fred is a caring fellow. He means well. He offers me all kinds of things. He's very keen on offering me "spaces", in particular - Learning Spaces, Shared Learning Spaces, Interest Spaces.

He is plainly trying to cater for my every need and yet why oh why won't he let me do things my way? Why is life with him so seemingly slow, stifling and convoluted? Why do I permanently sense that I, too, have an annoying piece of grit in my eye? I feel like saying to him, "Look, I'm sorry Fred, darling, but it's just not happening for me. Don't feel bad. I know it's a cliche but it's me, not you. Well, actually, if I'm honest, I'm not so sure it is entirely me this time. Many of my friends find you quite strange and particular, too."

As with Laura I have become drawn to another guy, another learning platform, who we shall call "Alec". They say he's cleverer and cuter - and cheap, in a good way. Can't say I know him well yet, but I hear on the grapevine that he's much sharper and more dapper than steady old Freddy. Alec, I am assured, would take away all my virtual frustrations.

And yet for me to dump Fred and slink off secretly (along with all my virtual-learning students) with Alec would be to cheat not just on Fred but also on my own school and local authority. I, like Laura, cannot imagine how I could possibly go through with this.

In any case, would Alec be all that he is cracked up to be? If I must have an illicit virtual affair, have I considered all the other guys out there on the platform?

The film ends with Laura returning to her amiable, deadly dull husband and Alec heading off to take up a job in South Africa. Choosing the right partner in marriage and in virtual learning are plainly tricky things to get right. Get on the wrong platform and years of disillusionment lie ahead - enough to turn you away from the whole idea for life.

I am sure virtual learning has huge potential to be like a great marriage - to feel natural, boundless, fun and energising. But the stats are not encouraging. How often do people make the right choice?

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire.

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