Homeschool Technology and Online Communication
Every year more and more families make a commitment to homeschool their children. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the US Department of Education reported “1.5 million students were homeschooled in the United States in the spring of 2007” (Institute for Education Science, 2008, ¶4). These figures indicated a rise of about 7% per annum over the preceding decade (Home School Legal Defense Association, 2009, ¶1). Ray (2011) reported that by Spring of 2010 there were just over 2 million home-educated students.
These statistics raise these questions: Can an educational multi-media web site, dedicated specifically to facilitate communication and resource sharing, positively contribute towards each individual homeschool family’s goals and needs during the year? Would this web site help families feel more connected throughout the school year? Simply put, would this type of site help homeschool families stay connected and informed?
Parents who choose to homeschool continue to be amongst a growing population. Due to this fact, it has become difficult to describe the typical homeschooling student and family, as well as the general reason why parents make the decision to educate at home. The homeschool population is comprised of different socio-economic conditions, race, and religious beliefs. “By its very nature, homeschooling cannot be easily described. There is no unified homeschool movement, no standardized curriculum or centralized source of information on academic achievement” (McReynolds, 2007, p.36). It is because of this reason that defining the typical homeschooler and designing a program, curriculum, instruction, and technology for this group of learners is almost impossible.
“Differentiation is what homeschool is all about”, said Sherry Bushnell (Ray, 2002, p.50). Ray goes on to explain that homeschool parents are a diverse group, with varied incomes, degreed levels, ethnicities, and religions. Many of these parents choose homeschool for varied personal reasons, amongst these there is a strong consensus that through homeschool there is a greater ability for parents to “help their children accomplish more academically than they can accomplish at school; and individualize each child’s curriculum, instruction and learning environment” (Ray 2002, p.51; Carper, 2000).
The criterion by which a homeschool parent chooses their curriculum is different from that of a teacher. Teachers are constrained by state and national requirements; they need to take into consideration a wide range of learning styles and student needs. “Teachers must consider the broadest range of students’ needs, while parents have the luxury of concentrating on the needs of their own children” (Lally, 2003, p.1). Homeschool parents are not looking for the industrialized technology based tools that educators require. On the contrary, they are looking for the tools that will meet the needs of their particular learners, more hands on, non-standardized learning means of learning.
Characteristics of a Homeschooler
Bannier (2007) noted that while there were still discrepancies amongst homeschool families’ individual views, “research shows that home-schooled students not only achieve academically, they consistently outperform their classroom-schooled peers” (p. 63). Bannier also presented an interesting theory for this: “This may well relate to the fact that home schooling parents hand select their curricula and assessment materials to meet the needs of their learners, and are afforded a great deal of time per student” (p. 63). Based on these results, it is no surprise that in the same study, “almost every participating parent cited pace as being most significant” (p. 65).
Homeschooling allows students to learn at their own pace and spend more time on certain material, while moving quickly though mastered subjects. This is something that a structured school does not permit. Time, which is a main factor of the traditional classroom, is not an imminent issue for the homeschooler. Parents have more flexibility to tailor their schedule and subjects around their children’s needs. Discussions and interactions are open and parents have the opportunity to use multiple teaching strategies. According to Ray (2002) the lack of mandated time schedules provide homeschoolers the opportunity to take part in “apprenticeships, internships, field trips, volunteer service, jobs, trade schools, and college” (p.52).
Taylor (1997) illustrates the importance of experiences in learning. “Public schools do not serve everyone” (p.111). Different learning styles, abilities, personalities, and interests make learning a greater challenge for some students in the traditional brick and mortar buildings. While Taylor’s observations yielded a variety of reasons and beliefs prompting the decision of these families to homeschool, there was a commonality shared by these families, this was a strong concern for whom was teaching their children.
In the same study conducted by Taylor (1997) she observed the limitations which public schools were presented with when it came to providing a flexible learning environment where diverse learners would get what they needed.
Much of Bannier’s (2007) research highlighted the use of various forms of assessment for the evaluation of concepts learned and how parents supplement these deficiencies accordingly or make curriculum modifications to make up for this. Knowing their children’s learning styles also helps parents determine which approach to use when choosing what would work best with their learners. While teachers may use technology as a tool for assessing or evaluating, parents in most states are not required to use traditional evaluation methods. So, many parents opt out of using many of these evaluation practices with their learners.
According to Akinoglu (2009) the Internet “is now the main source of information for written, oral, and visual communication among people” (p.97). For classroom and home-schooled students alike, the use of the Internet is essential in completing a great deal of homework and class work assignments. “The Internet, above all, offers freedom to individuals; one can stay away from the problems of formal education and can complement his/her deficiencies in the way he/she wants since learning is individual (Akinoglu, 2009, p. 98).”
In his study Akinoglu found that 79% of the teacher trainees in question used the Internet to look for information and they also reported the number one reason to use the Internet was because of the easy access to information and the second benefit was how easy it makes communication (2009, p.102). Still, not all educators see technology as a friend. While technology is often followed or joined by the term progress, there are others who feel the wide use of technology comes with a price. Depersonalized instruction, teachers becoming moderators or facilitators of educational material, and the lack of human interaction, are just some of the negative annotations that come with greater use of technology in the classroom. According to Johnsen and Taylor (2002),
The internet, is presented as a way to foster student-centered learning, and in this phase, intoned as if immutable axiom of learning theory, carries the inevitable rider that, finally, we can move beyond teacher based learning towards a teacher-as-student peer model. But the teacher-as-student peer ignores a child’s longing for a structure with meaning and a basis for grounding belief. (p. 22)
Bannier (2007) suggests, “Seeking out the best practices in education is a common sense goal for all developmental educators. By seeking out new expertise, by sharing adapting, and practicing, we make ourselves more valuable to our students” (p.66). With this in mind is it just as necessary for parents who educate at home, to have access and knowledge of the technology tools that are available for teaching and learning. Yet, it is also important to note the reasons why parents chose to homeschool. These reasons are a deciding factor of how much, or how many of these technology tools, families will be incorporating into their practices. This is even more apparent during the elementary school years, when most parents feel a greater need to establish an interpersonal bond with their children, over a structured list of educational milestones.
As homeschooled learners increase in numbers, studies on their educational success and the type of curriculum chosen by parents’ effect on this success will increasingly be calculated in the years to come. This variety of choices has allowed many parents to begin seeing homeschool as a tangible option for their family. The availability of online learning and Internet biased educational support has continued to solidify and encourage many parents to make the final decision to homeschool their children. Amongst the options parents are now presented with, MacReynold (2007) observes,
Some homeschooled children follow a traditional curriculum and a set schedule, some are “deschooled,” a style of homeschooling that permits children to follow their own interests at their own pace. Some homeschoolers engage in “distance learning,” i.e., Internet-based instruction, and purchase books and ready-made curricula. Many make or find their own materials, join learning cooperatives, and make use of community-based learning opportunities, such as public lectures, Community Theater, and continuing education classes (McReynolds, 2007, p.36; Russo 1999). Increasingly, homeschoolers are joining together to share resources and even to form partnerships with traditional schools (McReynolds, 2007, p.37; Bauman 2001; Blanchard 2006).”
In a case study done by Morrison (2007), she observed a typical homeschool family of 3 children, in four different settings: home, library, science fair, and park (p.43). Sitting in through a normal homeschool day with them, Morrison found that, each child in this family had a specific learning style, method, and unique learning interests. While the mother stated she was always available for questions, Morrison’s study showed 3 very independent learners, who made many of their own decisions when it came to how and what they learned about. This particular family had no set schedule and did not differentiate between weekends or holidays when it came to schooling.
In John Holt’s earlier writings he found that, “children will get involved in a number of things once they trust us [adults, parents, teachers] and believe that we respect their interests” (Morrison, 2007, p.45; Holt, 1972, p. 96). In Holt’s same argument he acknowledged the wide belief of educators, which is that students are not responsible for their own learning when given the independence to accomplish the work on their own. Holt highlights a very important key factor in these assessments; all of these are based on the traditional brick and mortar, industrial era, form of education. This method of learning is a behavioral model where students have been conditioned to await an instruction, which is followed by a response. They are constantly told what to do, this conditioning has led them to a state of being in which they are led to think their decision making skills, or lack of, cannot be trusted.
Unschooling is just one of the forms of home education chosen by parents amongst the homeschool community. Being the least structured in its form, it still shares a commonality with many of the philosophies and theories shared by homeschool families alike. As Morrison (2007) observed from the Unschooling family she based her research on, “The parents hope that a likely outcome of such teaching methods is that the children become active creators of knowledge, rather than passive consumers of information” (p.47).
It is highly improbable that teachers or educators will ever agree on the correct, or even best way to assure the most effective learning. Much in the same way, homeschool families will continue to respect, yet disagree in the correct way to teach their own children. As the homeschool community continues to grow there will most certainly be greater diversity in the theories of best practice. Parents who decide to homeschool because they are not able to afford private school in this economy may not necessarily be called to teach and they may have a greater need for online curriculums, or at least greater support from web based learning modules. Parents who may have decided to leave technology related jobs, or those who find they are able to do these jobs while homeschooling may be more inclined to use education with a greater technology base. Also, as parents become more aware of the career choices and opportunities that will belong to their children, their need to incorporate technology into learning will become less of an option and more of a reality.
Sixteen homeschool families agreed to participate in a forum/blog type website where they could share educational resources and communicate with other families online. Three research cycles were created, each lasting approximately 5-6 weeks.
The objective of cycle one was to establish a platform where parents could share and access online links and resources that would enhance their current teaching practices. The website was launched on September 1, 2009 and the 16 participating families were sent passwords to a protected site where they could freely share tools, opinions, links, information, and support with each other. The study was designed around cognitive learning domains, through its educational resource lists and by allowing parents to learn from each other’s experiences. Affective learning was also attained, through the camaraderie and support the site was meant to offer. Broader resources were presented as a means to challenge learners in new and more effective ways.
The domain name www.meettheworld.info was purchased and pre-designed templates were chosen for development. This allowed full focus on content research, versus time spent developing databases or debugging code. Based on the researcher’s own homeschooled student’s curriculum, subject pages for geography, math, science, language, media, and art were created. A series of links, tutorials, and technology related resources were presented that could easily be incorporated into any family’s homeschool lessons. These links offered open source content, free downloads, learning games, and yearly deals and activities that homeschoolers could easily benefit from. Two blog pages were also included for parents to share their most successful resources and comments.
Some of the resources included were Google Earth, with a series of tutorials on its use and implementation for educators. National Geographic Kids for games, activities, and images about diverse cultures, animals, and ecosystems around the world. Printable Maps were added as a tool to help with geography and links to Handwriting worksheets, typing sites, and online resources were provided as a means of motivating learners to practice writing skills. Media that could help students remember information about topics such as the water cycle, meridians, and the names of the 50 states on a U.S. map. All of these presented through different mediums, music, video, and slides. Through these examples parents could visualize the power of media in learning, as well as become motivated to create presentations of their own. Math game ideas, sites for practicing drills, and tips for encouraging elementary school math learners. An art page was also included with various project illustrations, tips, and an interactive lesson. The final two-blog pages encouraged communication between families and inter-family resource sharing.
Cycle one was completed on October 14, 2009. Data was collected through both qualitative and quantitative means, in the form of a survey, emails, blog comments, and face-to-face communication. By the end of cycle one, the hit counter was at 153 hits, the pages with highest views were the core pages (math, language, science). There were a total of 3 blog comments posted and 4 direct emails with suggestions and feedback were received. Three other participating families spoke with the researcher directly. The data collected during this cycle, showed very little blogging and only one of the 16 active participating families shared a resource with the rest of the group.
Through discussions with these families the researcher found that many families preferred making the effort to arrange face-to-face meetings. Parents reported using this time as a way to give their children a greater opportunity to spend time with their friends. The diversity of curriculum used between families was another reason the online collaboration was limited, a finding later corroborated by the literature review. Parents had different goals, teaching, grading, and evaluation methods, unlike traditional school where there is a standard curriculum and a standardized test to which is taught. Most homeschool parents teach to various age groups within the same school day and many of the parents within the research group seem to prefer a more hands on approach to learning when possible. The participating parents commented on the usefulness of the educational links and response though limited, was overall positive. The input and observations received by the participating families determined certain changes made in cycle two.
When this research topic was conceived, a site for homeschool parental communication did not exist for the participating families. This was no longer the case once the study had begun. The homeschool association, to which these families belonged to, launched a parent forum that could enable communication, during cycle one implementation. Based on this, cycle two focused on the second area of the initial research topic, online educational resource sharing. Cycle two implementation began on October 15, 2009 and the goal was to provide these same 16 participating families, with a cohesive series of digital storytelling resources. These resources would enable parents to see the value of incorporating Digital Storytelling in learning and also teach them how to use this as a tool for teaching.
Once this cycle was completed parents would have learned about digital storytelling and its application within education. Through the tutorials, links, and information presented parents could begin to visualize multiple uses for digital storytelling and generate ideas on how its implementation could enhance their student’s lessons. Parents were also encouraged to share their experiences, questions, and comments with one another on this topic. Based on cognitive learning domain, parents would gain the knowledge to begin implementing digital storytelling into future lessons. Once parents learned about digital storytelling, they could use these new tools to either create new lessons for their learners, or motivate their learners to create their own. Visual and auditory learners would benefit from this technique and it could serve as a final goal for student research-based work. The higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy would be challenged through the research and development of student digital story content.
Through a blog forum format, a 10-minute tutorial on the www.meettheworld.info site was presented, outlining the benefits of using digital storytelling in education. An overview of free and paid movie making software programs were described along with an extensive list of free websites containing music, effects, and images that could be added into these stories. Two downloadable storyboarding pages from which their learners could begin planning out their projects were included. For parents that did not want to purchase movie-making software, two free easy to use Web 2.0 tools were included with a step-by-step tutorial for each. Links to various digital stories that could illustrate the finished product were given, as well as two digital stories created by the researcher’s learners. The blog format on which they were presented enabled parents to ask questions, provide feedback and possibly share some of the stories created with their learners.
Cycle two was completed on November 14, 2009. Data was collected through both qualitative and quantitative means, in the form of surveys, emails, blog comments, and face-to-face communication. Parents were notified through email and on the main site page, of the addition of these tutorials to the site. The feedback for this cycle was positive and the emails received consisted of parents requesting additional tutorials on the site. Some parents said they wished they had more time to incorporate some of the ideas presented on the website and others said that they would have to take more time through the holidays to look at this information in-depth.
The majority of parents did not use the survey or email as a response tool. When asked during face-to-face meetings many said that they skimmed through the information, but that they did not see themselves implementing digital storytelling this year since they already had a great deal of curriculum to work through. Some said they would look into this for the next school year, and still others stated they preferred hands-on face-to-face learning, as seen in Figure 1 (Appendix). Parents felt this technique would take a great deal of time to accomplish and although they would like to use this for a lesson at some point, they were unable to incorporate it at this time.
Cycle three was implemented on November 14, 2009 through the addition of a blog style webpage to the www.meetheworld.info website. This new page provided parents with all of the tools and information needed to begin implementing the use of blogs with their learners. The content was presented in a forum/blog format so parents could ask questions, comment, and possibly share some of the blogs their students created through the knowledge gained from the site. The project audience was the same 16 participating homeschool families from cycle one and two.
Cycle three was designed to explain the diverse applications of blogging within education. Through tutorials, links, and the information presented, parents could begin to visualize multiple benefits of blogging and generate ideas on how its implementation could enhance their student’s lessons. The use of blogs would help learners work on writing skills, while generating a platform, where they could share their ideas on a larger scale and to a wider audience. Blogging could provide a more enriching learning experience by providing an opportunity to collaborate and share with friends, family, and members of the community. It would also challenge students to use higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.
This additional webpage included a video introduction to the definition of a Blog and information about the relevance of Blogging in education. Listing a series of blog sites, the researcher compiled an overview of the benefits each offered, as well as the positive and negative aspects of paid and free Blog sites. Two student blog sites, made by the researcher’s homeschool learners, were made available for viewing. This was done so parents could visualize a finished blog site. Finally, a tutorial on how to open a Blogger.com account was added to facilitate their immediate blog launch.
Cycle three ended on January 8, 2010. Data was collected through both qualitative and quantitative means, in the form of surveys, emails, blog comments, and face-to-face communication. Parents were notified through email and on the main site page, of the addition of these tutorials to the site. Blogging was introduced in this final cycle as a resource that could be incorporated into student’s lessons with minimal disruption. Based on cycle two feedback, parents felt digital storytelling demanded a great deal of time and planning. Blogging would have a much smaller learning curve and would not require any change in student’s curriculum.
The material was posted over the holidays and the web counter on the Blog web page went from 2 hits to 30 in the first two weeks from the posted date. Two weeks later email reminders were re-sent announcing the new material and two weeks later another reminder was sent. A final email was sent out with a web survey link-asking parents to fill out a final questionnaire and requesting they share any final comments about the www.meettheworld.info site.
Throughout the study parents had been sent bi-weekly emails notifying them of site updates. While the results were positive, from the original 16 families that agreed to participate, only 5 completed the final survey.
The survey results and comments for Cycle three concluded that face-to-face and hands on learning was still the preferred method of teaching. Online learning was seen as a means of research or used for fun once lessons were completed, as seen in Figure 2 (Appendix). Parents also expressed apprehension when it came to displaying student’s thoughts, images, or information online.
In conclusion, findings were concurrent with the literature. Despite diverse curriculum choices and varied teaching practices, parents of Elementary age homeschoolers prefer teaching through hands on and face-to-face lessons. Many families use meetings and field trips as a way for children to socialize and interact with friends. It also provides parents an opportunity to come together, share resources, and support one another. However, as students get older, the subject material may become more challenging and parents then find, that online learning may be a possible solution to their student’s educational demands, as seen in Figure 3 (Appendix). The growth of home education has provided parents with many curriculum resources, thus relieving the need of extensive research in order to prepare lesson content. Yet, diverse age and family size put additional time constrains on parent educators.
After the research was completed, comments on the site and password protection were removed to guarantee the privacy of the participants and allow others to use the site. A future study, with middle and high-homeschooled families, may yield greater technology resource incorporation. Based on the literature review and findings, within older age groups parents are more interested in incorporating wider use of online resources within their curriculum.
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