Homeschooling in the Digital Age

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“Time to get off the computer.”

I don’t know how often I say that to my boys. I say it politely, adding a please. I say it with a time attached, giving a number of minutes. I say it with fewer words, each a sentence of its own: “Get. Off. Now.”  I say it with more: “If you continue to sit at that computer after I’ve asked you to get off, you’ll not see that game tomorrow (or this week, this month, in a lifetime of Thursdays).” I’ve yelled it. I’ve written it as a note or passed it as a text. Some I’ve even cried while saying it.

This is homeschooling in the digital age.

When I started this gig at the start of 2005, mom to one seven-year-old and one three-year-old, we had one computer, and we used it minimally. I checked my email. My older son might play a game for 30 minutes a day. I sometimes sought out homeschooling information and read through the archives of the TAGMAX and the like. My cell phone was a pay-as-you go, and texting wasn’t a verb I knew. As a family, we were fairly strict about “screen time.” We had a few educational games (remember Zoombinis?), and TV watching was limited to documentaries and other overtly educational programing. Our internet connection was slow, and our cable line nonexistent. We were largely unplugged.

We’ve come a long way on the technology train since then. As I write this, my older son, almost 17,  is in the basement on the computer he built, an “ancient” laptop (5 years old) nearby on the floor, sporting an operating system that isn’t familiar to me and being used for purposes I don’t understand. He’s doing his biology using online software from Plato Courseware. Before that, he worked on his 3D Programming course and his Intro to Statistics course, both free offerings through Udacity, one of several available MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. Later, he’ll log into his course on the local community college’s website to work on his Advanced C++ programming class or English 101 course. At some point, he’ll turn to his Java homework, and while the homeschooling group class he attends this week is a live, in-person experience, the programming work is all on the computer, of course. After that, he’ll click through to  Codeacademy, his go-to site for informally picking up computer languages, where he’s picking up Ruby, a language, he tells me, that is something like Python, which still means little to a mom who learned Basic and Pascal decades ago. Then have an IRL human experience in the afternoon: real teens chatting and eating while real moms drink coffee and chat. Then, after an IRL dinner at the kitchen table, he’s likely back down to his computer to Skype with either programming online friends from the college or to Skype/Minecraft with a good buddies (most whom he knows in their human form).

His brother, twelve, who’s at another machine built by his brother, is on the main floor, working (I hope) on his Marine Biology Coursera course, another MOOC offering, or perhaps on one of his literature classes from Online G3. He could be checking in on what’s due for Biology, an IRL class I teach but that has assignments posted on the web and sites to visit on the web. Perhaps he’s honing his latest essay about aquariums and fish-keeping, using Google Drive for writing and the internet for research. Either way, after practicing the very real piano, tending to his water-, fish-, and plant-filled aquarium, and reading a book made of paper, he’ll spend an hour or two on Skype with a friend he knows in human form and play Minecraft. Loudly. Then we’re off to fencing — the live type, with foils, epees, sabers, and real humans.

As I read through those paragraphs, those ones that plant my children, for hours a day, a foot or two from a screen, I’m filled with a mix of awe, sadness, and concern. I’m awed at the offerings my kids have. Homeschooling has never been deeper in its offerings than it is now. While my younger still spends a few hours a day at the proverbial kitchen table with books, papers, and a real pencil, working with Mom, more and more the picture of homeschooling is more akin to partaking in a buffet than the family-style meal it used to be, and the buffet includes some incredible online offerings.

This metaphor, introduced to me by a friend as she related how she explained their eclectic homeschooling style to friends and the Powers that Be on the college Common App (meaning even the college application process has gone digital), fits how many families now homeschool. I can’t think of a more apt comparison. This monstrous buffet caters to learners of all styles and with all sensibilities. There are endless choices: traditional texts and workbooks, online classes for free, online courses for more than free, homeschool classes via co-op or even school district, in-school electives, DVD programs, subscription classes, field trips created for homeschoolers, individualized instruction online or live, dual enrollment classes at local colleges and universities — or online, and much, much more. It’s overwhelming, frankly.

A decade ago, when homeschooling was the back-up plan if the second school in two years failed, I talked to friends and paged through catalogues. I dog-eared pages and took trips to the local teacher’s store. I attended used curriculum sales, frequented used curriculum sites, and purchased the leftovers of my friends. We were at the library weekly, often with dozens of books exchanging residence during the visit. Our homeschooling day was a mix of reading aloud, discussing any variety of topics, working through math workbooks, doing science experiments, watching science videos, and playing. The computer had little to do with it.

Today, our internet connection is our lifeline. It links my younger son, who has Asperger’s and finds real-life interaction fatiguing and bewildering,  to classes, friends, and aquarium enthusiasts (he’s a bit fish-obsessed). I’ve seen his social skills grow, interestingly, and I attribute some of that to the practice with people without bodies that he gets through audio-only Skyping with friends. (Facial expressions and body language can overwhelm some people on the autism spectrum. He does experience people live often enough to be building skills in this area of communication as well.) It connects my older son with friends, other programmers, a few mentors, and even to students who can benefit from his programming knowledge. It brings him classes he can’t get from a book and encourages the rabbit trails that have brought him to find himself fascinated with computer engineering and programming.

And yet I remain uncertain about my sons’ relationship with their computers and the worlds they open to them. It’s hard to manage the lure of the online world, full of stimulation and distraction. I struggle myself, and I’m far from my impulse-driven teens. As a forty-something adult, I find myself checking email, online Scrabble, text messages, and Facebook far often than I likely should, distracted from writing and assorted computer-based obligations. Those temptations threaten the rest of my time, with a smart phone that makes access to diversions way too easy. So if I struggle, an adult with a (theoretically) fully developed frontal lobe with no deficits of executive function except those induced by child-rearing and homeschooling, how hard must it be for them, with their developing teen brains, to manage the Siren’s song of the digital world, balancing work and pleasure with habit and addiction?

Mighty hard. And so I set limits. I insist on meals at the kitchen table and time away from screens.  I plan time for them away from the screen and with live humans. But as my children age, I give them more say in how they manage their time, on the computer and off. This is part of their education, the management of whims and work, the balance of life offline with life (and often work) online. With practice, support, judicious limits, plenty of reminders, and some missteps on my part and theirs, I’m confident they can move healthily from homeschooling teens to working adults while living in the digital age.

Experience/Review: Coursera

We’ve wading into new territory this semester. We’re hardly alone. With over 75,000 learners from around the globe and spanning many decades, my younger son is exploring connections in world history. My older is finishing a science fiction and fantasy literature course while starting a class in beginning Python programming. We’ve sampled just a touch of what this mode of learning offers. At this writing, Coursera lists 198 MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), ranging from neuroscience to economics to physics. The preponderance of courses are in mathematics, computers, and science, with a smattering of business and liberal arts offerings making up the rest. All are free and, as the name suggests, all have massive attendance.

Unlike many previous free offerings from universities, these aren’t self-paced, self- evaluated classes. These run at the pace of a college course, albeit generally shorter. Coursera’s offerings run from three to twelve weeks in length with start times scattered throughout the calendar, so just about any time during the year, a class is beginning. While the format differs somewhat for each course, the basic set-up is the same. About two hours of lectures are released weekly, each broken up into shorter segments. Sometimes, an informal quiz falls at the end of the lecture, allowing the learner to check on his or her knowledge. Assessments vary, with objective quizzes dotting the schedules of some and peer-graded papers dominating in others. Some even have final exams.  All have deadlines.

I love that last part.

There is the potential for an interactive experience in Coursera. There are discussion forums for each class, with separate lists for a variety of topics. In part, these are designed to foster conversation about the material or address questions students have. My older has participated a bit, and while I’ve had my younger son check in on them, he has no interest in participating. Meet-up groups are also listed, with people gathering live in small communities to discuss class material. We’ve not explored this option yet, keeping discussion at home for now. These courses would be fine material for a group of homeschoolers to explore together, possibly meeting to discuss assignments or the lectures. If the courses we’ve experienced are any indication, there would be no need to add more material to what’s offered. These are time-intensive offerings — full courses unto themselves, but a live setting for discussion would make the experience richer.

Make no mistake. These courses are not geared toward the under-18 audience. While that’s not likely to matter for most of the classes, my older son’s Fantasy and Science Fiction literature class had numerous (appropriate) references to sex and sexual symbolism. As a previous English major, I wasn’t surprised by these. As a mom, I took them as a learning opportunity about literary analysis. My son survived, although he stuck to choosing essay topics about other literary elements. I’d have been less sanguine about my younger son, 11 years, had he been in the course, but between the reading list and the nature of literary analysis courses, I knew better than to enroll him.  The history course he’s taken has made brief references to the spread of sexually transmitted infections by sailors leaving the Americas and to rape within the context of historical events, both appropriate to the topic at hand. Again, my approach has been to use these times to inform and discuss.  History is full of difficult topics, and I expected some challenges; these topics have been manageable for our household, but some families may want to stick to more technical courses that have less likelihood of wandering into these territories.

The experiences of firm deadlines and peer review are perhaps the two most likely to challenge the homeschooling student. While my sons have had a moderate amount of exposure to deadlines for other online classes and real-life classes, they’ve little experience with the perils of missing a deadline, which, for the courses we’ve experienced so far, can mean receiving a zero for an assignment. I’m grateful for this reality check, and as most of us homeschooling parents know, having that reality come from outside of us makes it all the more, well, real. So far, both boys are on target with these dates, and we’ve taken to artificially advancing the time and date due to avoid last-minute rushes or the inevitable technology crash occurring at the wrong moment. My older son has translated this well to his university courses, and I can see healthy habits beginning.

Kids in school today generally have a fair amount of experience with peer review, an experience I was largely spared as a child. Coursera’s version, at least in our experience so far, relies on a rubric (a scale of 1 to 3, in our experience) with accompanying comments from the student readers. For one class, if you did not submit your reviews, you received no grade on your writing, thus impacting your final grade. My older son found these doing reviews and grading difficult initially. With no experience writing literary analysis, he had little to on which to base his judgement of others work. Initially, we worked together. But in a few weeks, he took on the task himself, seeking me out if there was a theme in an essay that didn’t make sense to him (often due to lack of his experience and knowledge, not due to a fellow student’s lack of clarity). His grades each week were an average of the responses of four readers, thus blunting the most optimistic and pessimistic reviewers while still allowing him to see what everyone’s ratings and comments.

Reviewing the work of others, he found, strengthened his own writing. He saw that grammatical errors and poorly proofread work were laborious to read. I’d told him that for years, but it all became obvious when reading four other essays a week for ten weeks. He learned economy of words, since he had only 320 words with which to express himself. As a sometimes wordy writer, this was invaluable. Both through the process of reviewing others and being reviewed, he found his writing improve. We were both delighted.

While we’ve only sampled a bit of what Coursera has to offer, I can say I’m impressed by the quality of the lectures, the intentionality of the assignments, and the organization of the courses themselves. Like a live course, some professors will appeal to some learners more than others. Some classes will be more demanding than others. Some assignments are clearer than others. Overall, there is plenty here for homeschoolers working at the high school level and beyond to appreciate. There is plenty to challenge young, bright learners who either aren’t ready for the college classroom (my younger son) or want a more convenient  affordable way to access college-level content.

Here are a few additional considerations for those considering Coursera for the homeschooled student:

  • Read course descriptions carefully. Some classes are clearly for beginners while others, despite benign titles, are designed for those with far more experience.
  • Pay attention to the time requirement mentioned and the syllabus (if available) before signing up. Sure, gifted learners may require less time to master material, but the hours of lecture, readings, and assignments add up.
  • Consider having your child just sit in for the lectures if that’s more appropriate for your learner. No one comes after you if you don’t do the work, and for some students, just the lectures may be what they’re after. The work however, is what differentiates these classes from Teaching Company classes.
  • Be prepared to support the younger learner, especially at the start of a class. For the child newer to online learning at a rapid pace, organizational assistance may be in order. For peer review work, some advising and supervision initially can ensure that the critique heading out is respectful and useful to the reader.

MOOCs are part of the future of higher education. Udacity and edX also offer similar experiences with a focus on math, computers, and the sciences. More opportunities for university-level learning for no or minimal cost can benefit a range of learners, including the homeschooled student ready for higher-level studies. While I’d not want all my children’s content to come through the internet, it’s a fine way to bring high-quality content home.