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Technological edge

Back to School | Online learning could become a powerful tool for homeschoolers

Issue: "Two-ring circus," Sept. 6, 2008

While evangelicals generally have not imitated Luddites, the 19th-century smashers of new technology, many of us have tended to look at new inventions as curses rather than blessings. How many evangelicals have praised the internet for its quick information flow in comparison to those who have excoriated it for making pornography one or two clicks away?

In other eras Christians have been faster to praise God from whom many technological marvels flow. Martin Luther waxed rapturous about the printing press, calling it God's tool to spread Reformation ideas. Missionaries lauded transportation advances that brought them most of the way toward people previously unreached by the gospel.

Along those lines, let us now praise three new high-tech developments. The first two WORLD has covered before: ultrasound technology that has led many young parents to preserve the lives of their unborn children, and internet progress that allows Christians to get out messages and make books readily available to people around the world.

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The third may also be hugely important: A new study from the Hoover Institution predicts that by 2019 half of courses in Grades 9 to 12 will be delivered online. Technology is now helping all homeschoolers by making it possible for kids to be tutored and mentored online at the pace that's right for them, so that they don't have to listen to one-size-fits-all lectures.

Online education advances are particularly helpful to Christians in providing powerful alternatives to schooling that doesn't recognize the centrality of Christ. Valiant homeschool parents sometimes feel overwhelmed or at least whelmed in their attempt to teach every subject, and online courses (along with parent cooperatives that allow a sharing of expertise) can help enormously, particularly in areas such as math and science.

Homeschool parents are also concerned about socialization of the wrong kind, and for that reason also many will seize online opportunities. Virtual schools are no guarantee of virtue, since sin is in ourselves and also in the internet, but many will do better than public schools in limiting in-person contact with vice.

As use of online classes has increased-last year enrollment reached 1 million, 22 times more than in 2000, according to the North American Council for Online Learning-so has concern among educational bureaucrats. We'll increasingly be seeing stories about lack of oversight and tracking of attendance, since most states require a certain number of weekly hours of instruction.

The Christian Science Monitor recently contrasted the position of an online teacher who said a family's Bible reading could be included as instructional time with a state official who said only time spent on official school curricula could count. Many homeschoolers tend to emphasize efficiency of education rather than number of hours spent, but school districts that get money for online students don't want to risk their cash flow.

We'll also encounter debates about whether online classes can simulate the interaction among students that, when properly led, can powerfully stimulate students to come up with logical arguments. Andy Peterson, an expert in educational technology who has developed the online program of Reformed Theological Seminary, points out that virtual classes can readily create discussion forums for teacher-student and student-to-student interaction.

Online educators will have to decide whether to emphasize discussions that are synchronous (happening in real time) or asynchronous (with students signing on and weighing in around the clock). Although asynchronous courses are more convenient, I'd like to see online courses make use of inexpensive synchronous conference calls so that students can develop oral discussion skills and not merely become faster text-messagers.

If online courses don't deal decisively with the class discussion issue, they'll be open to the criticism of Arizona State education professor Gene Glass-quoted in the Monitor-that online education could work for math and spelling but not for "art, literature, a whole bunch of things that depend so much on a quality human relationship." Of course, it's hard not to ask a follow-up question: What is the quality of human relationships in a typical public high school?

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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