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The Homeschool Tech Boom

Homeschoolers in Pennsylvania, Delaware and South Jersey talk about the technology they use as part of their kids’ lesson plans.

Homeschoolers don’t leave the house to learn, yet the world is their classroom, delivered to their door in bits, bytes and code. The technology explosion has been a boon for the homeschool community, offering innovative outlets for learning unheard-of even a few years back.

“There is a greater use of technology now,” confirms Bella Victor, a Philadelphia mom who has homeschooled all five of her children, the oldest of which are now college-age. “My younger kids are using more online courses and software compared to my older children. These make the learning process more student-centered, easier, cheaper and faster.”

Interactive homeschool curricula

Area homeschoolers augment traditional textbook coursework with free and fee-based interactive online courses offered by sites like Time4learning, Landry Academy, Homeschool 2.0, Memoria Press, Stanford University's Education Program for Gifted Youth and the Institute for Excellence in Writing, which one seasoned South Jersey homeschool mom “who has bought almost every writing curriculum available” believes is the “best on the market.”  

The Virtual Charter School Option
The ultimate in homeschooling technology is the full-time virtual charter school.

In Pennsylvania, these state-funded public-school programs deliver a complete course load to homeschoolers’ computers.
They can also deliver much of the equipment students need to attend a cyber school, including desktops or laptops, headsets with microphones, printers (plus ink), webcams and digital cameras; many programs also reimburse students’ home Internet connection fees.

“The top schools in the country are using online curriculum to teach,” says Dr. James Hoover, CEO of PA Distance Learning Charter School.

Each virtual school offers a different school experience. At Agora Cyber Charter School, a “blended learning” approach means that its young learners, K-3 students, spend “only 20 to 25 percent of their time on the computer, during which they get to interact online with a teacher and other students,” explains director Sharon Williams. The rest of their day is taken up in offline work, supervised by a parent. (Older children do use the computer for the majority of their coursework.) Sports and other face-to-face activities ensure that students of all ages get to mingle in person.

A learning management system called Moodle allows students of Achievement House Cyber Charter School to fully customize their workload and move through curricula at their own pace. “We use Blackboard Collaborate, which is like a live chat room with options for video, voice and text,” says Lynn Rodden, senior director of communications for the school, which serves 7th through 12th graders. “Students can see teachers, who can privately message or instruct them” in real time.

Hoover touts the order his program’s “highly certified teachers” are able to maintain over the proceedings. “We have a virtual classroom where students can actually raise their hands,” he explains. “In order to speak, a student must be given the floor. Some kids think they’ll attend and it’ll be incredibly easy, but it’s just like any other school; they need to participate. We take attendance. If you’re a student in my class, I can look at what you’re looking at.”
But mostly, he says, students take to cyber school “like a duck to water. These kids are part of the Internet generation.”

“My kids take AP calculus and composition class through the Potters School program,” says Josefina Hendry, a Philadelphia mom of two homeschoolers. “It’s rigorous and thorough and takes extra stress off me because I’m not skilled in those subjects.” Her kids are equally enthusiastic about the program, which is taught through a live feed that delivers audio, slide shows, whiteboard presentations, annotation markup and screen sharing. The comprehensive package allows Hendry’s kids to interact not only with their computer screens but also with their teachers and fellow students in real time.

Joyce R., a Delaware homeschooler, boosts her kids’ math studies with Teaching Textbooks. This curriculum combines old-school workbooks with interactive CD-ROMs containing instruction, hints and assessments. “During lessons, they hear the voice of the instructor, and there are examples where they can see if they got the answer right or wrong,” Joyce explains. “In a traditional classroom, students have to do a full assignment and wait before knowing if they understand the material. Here, the kids get immediate feedback and assessments are automatically graded.”

Fun ways to learn at home

“There are so many ways to use the Internet in conjunction with homeschooling, it’s hard to make a complete list,” says veteran South Jersey “unschooler” Sharon Ardito, who instead of using a structured curriculum to teach her two children, “went with their interests and took it from there.”

Video-streaming technology provided a glimpse into one of those interests. “There are live webcams of animals around the world,” she says. “We’d sit and watch animals in their natural habitat,” a task now facilitated by Live Animal Webcams, which aggregates the best video links on a single site.

URLs like Puzzle-maker and Bingo Card Generator allowed her to teach spelling and vocabulary words in a fun way. “I’d have my kids come up with a list of words related to a subject and we’d make a word search or bingo game out of it,” Ardito says.

The homeschool Internet connection

To take the learning outside of the home, Ardito relied on the Web as an instant info-generator on things to do — and what they cost. “When our kids were younger, we did a lot of traveling and the Internet was great for finding things to do,” she says. “I would research museums and such to see if they had any coupons, special pricing or discounted admission during the day when most kids are in school.”

Connecting with other families through technology is a hallmark of the homeschool community. Homeschool co-ops and groups flourish on the Web through discussion boards like Yahoo groups. Joyce R. likes the fact that the Internet’s inherent meet-up capabilities led her to a homeschool co-op that meets weekly. These sessions give her kids the opportunity to learn with others in person — “instead of just doing stuff at home on the computer.”

MetroKidsinterns Morgan Pendleton and Tim Rattray contributed to the reporting of this article.

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