The time has come to face it -- homeschoolers need computers. Now, before any of our homesteading and Amish readers get upset, let me hasten to add a few disclaimers to that statement.
First, children can receive a great education without ever even seeing a computer. They can learn to read great literature, write great essays, create marvelous paintings, do calculus, and conduct physics experiments without every touching a keyboard. As long as the parents know the subjects they are teaching or have access to fine resources that help teach the subject, virtually anything non-virtual can be taught through old-fashioned one-on-one interpersonal interaction.
Second, having a computer is not an all-around picnic. Computers are like babies; they demand tender, loving care. You have to learn how to solve their problems (as in "Give me tech support or give me a refund!"). You have to plug in cables, play with system files, and periodically upgrade your software. The more of a power user you get to be, the more time you get to spend on these "enjoyable" chores.
Having said that, I believe that it's time for the homeschooling movement as a whole not only to become computerized, but to go online.
Here's what will happen if the vast majority of homeschoolers go online:
- We will be able to react instantly to any and all political threats, such as the Clintons' recent push to get Congress to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Those of us who were online knew about it days and even weeks before those who were not. Plus, we had access to the entire text of the Convention, to blow-by-blow arguments for and against it, and to news about how the U.N. commissioners were using Britain's ratification of the Convention to attempt to outlaw spanking in Britain. We had instant access to the phone, fax, and email numbers of our Senators, and could zap off email notes and faxes to them instantly, even if we did not own a fax machine. We received daily updates about the political situation. And we did not need to spend hours on phone trees to get all this information: five minutes or less in the right folder provided it all.
- We will become a nationwide support group. Yes, there will always be a need for local, face-to-face support groups. But large numbers of homeschoolers meeting together online brings a depth of wisdom and experience that any local group will be hard-pressed to match. Whether you have a question about how to homeschool a child with Tourette's Syndrome or want to know what others think of an obscure educational software package, with hundreds of people reading your message, someone is bound to have the answer.
- We will be able to get personal answers from homeschool experts. Any leader reading this will understand when I say that it quickly becomes almost impossible for a leader to spend large amounts of personal time with each person he or she is serving. Spending an hour researching and answering a complex question is out of the question when you receive hundreds of information requests every week. But online, the typical questions that everyone asks can be handled in an "FAQ," or Frequently Asked Questions, list. This frees homeschool experts and leaders to spend time answering the less frequently asked questions-which then can be posted for hundreds to read.
- We will be able to take online courses. One of PHS's major objectives for the next five years is to help develop a national, and then international, virtual high school and university. Just recently I heard from a retired M.I.T. professor who would like to teach Advanced Placement courses to homeschoolers in math and science. As this movement develops, it may well happen that the best teachers in the world will be a keystroke away-but only if you have a computer and a modem.
- We will be able to transform the entire face of American education. Already there are signs that a whole new generation of parents is willing to consider homeschooling, if good, wholesome courses can be provided to them via computer.
These parents lack the research skills and confidence of the first generation of homeschool pioneers. They want something better for their children, but are not able to put in years learning how to teach and researching curriculum choices.
There are millions of parents like this. They believe in technology; they want their educational choices prepackaged. While this may not be the ideal home education, high-tech home ed can create a gateway through which Generation X parents will be able to feel comfortable about teaching their children at home.
When a critical mass of homeschoolers get wired, I believe it will be politically possible for the first time in 150 years to consider dismantling the elaborate political bureaucracy of American education and replace it with a combination of traditional and computerized home education and noncompulsory community education courses conducted by a variety of local groups (including churches) and run as a cross between community college for kids and the YMCA. The more access our children can have to quality, non-state-controlled teachers, under our guidance, the richer their educational options. "Apprenticeship" will have a whole different meaning when you can take an animation course from a California professor and virtually visit a vet clinic in South Carolina from your home in Dubuque, Iowa. Campus-based facilities such as local schools will find it very hard to compete with that.
Here's what will happen if the vast majority of homeschoolers don't go online:
- The enemies of homeschooling will be able to initiate and respond to political action at lightning speed, while we will always be at least a week too late.
- Every support group and state group will still be reinventing the wheel, instead of freely sharing their knowledge and experience.
- Homeschool leaders and experts will continue to be seriously overworked and unable to provide the level of service they long to give.
- Homeschool kids will pour into politically correct colleges, whether Christian or secular, rather than exerting enough market "pull" to transform higher education.
- The killing tax burden of state-funded public education will continue to grow, as will the trend to funnel families into state "services" via the public schools. Political pressures on homeschoolers and political battles over education in general will escalate. Online courses will develop, but they will be totally controlled by school districts, not free-market forces. Increasing numbers of homeschoolers will be seduced by tax dollars into hooking up with the local school district, thus weakening and perhaps fatally crippling the movement's original stand for family rights and freedoms.
We at practical homeschooling are doing everything we can to help usher in a rosy future for the homeschooling movement. We aren't getting paid anything for our online efforts, either-we're doing it because we believe it's important.
But we need your help.
If you haven't got a modem, now's the time to get serious about getting one. A 9600 baud modem can be had for under $100, and it will often come with free online hours and software. Check the deals at your local computer store or favorite mail-order discounter.
Then join America Online, the Christian Interactive Network, and/or Town Hall.
Visit the PHS forums in those services. Ask your questions. Post answers to other people's questions. Upload your file of state representatives. Tell us about your support group's resource center. Find information on how to get grants for your support group from local businesses. Volunteer to teach an online course. Befriend a "newbie." Encourage your friends to join us online. Let your children make online pen-pals from other states and countries. Share a joke. Tell us what you think of the curriculum you're using. Download a couple of great freeware educational games.
Let's get wired!