The image that some hold of parents who choose to educate their children at home is challenged by a look into the electronic computer network that many home schooling parents share. These parents share more than a computer connection, they share an understanding of teaching and learning, technology, and educational systems and laws. Although in many ways they are very diverse, they also share an almost blinding commitment to their children.
This research took a look into the computer network that many home schooling parents use. By analyzing a directory of the users, reviewing their interactions on the computer network, and by directly posing questions to them, new insights into these home schooling parents was gained.
“A bad day at home is a whole lot better than a bad day at school.” (Computer bulletin board note from a home schooling parent, June 6, 1992)
“There is a world of difference between the modern home environment of integrated electric information and the classroom” (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967, p. 18)
These two statements, made 25 years apart, help to define this study and the nature of this article. Some perceive those parents who choose to educate their children at home as backwards or old fashioned. For many home schooling families, however, the “modern home environment” remains a “world of difference” from the school classroom. For a good number of parents, the computer is not only a tool for the education of their children, but it is a means to network with a support group of other home schoolers.
Home schooling is a growing phenomenon that has gone through a number of phases over the past 20 years (Knowles, Marlow, & Muchmore, 1992). Educational studies into the nature and results of home schooling have provided examples of dedicated parents yielding positive results (Ray, 1988). Although Van Galen (1988) described home schoolers as ideologues and pedagogues, Marchant and MacDonald (1992) found that distinction to be blurred. They found that home schoolers that began home schooling for educational reasons soon discovered how valuable home schooling was in developing a close family life style. They also found that home schoolers who began home schooling for religious and values-related reasons began very programmed in their teaching approach, but progressed into more flexible and sophisticated teaching techniques with increased experience.
One of the most sophisticated educational tools to enter the home is the computer. A variety of educational software is available for children from age three to adult. Also available to those with a modem are services “on-line.” Companies such as Prodigy and CompuServe provide a variety of services through interactions between personal computers and a mainframe system. The Prodigy computer system provides news, an encyclopedia, games, and interactive bulletin boards to 1.5 million members enrolled in the on-line service. One of the services allows parents to exchange views and information on an “Education” bulletin board. This bulletin board served as the data source for this study.
There are three parts to this study. The first part consists of a summary of data obtained from a copy of a directory of those home schooling parents interacting through the bulletin board. The second part of the study involves a content analysis of notes posted on the bulletin board. For the final part of the study, other researchers joined the author in posting questions to the home schoolers on-line.
One of the parents who regularly posts notes on the Prodigy Education Bulletin Board provided a copy of a directory of those parents who interact on the board. The responses to a few questions and demographic information had been collected using private electronic mail. For this study the author asked that the directory not contain names, street addresses, nor Prodigy identification numbers.
From a six-day period a total of 250 computer bulletin board notes from home schooling parents were collected and analyzed. The notes were first reviewed to identify categories for analysis. Then the notes were coded into the appropriate categories and comments were recorded to further identify each entry (interrater agreement=.89).
Notes and Replies
A call-for-questions was announced to educational researchers. Educational researchers were asked to submit questions that they would ask home schoolers. This announcement was published in the yFamilies as Educators Newsletter (a special interest group of the American Educational Research Association), the yHome School Researcher, the Mid-Western Educational Researcher, and a listserv computer bulletin board system used by educational researchers. Ten questions generated by responses to the announcement and from the author were posted on the Education Bulletin Board under the “home schooling” subject with the topic listed as “HMSC? FRM RESEARCHERS.”
The Prodigy HMSCers Directory contained 185 entries from 37 different states and the District of Columbia. The four states with the greatest representation were Texas (19), California (18), Florida (12), and Washington (12). They average 2.51 (SD=1.13) children in the family. They have an average of 3.74 (SD=3.62) years of experience with public and private schools, and an average of 2.57 (SD=2.49) years of experience home schooling.
The top reason given for home schooling was academic excellence followed by religious (Christian) reasons (see Table 1). A number of those indicating “Other” mentioned that they were home schooling for the enjoyment of it. Forty-six percent of those responding to a question concerning their use of educational materials described their use as “eclectic.” Forty-three percent said they used a variety of materials, and 18 percent responded that they mostly use one curriculum.
There were some relations discovered between reasons for home schooling, methods used, and some of the other information. For instance, those who were home schooling for religious reasons had more children (r=.26, p<.01) and had more experience home schooling (r=.26, p<.01). They were more likely to say that they used a variety of materials (r=.25, p<.01), but less likely to describe their material use as “eclectic” (r=-.35, p<.01). Those who identified academic excellence as their reason for home schooling had fewer years of home schooling experience (r=-.17, p<.05), and were more likely to describe their material use as “eclectic” (r=.19, p<.05). Those who related their reason for home schooling to dealing with disabilities had more years of experience with the public schools (r=.24, p<.01).
The 250 computer bulletin board notes that were analyzed were written by 115 different people from across the country. Although most people posted between 1 and 5 notes, one person posted 9, another 10, and another 11. The average length of the computer note was slightly less than two screens or about 200 words. Females wrote the majority of notes (n=212, 85 percent, the sex of 4 of the authors could not be determined). For every note posted there was an average of two replies.
Three categories with 11 content areas were identified through the initial review of the notes.
The note writers were found to either ask for something, provide something (usually in response
to a request), or describe something in their notes (see Table 2).
Table 1. Means for information from the Prodigy HMSCers Directory.
–This table is missing in this web page presentation; you may find the PDF format elsewhere on this web site with the table included–
Table 2. Frequencies and percents from content analysis of computer notes.
–This table is missing in this web page presentation; you may find the PDF format elsewhere on this web site with the table included–
The content areas were advice, books, experience, information, materials, the conditions in a particular State, support groups, teaching ideas, thanks, opinions, and other. The following are some examples:
6/10/92 (Son has dysnomy, dysphasia, and dysgraphia as well). After a HORRIBLE year in 4th grade last year, my son and I decided to HMSC this year…
6/1/92 What word lists are available up to grade 6?
6/9/93 My first year: Learning at Home (Pre & K), Writing Road to Reading, Fun at the Beach Math (felts), Golden Book workbooks,
My second year: Weaver Vol. I, Mortensen Math, Pathway Readers, Char-L Phonics.
My third year (this year): Weaver Vol II, BJU Math (as a supplement), Pathway workbooks, everything else is the same as second year.
Next year: Weaver Vol III, Miquon Math, Writing Strands.
I love the Weaver & so do my kids – for me, it’s the perfect marriage of structure & flexibility. I’ve used their lesson plans for the last 2 years, & this fall I’ll be using Vol III without them. I want to write my own! I LOVE waking up in the wee hours & pouring over books as I drink coffee.
Asks for-State conditions:
6/2/92 What are the legal requirements for home schooling in Oshkosh, Wisconsin?
6/9/92 You want to stay away from abstract (pencil and paper work) until the concrete can be visualized. C-rods illustrate all of what you asked about and it allows the kids to put their answers into puzzles …
Many of the notes involved an ongoing exchange concerning topics. For instance, there were numerous exchanges concerning creating a name for the home school. The father was often identified as the principal and the mother served as the head teacher. Stationery and business cards helped with the home schooling parents’ interactions with the public schools, other agencies, and allowed them to obtain education discounts on purchases in some stores. Many of the notes reported the name given to the home school which usually included either the family name, name of a region, or referenced materials or approaches used.
Another series of notes involved receiving credit (high school or college) through different means. Correspondence courses, GED, junior college courses and special courses available to pre-graduation young adults offered by universities were extensively discussed.
Notes and Replies
What follows are the 10 posted questions and three condensed responses for each question. The
responses are not intended for any generalizations, however in some cases they are representative.
1. The first question concerns the socialization of home schooled children. Do your children have a lot of friends, a few close friends, friends from differing age groups, and what activities do they engage in with their peers?
24 replies including:
I am fifteen years old, but because I am homeschooling, all of my friends are neighborhood adults. (3/14/93)
My 11 year old female child still sticks pretty much to her own age group for playing. She has far more free time than her friends who get up at 7 to go to school, get home at 3:30, and have 2 hours of homework 5 nights a week. I have noticed since being home she interacts w/her younger siblings in a fairer and patient manner… (3/14/93)
My daughter is 7 y.o. and easily has as many friends as her public/private schooled counterparts. Most of her friends are at or near her own age…I have noticed that the type of activities she engages in, however, is different with children of varying ages. She relates well emotionally to children younger than herself and tends to play more make-believe games (such as dolls and dress-up) with them. She relates better intellectually to children older than herself and tends to play more mature games requiring skill, logic, advanced knowledge or thought. (3/20/93)
2. What is your level of education? How do you feel your educational experiences have prepared you to home school? Have you ever met a home schooling parent that you felt was not educated well enough to teach their children?
30 replies including:
Dad with BS, MS, DDS. Mom with 2 BS’s plus 2 years of graduate work in science (biology) and education. Education is NOT relevant to homeschooling efforts. The most successful aspects of our homeschooling are derived from the self-directed learner model…I’ve yet to meet a homeschooling parent I felt was not educated enough to homeschool their children. (3/14/93)
As co-founder, member of the Board of Directors, and Media Director of the Home Education League of Parents, I’ve come into contact with hundreds of hmscing parents. My strong opinion is that the level of education of the parents has little or no effect on the success of the hmscing. I also feel that my college degree has no positive effect on our successful hmsc other than in helping me form the opinion that college is not a necessary ingredient to a happy, successful, or prosperous life. I’ve seen parents with little formal education (but great devotion to their children) be very successful hmscers. I’ve seen people with degrees up one sleeve and down the other be far less successful hmscers due to lack of commitment to the family and due to outside business and social pressures. I assume the person asking this question expects more schooling makes a person better at hmscing. The exact opposite may be true. (3/14/93)
The parents closely resemble the general contractor on a building job: the contractor doesn’t do everything by him or herself, he or she HIRES the electrician to do the wiring, the plumber to put in the pipes, etc. therefore, the parents do not have to be proficient in every subject areaCthey just have to know how to find a good resource person. (3/14/93)
3. How involved are you in politics, and what political trends do you see in home schoolers in general?
12 replies including:
We are moderately active politically and are of the Religious Right stripe. We write to (the state capital) and Washington periodically, are devoted Rush Limbaugh listeners, and are in the Reagan Republican class. Less government is better. Strongly pro-Life. (3/14/93)
I think that people who hmsc for religious reasons probably vote Republican. People who hmsc for other reasons or religious + other reasons are a mixed group. We vote and discuss things, but are not politically active otherwise. A few issues are very important to us. We are pro-life and also concerned with how hmscers are viewed by elected officials. I was prepared to go to a rally last year and pass around petitions when it looked though homeschooling would be restricted. I have never done either of these things before. My husband has done some pro-life work before. (3/14/93)
I love politics. I am a member of the Libertarian Party and so is my husband. I am pro-choice on everything. (3/15/93)
4. What characteristics do you see as being common among home schooling parents and where do you see the greatest differences?
8 replies including:
Some similarities…: Care a lot about their kids. LIKE to spend time with their kids. Think parents should decide what’s best for their own kids. Are generally considerate of others’ views on things, although they may disagree completely. Most are self confident in at least the area of “Being Willing to Try it.” Can spend hours in a book store (new or used) or school supply store. Are instantaneously helpful to new homeschoolers or those who are thinking about it. Generally pretty strongly opinionated people in one or more areas (and willing to act on it). United in belief that Kids Should Help With Housework. Most limit TV viewing to some degree. Differences: What’s most important to learn. Who should be president (or mayor, or judge). How much to require of each day. What kind of food to eat. favorite free time activity. Amount of money available for educational stuff. (3/15/93)
I have found …considerate behavior (by the children) to be the rule, rather than the exception with homeschooling families. The biggest difference I can think of, is the differences in teaching methods and curriculum used by the families that homeschool. (3/15/93)
Similarities: Love their children, are especially curious, love learning, and usually reading. Are family-centric. Independently minded and possessing initiative.
Differences (less significant): Educational approach-school-at-home vs unschooling, Christian vs. secular, neat vs messy, those with space for their books and those like us with books everywhere, outdoors types vs indoors types, TV watchers vs TV non-watchers, college educated vs not, Republicans vs Democrats vs Libertarians. Etc. (3/15/93)
5. What event, experience, or circumstance in your own life, or the life of your child, prompted you to take up the task of home education?
26 replies including:
The process was much too complex. It includes 1) our conversion to Christianity, 2) our dissatisfaction with the goings-on in the public schools, 3) some concerns we had at the private Christian schools, and 4) trying to balance our checkbook. Add to that positive exposure we had had to home schoolers and their children and throw in a bit of the typical home schooler feisty independence that we Yankees are known for and we were off. (3/17/93)
Our two kids were straight A students in a Catholic school, but each had a personal learning agenda which was being frustrated by the school…The schools have enough trouble educating the middle-of-the-road kids, but when you get kids from the farther ends of the spectrum into the equation, in my opinion they have failed entirely. When she was little my daughter once said to a friend, “Think of all the wonderful things we could learn if we didn’t have to go to school!” Now she’s finding out. (3/17/93)
We decided to hs because we felt that every child has a right to a special education (and I don’t mean Special Ed. the way the public schools define it!!!), and our son was not receiving one…the system was not going to meet his (our son’s) needs, but WE COULD!!! At home! (3/18/93)
6. What do highly innovative home schoolers look like?
16 replies including:
You can always tell the “highly innovative” hmscers. One foot on the peddle, phone to the ear, one button missing on the shirt, cap on crooked, one shoe lace missing, books under arm, late for dinner, a picture on the wall that needs straightening, and the best darn kids in town! (3/18/93)
What I do is tailor the subjects to fit my kids. My son is studying Q-Basic and will move to C, he is also doing higher mathematics, reading books of his own choice and a history of western civilization, in addition we also do work on language skills. (age 13)
My daughter has designed her own course in creative writing, as well as following a course of reading history (age 15)
I have never depended on text book for our schooling, preferring to use “real” books, ie. the books that adults or others would use to learn a subject of interest to them when they are not in a class. (3/18/93)
Innovative hslers in our house are parents who are usually reading or doing projects or volunteer work and kids who are usually reading or doing projects or volunteer work. We rarely watch TV or just sit around thinking about doing something. Two of us are writers; two of us are inclined in manual arts; two of us are more academic; and the dog thinks he is a “human bean” at times. There is ALWAYS something interesting going on at our place. Right now, we have a budding herpetologist (and a not-so-happy-with-this mother), a computer graphics person, a newly-certified rifleman, and a newly-elected library-department chairperson. Never a dull moment at the… house! (3/18/93)
7. How might the experiences of children educated at home some 20 years ago be different from home education experiences today?
The question presupposes the experiences of home educated students 20 years ago or today can be categorized. There are more Resources From The Self-Appointed Home Education Experts (even though I’m one, I’m not sure how much help I am sometimes). Other than that, and of course, the fact that society has changed, I’m not sure there are significant differences. (3/16/93)
I suspect from reading this bb and talking to others that the main differences for hmscers today as compared with 20 years ago is that more people are hmscing for purely religious reasons (what someone called “default” hmscers) and that there are more support groups, more resources, and fewer legal hassles. (3/16/93)
Twenty years ago, a family would have needed to be very committed to homeschooling to do it in a society that didn’t approve. There are more on-again-off-again types now. Which is fine. There are far more resources, which makes for more integrated curricula, which attracts the reluctant homeschooler, but can trap some into school-at-home where their kids NEED freedom-to-learn…There are also more other people doing it, so you have more group activities available. And more people (like …) to ask for advice. (3/17/93)
8. To what extent is home schooling a viable option for the general public? What are some limitations?
14 replies including:
Since I know single, working parents AND families in which both parents work who successfully home school, I think it’s a viable option for anyone who wants to do it. Homeschooling IS growing. And homeschooling is for every kid (i.e. every kid can benefit from homeschooling). Homeschooling is probably not for every family, however. Realistically, I see the numbers topping out at 20% or so. (3/16/93)
The only limitations are familial and/or medical. A hmscing family must have the commitment, the desire, and be healthy enough to hmsc. A parent must be willing to provide a child with resources or help them seek out resources and if need be, to learn along with them. The reason I put “healthy enough” is that I know a lady who is very pro-hmsc who suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome. She simply hasn’t got the strength to do it. Anyone who is healthy and is willing and committed can hmsc. It’s not just for a parental elite, composed of wildly creative, never short-tempered, perfect parents. All you really need to do is pay attention to your children and their needs and how they learn. Al it takes is love and courage. (3/16/93)
I think if the public schools get much worse home schooling may become not just an option, but a necessity for any caring parent who cannot afford a private school. I have only to read the newspapers every day to find more reasons never to send my daughter to a public school…I believe that most parents are capable of doing a good job home schooling if they wanted to home school. It is simply easier, however, to have someone else take the responsibility and do the teaching. (3/17/93)
9. How do you think that you as a Prodigy member differ from other home schoolers you know who are not on Prodigy?
6 replies including:
The only well-defined difference I find between us (as *P users) and non *P homeschoolers is that we choose this particular mode of communication…I have many computer-literate home-ed friends that simply haven’t made the leap to modeming yet. Others have chosen to use other services. About 50% of my support groups’ members have computers in their homes that are utilized in some fashion for education. Those that don’t find either avenues for learning and communication, just as public schools have for years. I DO feel that the increased availability of ideas/information on a service such as this is of tremendous help to homeschoolers, and many publishers of homeschooling newsletters that are online utilize the opportunity to pass on the wealth to non-*P subscribers. (3/18/93)
I suppose that we here are rather less traditional, more likely to unschool and probably less religiously oriented. We are also likely to be broader minded if only because we are here, enjoying this wonderful resource. Beyond that, we are just your usual, talented, thoughtful, intelligent bunch of lifelong learners who love their kids. Chuckle. (3/18/93)
*P* makes it a whole lot easier to find practical, down-to-earth answers to alot of day-to-day concerns that hslers have. (And that statement comes from a practicing librarian who regularly searches for new books and journals and research about “domestic education” as library catalogers tend to call what we are doing!!!!) I also have gained alot of resolve and courage about our hsling decision because strength comes in numbers sometimes. There are ALOT of us out there! (3/18/93)
10. How do you use technology in your home schooling efforts?
4 replies including:
My 6 and 3 yr. old daughters have both been on the computer from 18 mos. on…They’ve had their own 386 for the last year…We additionally have a filmstrip audio cassette viewer that allows us to use the boxes of available filmstrips from the library. We consider the selective use of technology a major advantage of our home education, but again, it’s only a piece of what we ‘do’. (3/24/93)
technology in the home we use: several computers (hubby has a penchant for acquiring all the latest stuff) on which kids use word processor, games, simulations, *P, of course; several amateur radios, TV & VCR, cassette deck, microscopes, telescopes. Technology in the community: private airplanes from Civil Air Patrol, lab equipment at hospital & vet clinic…That being said, I don’t think it takes fancy computers or any other technology in the home to effectively home school. The most important components might instead be a “can-do” attitude, lots of books, and a host of challenging worthwhile problems to solve. Less IS more. (3/24/93)
We have 2 computers (1 new 1 old) with a lot of software; VCR, (Nintendo ), CD ROM for 1 computer, Scanner, CD player, cassette player, camera, electric typewriter. We have a Radio Shack kit to make 30 electronic projects (not used yet). My wish list includes a good microscope, field binoculars, and telescope. (3/24/93)
The data presented in this study do not represent an attempt to define a population for generalizations. One of the messages from the home schooling parents was that perhaps few generalizations should be made concerning home schooling parents. However at the same time that many home schooling parents were identifying home schoolers as an independent and diverse group, they were also stating that they felt that home schoolers on Prodigy were no different than other home schoolers. How representative they are of other home schoolers is not important at this point. What is important is there existence and the means that allows them to exist as a unique entity. In the 1990s there now exists a network and support group of parents joined by a cause and a computer. Approximately 185 families from 37 states exchange ideas and information on a fairly regular basis without ever physically meeting. To assume that the people that share this experience are not different in some qualitative way seems unreasonable.
There did appear to be some shared traits among the home schoolers posting notes on the computer bulletin board:
1. Knowledgeable and sophisticated. This was not a group that was teaching by the seat of their pants. They knew materials and methods of instruction. They were knowledgeable of the laws that effected them, as well as the educational system(s) which they either knew how to take advantage of it, or knew which mechanisms existed that could be a possible threat to their home schooling. They were a fairly well educated group that felt that their own formal education contributed little to their success as home schooling parents.
2. Technology and equipment. Many of the home schooling parents on Prodigy are armed to the teeth with educational materials and technology. They all have computers and use them. Although they tended to downplay the importance of the technology, the impact that it is having on their children would probably be hard to ignore.
3. Supportive. This is a supportive and at times defensive group of parents. The supportive nature of this group was evidenced in the number of responses for every request. There were at least two responses containing information for every note asking for help. During the review of notes an occasional “drive by shooter” would post a note questioning a particular response or the practice of home schooling in general. Other replies from other home schooling parents would quickly follow in support of the home schooler (and this does not include private notes sent).
As a postscript, I would like to mention some of the conversation that occurred after the last research question was posted. The author offered to answer home schoolers’ questions concerning educational psychology and education in general. A good deal of hostility and defensiveness about schools and the professional education community exists in many home schooling parents. Negative experiences with the public schools have left many home schooling parents discouraged and angry with public education. As the author expressed his hopes for bettering public education and continued to request ways to improve public education from the home schooling parents, the conversation ended. It would seem evident that the way to solve the problems facing education in the United States is not for everyone to keep their children home until they approach adulthood. It is difficult to argue, however, with the approach and apparent success that this innovative group of sophisticated computer users have adopted.
The author wishes to express his gratitude to Richard Shalvoy, Ph.D. for sharing an anonymous version of the Prodigy HMSCers Directory which he collected. His contribution served as the basis for a major part of this paper. The author also acknowledges the assistance of Cynthia Marchant in the organization of data used in this study. The author wishes to express thanks to those who responded to his call for questions to home schoolers, especially Gary Knowles, April Chatham, Scott Howell, and Richard Robinson.
Knowles, J. G., Marlow, S. E., & Muchmore, J. A. (1992). From pedagogy to ideology: Origins and phases of home education in the United States. American Journal of Education, 100(2), 195-235.
Marchant, G. J., & MacDonald, S. C. (1992, April). How home schoolers school: Ohio profiles. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA.
McLuhan, M., & Fiore, Q. (1967). The medium is the massage. Touchstone, NY.
Ray, B. D. (1988). Home schools: A synthesis of research characteristics and learner outcomes. Education and Urban Society, 21, 23-26.
Van Galen, J. A. (1988). Ideology, curriculum, and pedagogy in home education. Education and Urban Society, 21, 52-68.