Cover Story

e-Education

Digital revolution frees time for homeschooling parents and opens new worlds to students

Issue: "Digital Revolution," Nov. 27, 1999

High-school sophomore Micah Prewitt was okay with homeschooling, except for one thing: isolation. The Delton, Mich., 15-year-old is, according to his mom, "a socialite" for whom the four walls of his home-classroom seemed at times to block him from contact with the larger teen world. But all that changed when the Prewitt family went global-via the Internet. "Now he finds people his age to chat with online, including other homeschoolers," says Micah's mom Heidi Prewitt, a 10-year homeschool veteran who is educating all five of her children: "It's really helped him not to feel so isolated." The Prewitt kids are among a growing number of "wired" homeschoolers. According to homeschool support groups and firms that develop home-education products, an increasing number of at-home educators and their students are surfing cyberspace for everything from curriculum enrichment to homework help. "The number of homeschoolers using the Internet is growing by leaps and bounds every year," says Beth TeGrotenhuis, president of Alpha Omega Publications, a Chandler, Ariz.-based developer of homeschool curricula and products. "We see a lot more people open to it now because of the availability of filtering." Candy G. Wilson, CEO of MayberryUSA, a family-oriented filtering product, says her firm is also seeing a spike in homeschool Internet use. "The homeschooling market is headed toward Internet- and satellite-based programs," she says, because of a mushrooming range of resources available to students and parent-educators. Those resources include virtual schools-institutions that, contrary to the wishes of summer-loving kids, are more "school" than "virtual." Organizations such as Alpha Omega, Eagle Christian School, and The Sycamore Tree operate online academies whose instructors tutor and advise kids via email. Such cyber-schools provide new options for parents who prefer assistance with teaching certain higher-level academic subjects like algebra or science. Other resources include complete, Web-enabled curricula like "Switched on Schoolhouse (SOS)," Alpha Omega's integrated five-subject homeschool program. SOS includes embedded hotlinks that let kids explore worlds beyond their desktops. A unit on space and the solar system, for example, can link wired students to NASA's website. One advantage offered by both online academies and some integrated software programs is that they free home educators to do what they got into homeschooling to do in the first place: teach their children. "Many parents who set out to homeschool their kids don't realize the time that administration takes up," says Ms. TeGrotenhuis. "Grading, grade reporting, and record-keeping can take up so much time that parents feel they have no time left to teach." That's how Michigan homeschooler Dawn Rausch felt. "I was buried with lesson plans and grade books," says Mrs. Rausch, whose 4 kids now use SOS. "I was taking between 45 minutes and 3 hours a day to grade assignments. I finally had to give up making formal lesson plans in favor of having time to keep the grade book so that I could prove my kids did their work." Mrs. Rausch says she is now able to complete her administrative tasks so quickly that she's been able to resume lesson planning. Most homeschoolers WORLD spoke with reported that Web homework-helps were invaluable. Sites like homeworkcentral.com, AOL's reference area and online encyclopedia, link students with a broader range of information than would be yielded by most book-form home reference tools. San Diegan Mary Doorn, a first-year homeschooler, says the Internet has helped her link with curriculum options for her 12-year-old son, Nick. In planning a unit on Egypt, Mrs. Doorn used the Discovery Channel's website. The site not only provided dates and times of relevant Discovery Channel documentaries; it also integrated that programming into a full-featured lesson plan that included printable research documents, online photos and illustrations, and offline reference material for further study. In other cyber-expeditions, Mrs. Doorn has found help with history at www.pbs.org, and assistance with art at www.getty.edu/museum, the J. Paul Getty museum's website. While such sites offer a treasure of educational content, they can also be laced with evolution-based material and PC pablum that homeschoolers WORLD spoke with say they're careful to screen out. But content caveats aren't the only ones wired homeschoolers offer up. Mrs. Doorn says that early on, she made the mistake of assuming she could assign Nick an online task, then leave him to point and click his way through it independently. But she quickly learned that many sites, because of spelling or navigation complexities, required her to work alongside him. And Heidi Prewitt says she limits her children's time on the Internet, and doesn't allow virtual research to replace regular visits to a bricks-and-mortar library: "I think it's still important for my kids to learn how to use a library and to sit down and read real books."

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