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Laptop Homeschool

By Mary Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #41, 2001.

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Mary Pride


Are you one of the few . . . the proud . . . the wired? Do your kids yawn at workbooks but thrill to computer games? Do you have oodles of kids . . . but not oodles of time to grade dozens of workbooks? Is your schedule overloaded, or are there subjects you'd like the kids to learn that you don't feel confident enough to teach?

Then welcome to Laptop Homeschool.

Disclaimer

As I've said before, and will probably say again, you don't need a computer to give your children a great education. If you have the time, hands-on learning and print curriculum can do a great job. In fact, if you're looking to calm down and return to the simple virtues, I recommend sitting side by side on the couch with your student with no louder sound effect than pencil on paper.

However, you can obtain some of the same family closeness by moving from Desktop Education to Laptop Education. More on this later!

Advantages of Using a Computer in Your Homeschool

We'll be dealing with some of the disadvantages of homeschool computing later in this article (and how to get around them), so let's first consider why we want to bother with educational computing at all. Ponder these major advantages of educational software:

  • Saves you the time - and the stress - of making your child do old-fashioned flashcard-style drill
  • Can show and tell - especially helpful in subjects such as music and art instruction, but also great for providing more colorful illustrations than it would be practical to print in a textbook
  • Interacts with your child, so there's immediate feedback. Even the fastest mom can't grade every problem instantly!
  • Animations and other 3-D teaching devices can demonstrate how things work
  • Highly motivating: kids love to use computers, and most software has a high "fun factor"
  • Great for teaching research skills
  • Encourages kids to write more, especially boys, who often hate handwriting but are much more positive towards keyboarding
  • Kids "get into" it and are often willing to spend more time on homework at a computer than with a workbook

So far, we're just talking CD-ROMS, DVDs, and disks. When it comes to online education, here are some additional benefits:

  • A real live teacher who knows the subject can interact with your child
  • It's possible to make friends with online classmates and develop "school spirit"
  • The Web is a vast treasure trove of information; well-constructed online courses (and much new educational software) make use of this by directing the student to pre-selected and checked-out links

Now, all of this information and interactivity can have a dark side. And here it comes . . .

Laptops v. Desktops

Wondering why we're calling this article "Laptop Homeschool" instead of "Desktop Homeschool"? The fact is, you probably already know quite a bit about desktop education. You've used some educational software and read some articles about online academies. But we're not just talking about a little bit of computer biz you can add to your homeschool day. We're taking computerized education to the max, to show you the current state of the art.

But first, here's the problem with desktop computers.

  1. They sit in one place.
  2. If they're Internet-capable, they're usually plugged right into the phone cord, so a user can log in anytime.

Why is this a problem? Because . . .

  1. Sitting at a desk for any length of time is only comfortable to certain types of learners, and most desks don't have a lot of useful room for school-related materials.
  2. If Mom (or Dad, if he's the main homeschooling parent - see the Day at Our House in this issue!) needs to move about to get work done, the kiddie user has nobody supervising his work while Mom (or Dad) is out of the room.
  3. If the computer is plugged into the phone line, Junior can be going online to who knows where while you're not watching.
  4. If Junior happens to prefer computer games to educational software (like every other kid on the planet) and the desktop computer in question has even one real game on it (like the Solitaire and Minesweepers Bill Gates thoughtfully built into Windows), major slacking may occur while Mom and Dad aren't around.

Most of the above can be avoided by putting the children's educational software on a laptop, to which you (the parent) retain the phone wire. If you or a child need to go online, then you plug into the phone outlet. Meanwhile, it's easy for different children to use the same laptop in different locations, and for Mom to keep the computer user together with his or her siblings, instead of off alone at a desk by himself.

If you own a desktop computer, don't stress too much over this. But if you still have the choice - laptop or desktop? - we'd say, "Go with the laptop," even though the desktop computer will be less expensive. Let me put it this way: After years of reviewing every educational software product known to man, we had no luck getting our children to actually use most of the software we wanted them to until we discovered the joys of laptops. It has made all the difference in the world to our homeschool management. And, if worst comes to worst and computer use is unproductive for a time until your child gains more strength of character, you can always pack your laptop in its case and stick it in storage, or loan it to a friend - and your child will know this is no idle threat. This is much harder to manage with a bulky, heavy desktop computer and monitor.

Now, I know your kids would never go online to download unauthorized games, or visit nasty web sites, or play during homeschool hours. But for the sake of all the less-blessed out there who still see many advantages to computers in the homeschool, and who may have been struggling with some of the disadvantages, we'd like to share some tips we've learned over the years.

The Elementary Child: Software Only

Homework tutoring sites and online courses for young children are beginning to sprout up. Should your preteen child go online to use these sites and make friends?

At this point, we would say, "No." Totally apart from the problem of online stalkers and inappropriate language in chat rooms, this is not when you want your child disappearing into a virtual world. Constant parental supervision is wearying, but necessary, because online porn sites are just an accidental mouse-click away. And why bother? A combination of educational software and traditional tools can easily supply all the educational needs of a child in this age group.

One good software collection (e.g., the Elementary Edge programs reviewed in this issue) can provide plenty of educational power at an affordable price. This might be a good place to start if you're counting the pennies.

TIP: We have found CD-ROM wallets very helpful. If you have enough software to warrant it, you can organize the software by age level, child, or subject. List the contents on it with a gel pen (regular pens and markers don't work, and stickers and labels don't stick to these wallets!). Teach each child how to put away a disc after use. This will prevent the common problem of scratched and lost software, especially if you purchased a laptop case (also recommended) where wallets can be stored between uses.

The Middle Years: Software and Learning the Rules of the Internet

Young teens can learn the rules of online safety, but there's more going on here than just following rules. If your child has a tendency to slack, remember that the Internet is the original black hole of time. Offsetting this, some excellent online academies offer courses for this age group, and with more complex schoolwork, homework help sites might start making some sense for the first time.

TIP: I wouldn't turn over the keys to the online kingdom indiscriminately, however. Hang on to that phone wire so you have some control over how much time your student is spending online. Even if this means you're spending a lot of time under a desk plugging in the wire, it's worth it. And do not, under any circumstances, let a single Nintendo-style computer game in the house! If you wish to allow your children to play this type of game, have them play it on a console, not on the computer. Boys of this age are especially prone to becoming game addicts in the blink of an eye, and you do not want the computer becoming another portal to this time-wasting (and in many cases, morally offensive) universe.

The High School Years: Online and Loving It

Unless you're using a computerized curriculum such as Switched-On Schoolhouse, educational software fills less of your educational basket at this age. Kids need to be doing a lot of real-world projects and writing assignments to prepare them for college. SAT-prep software is great, though, and far less expensive than attending SAT-prep classes in person.

This is the age where online academies are most helpful - and needed. We would never have had the time to put our children through Advanced Placement courses ourselves, or teach them Latin. If you want to provide your children with a homeschool education to rival that found in elite prep schools, and you have a lot of children or relatively little time, some online classes are the way to go. Plus, they help meet the intense social needs of this age group, in which finding friends who share your interests is more important than simply having people of your age to hang around with.

TIP: Life is much more bearable if at the same time you enroll your student in his online courses you obtain a separate phone line for his modem. Unless you enjoy having your friends get busy signals day and night when they try to call you.

To put you fully in the picture about what's available today in online academies, we asked our two Class of 2001 high-school-graduate consultants, Joseph and Sarah Pride, to share their experiences with four such academies. They have been taking online classes for eight years now; Joseph in particular served as a beta tester for one of these academies! Both Joseph and Sarah, like a good number of their online classmates, are National Merit Finalists, and have been accepted with full-tuition scholarships at top colleges. Incidentally, they both chose to use laptops rather than desktop computers with their online courses, which is what originally inspired the title of this article!

Real-Time, Text-Only with Institute for Study of the Liberal Arts and Sciences

ISLAS (www.islas.org) was one of the very first online academies. It offers a full high-school curriculum, and some middle-school courses as well. Its sister school, Regina Coeli Academy, has a specifically Catholic emphasis, while ISLAS is more generically Christian. Both Sarah and Joe took Latin and some other courses from ISLAS.

Sarah says, "I always loved ISLAS because I made really good friends with all my classmates. Although it was text-only, I had the feeling of being in a 'real' class. We'd all chat together before - and sometimes during - the weekly classes. We could send private messages through a separate window while attending class in the main window, although of course the teacher didn't encourage this! When the teacher figured out one or more of the students were having a long lag in answering, she'd 'ping' us to see if we were still online. This way she could catch us while we were 'passing notes.' When the teacher asked a question, everyone would type an exclamation point when they had the answer. The first person to type the exclamation point would get first shot at answering the question; if they were wrong, the next person in line would do it. The downside was that not every student was a fast typist, so we didn't always get through as much in a class as we wished. It got less formal in Latin 3, where everyone took turns typing in portions of the translations for others to critique.

"All the ISLAS teachers created their own courses, so they really knew what they were talking and emailing about. I would say they all are good teachers, and the instruction is of high quality.

"Another good thing about ISLAS was their graduation ceremony, held in real time and real space. I got to attend the 2000 ceremony here in St. Louis and actually meet the people I'd been chatting with online for years. It was great!

"My favorite online class was my first: 'Molding Your Prose,' taught by Dr. Bruce McMenomy, and taken when I was 12 years old. At the beginning of the year, we each chose one well-known story, and then rewrote it in many different forms: news story, humorous story, short-short story of less than 100 words, and so on. It was like a big writing club online. [See Sue Richman's article on that topic in this issue! - Editor] Some of the other students are still my friends."

Joseph echoes Sarah's comments about the friends he made and the quality of ISLAS instruction and adds, "There is no computer so ancient it can't run ISLAS. Everything is set up through email and online chat, so if your computer can connect to the Internet and accept keystrokes, you can take an online course here."

Real Time with Whiteboard and Internet Audio: Escondido Tutorial Service

Fritz Hinrichs' Escondido Tutorial Service (www.gbt.org) started years ago with classes for local students, added distance learning via speakerphone, and then discovered the Internet. Best known for Fritz's "Great Books Tutorial," which covers the Great Books of the Western World over a period of six years, ETS now offers a variety of other courses as well. Joe took two years of Great Books Tutorial; Sarah took one.

Sarah says, "Escondido Tutorial Service's 'Great Books' online courses were the most interactive courses I had. Although annoyingly my Macintosh software did not allow me to literally talk to the other students (I had to input text), I did get to hear what they and Mr. Hinrichs were saying. Attending just one class in real time seemed normal at the time, as I had only attended ISLAS courses before, which also used real-time chat.

"Real-time audio discussions - as opposed to lectures - are a good instructional medium. We'd read the book, and then discuss it, which I felt led to much better understanding than just reading it alone would have."

Joseph says, "ETS is still pretty chummy, but you're only likely to find any chat happening during class time, unlike ISLAS, which runs its own Internet Relay Chat (IRC) server. You'd better love ancient books if you're going to be in any of Mr. Hinrichs' classes. Don't forget, he graduated from St. John's!"

24-Hour Message Board Plus Email: PA Homeschoolers

A lifesaver when we found them, Pennsylvania Homeschoolers (www.

pahomeschoolers.com) was the first online academy we know of that offered Advanced Placement courses to homeschoolers. Today, they offer a wider selection than ever. Our children have taken many courses from a variety of teachers through PA Homeschoolers.

Sarah says, "PA Homeschoolers Advanced Placement courses, of which I have taken five over four years, are always of top quality. These courses are 'asynchronous,' meaning you don't attend at a specific time of the day. Rather, you get posted or emailed assignments due by a specific date. Expect lot of written assignments, because they are the best way to prepare for AP exams. Each course also requires lots of time-consuming discussion, either through their website or email.

"The AP Economics course [taught by PHS columnist Howard Richman - Ed.], did an especially good job of preparing us by going over and over and over the exact topics which we needed to be prepared to write about. Each course had a detailed syllabus also, which let parents and students know what was due when."

Joseph says, "There always seems to be a spirited discussion going on at PA Homeschoolers courses. One major component of these courses is commenting on your fellow student's essays and comments. These courses are especially good for the non-science and math AP subjects, the ones that require a lot of discussion between teacher and students."

All the Bells & Whistles: APEX

APEX Learning (www.apexlearning.com), founded two years ago by Bill Gates buddy and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, also offers Advanced Placement courses. It features:

  • Online course syllabus, including assignment descriptions and how long they should take
  • Continually updated online report cards, with grades and percents posted for assignments as soon as they are graded
  • Online video lectures, sometimes also available on a CD-ROM they send you
  • Automatic grading of many assignments, with the remainder to be faxed in for hand grading
  • All the course material is right there on the site; no separate textbooks, workbooks, etc. needed

As a parent, I love the APEX interface. It makes it super easy to see exactly what the kids have done and what they need to do. From a management standpoint, my only gripe is the weird scheduling of units according to their topics and not according to the calendar. A unit can be anywhere from three to eight days long, and weekends and holidays are included just like other days. Weekly unit assignments would make much more sense from a scheduling standpoint.

Sarah doesn't share my love affair with APEX. She says, "I found APEX far too automated. When you got the assignment, if a question was confusing or had mistakes in its input, then you had to try to email the teacher and maybe - or maybe not - get a response back in time to make sense of your assignment. All the other online courses I've attended had assignments written by the actual online teachers. Typically, those other courses emailed assignments or gave them out during chats, so if you had any questions or confusion you could sort it out right then.

"Exception: Mr. Robinson, my APEX AP Physics teacher, was very good about getting back quickly with answers. I think this was partly because he had been one of the people who developed the course. My AP Calculus teacher, on the other hand, was horrible about getting back to me. Several times, assignments weren't graded for two weeks, which made it hard to learn anything from my mistakes and really killed my motivation to get the assignments in. Her email answers to my questions weren't very helpful, and she didn't comment on my assignments at all.

"APEX is not the place to make online friends. The online student lounge was usually deserted, and the required discussions seem to end up fulfilling only the minimal requirement of posting a comment and commenting on one other post. There is no real-time chat, and no school spirit. Most of the kids taking courses are public schoolers. The two classes I took both consisted mostly of a group of kids from one public school, plus a few strays from public schools around the country, plus my brother Joseph and me, the lone homeschoolers."

Joseph agrees with all the above. His comment: "It's like taking a course via educational software, except that you do have teacher input and grading added throughout the course. The systematic, automated approach is great for science and math. You just grind through it day or night, whenever you have the time. Run the lectures from the CD-ROM, if you can, is my advice, as otherwise you will end up wasting lots of time reestablishing broken connections in the middle of the lecture. As a side note, the physics course has web animations rather than video lectures, and those always ran right. I'd recommend a Pentium or an iMac to make your APEX experience as smooth as it can be."

Sarah's final tip: "Don't get overexcited about all the neat courses out there and overenroll your student. I talk to homeschooled kids online all the time whose parents have signed them up for too many online courses, so they're spending all their time struggling with academics." Good point, Sarah! Whether it's educational software or online courses, start off small. Where you go from there is up to you!


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