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Technology lets me go to college with my daughter at MIT

October! The leaves are changing and the students have settled into the fall routine. Schools' orientation festivities have settled down to a mere simmer of revelry by the hardiest of partiers. The lectures have passed the introductions and fallen into the abyss of real work.

In many ways, I have more frequent contact with my daughter 3,000 miles away than the younger teenagers living at home. I remember standing in the drafty hall by a shared phone to call home. Living without a cell today would be unthinkable. Throughout the day, there may be many occasions to text home an important message.

The communiqués often share a theme: "I think I'm going to flunk out of MIT." The content itself varies. "I'm going to flunk out on a technicality, I didn't carry out the problems to four decimal places." Like her answers, some of the messages lack an appropriate level of specificity: "OMG."

I assure her there is a strong community there, and she will not lack ways to seek academic help. At parent orientation, they reminded us that tutors are available. I assured my daughter, via old-fashioned e-mail, that she will form lifelong friendships with very smart people. Achieving the class average at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is very good indeed.

How readily accessible she finds the help is what surprises me. "I'm IMing my prof." Wow. I suppose that makes sense. I don't call my kids to dinner, I instant-message them. They may not listen to their mother calling, but they do read the messages popping up on their screens.

It is a tribute to the professor that he gave the kids his IM name; I'm impressed. But then, it makes sense. He can copy and save his answer; he can include equations. He can control the access and sign off at will. It is far easier to extricate oneself from an instant message conversation than to walk away from a needy student.

The conversation also can be saved. How many times did an explanation make perfect sense at a lecture, and make no sense an hour later? I certainly can imagine the benefit of having a transcript of the conversation.

But, wait a minute. She is telling me this at 10 p.m. our time. The professor is online helping them with their problem sets at 1 a.m.? Ah, yes! College life is nocturnal.

The access to the material is impressive. Once there were only thick tomes. Our texts were the pillars of information. Notes were painstakingly transcribed. Now there are course Web sites and podcasts. Lectures are recorded and available online.

You don't have to be an enrolled student to access this Open Course Ware. I can see her classes from here.

Hey, wait a minute! I'm spending how many dollars a year for this education? And we could get it for free at http://ocw.mit.edu? I did look at the first two problem sets and wonder. I may be able to do the work online without paying tuition, but I am not at all sure that I can do the problem sets. Calculus? Physics? Did I really know that stuff once?

I'm glad my attempt at the homework isn't being graded. (OMG!) Maybe I could figure this out if I could IM the prof. Now that is value.

The money spent on education is always worthwhile. My vicarious college experience is a bonus.

Masson is a Modesto physician and mother of three. E-mail her at columns@modbee.com.

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