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21st Century Homeschooling

by Mimi Rothschild, Jubliee Academy

Gone are the days when children sit still all day long passively being fed endless words and numbers written in white chalk on a blackboard. Children in the 21st century are growing up in an environment packed with media and technology: Television, music videos, video games, CDís, DVDís, the Internet and computers. They are immersed in a very stimulating high-tech existence and are afforded the opportunity to become selective in what draws and keeps their attention. Compare a hard cover encyclopedia on the shelf with the online version that boasts sound, video clips, and an electronically searchable database. Not only is the latter more stimulating, but it also makes finding information quicker and easier. Harnessing the best of these opportunities and offering them to students in a controlled and comprehensive manner only serves to improve and strengthen their learning experience.

Providing a curriculum online streamlines and simplifies the way in which the information is shared with the student without losing any depth in content. Rather, this method of distributing curriculum allows for a greater variety in the sources of information and a more comprehensive knowledge transfer. Including in a lesson a website for more information, a game to solidify factors learned and a video to incorporate a visual and auditory element will increase the studentís ability to absorb and remember the information and, perhaps to some, more importantly, will actively engage them in the learning experience. In this manner, childrenís God-given ability to make choices is also honed and put into active practice. They can choose to further pursue one element of what they have learned and are given the tools in which to embark on that adventure. Students are also able to review work until they fully understand it, without having to keep up with the rest of the class.

All of us learn in different ways and the flexibility that online curriculum provides allows more students to learn in their own way, at their own speed and to their own ability to absorb information. Instead of the only option being text to read, students can now explore the myriad ways in which to interact with the subject matter. It is vital, in this day of ever-increasing stimuli to the senses, to utilize all the media and technological tools routinely available to improve the learning experience of homeschool students. The public school system is a massive and slow ship to turn, but the homeschool environment allows all the luxuries and advantages of individualized adjustment and enhancement.

An expertly crafted, multimedia-rich curriculum maintains studentsí interest and keeps their attention focused. Educational multimedia is not entertainment. It is, instead, a dynamic, highly effective presentation tool that reinforces concepts and subject matter across the curriculum in a medium that our youth are already very familiar with and to which they are highly receptive.

Instead of the complete lack of control that traditional schoolchildren have over their environment and the content, imagine being able to pause and then rewind your teacher as s/he explains a complicated math theorem? How about reading about the lions of the Serengeti, and then watch a video of them in their natural habitat? This is all possible with online learning. The assignment for that day may include a passage of text to read, but that is only the beginning!

Videos can be seamlessly incorporated into each assignment and the student only needs to click on the link to be taken directly to the video pertaining to that dayís lesson. Adding variety to the teaching manner helps all students better absorb the material. The video can also be viewed as many times as the student chooses, thus providing the opportunity to digest far more than by only watching it once. This also facilitates the additional learning experience of engaging visual and auditory skills while being exposed to the curriculum.

Producing multimedia-rich courses for web delivery can be a very complex and expensive process. A digitized, interactive curriculum can cost millions to produce. The elements that can further improve a multimedia-rich course are talking synthetic people (avatars), 3D environments, animations, flash games, simulations, virtual reality and database connectivity. Unfortunately, what passes for "online curriculum" in many virtual schools today is little more than directing the student to read in an offline textbook, dry book-based content transferred to a computer screen, seemingly endless text on the monitor or videotaped "talking-head" teachers standing in front of a classroom. Although time-tested and appropriate for generations of students past, more advanced, 21st century multimedia pedagogical techniques may indeed prove more efficient in conveying knowledge and insuring its absorption.

On the cutting edge of 21st century curriculum development, there are many talented people from disparate backgrounds and expertise working collaboratively to create the highest quality multimedia-rich courses, utilizing contemporary psychological understanding and technique to establish the most effective and efficient methods of knowledge delivery. Instructional designers, teachers, subject matter experts, writers, graphic artists, photographers, videographers, software and web developers, quality assurance specialists, programmers, html editors and educators all work synergistically to ensure the utmost instructional soundness of and ease of absorption for each course.

Not only is the environment in which the student exists changing, but our family structure has also undergone changes. It is vital to support any parent if s/he endeavors to educate a child at home. Utilizing the time saving and organizational advantages that technology provides, makes families better supported in their homeschooling endeavors.

The Learning Management System (LMS) has revolutionized the way in which homeschool families learn, as well as grade, track records, and communicate with teachers. Rather than shunning the multitude of ways in which children communicate on the Internet, some of these LMSís are harnessing this user-friendly power and using it to improve the studentís educational experience. Parents that opt to enroll in teacher-led academies have all the resources of a supportive and trained teacher at their fingertips Ė literally! With the click of the mouse, they can initiate live one-on-one chats with teachers who may be hundreds of miles away and have a real-time conversation with them. This is an encouraging resource for families thinking about making the switch to homeschooling, or those moving into the more challenging secondary grades. The teacher is available at the parentís discretion, providing support and guidance as much or as little as the parent chooses, without intruding.

The LMSís that offer a complete online educational experience also take into consideration the social aspect of children. In the most advanced online learning environments, students have the option of socializing online in a controlled, safe environment in chat rooms. These are unique opportunities for children from all over the country and, in many cases, all over the world, to interact with other students who are also being homeschooled. This is an element of socialization that is not to be ignored when defending homeschooling against the government school establishment. How many traditional public or even homeschool environments allow this type of routine trans-global interaction between school children? Furthermore, for those familiar with the potential risks of Internet chat rooms, chatting in these highly-controlled, closed LMS environments is far safer than the general online alternative, which is open to anyone. Parents should, however, take their own responsibility seriously in monitoring their childrenís online activity in any environment.

In the cutting-edge LMS environments of today, the chat room format has also been modified to serve the purpose of a classroom. In this way, students enrolled in the same online class can meet on a weekly basis with other students as well as their teacher to discuss current events or issues pertaining to the course. This forum is an enriching opportunity for students to develop communication and critical thinking skills, and allows them the opportunity to hear other arguments and ideas, while formulating their own responses.

Text-to-speech is a feature growing in popularity as more and more people become aware of the benefits of this advance in technology. For the student who quickly becomes distracted while reading text, this option to hear the text instead, or follow along as it is read, is a true boon! By simply highlighting the portion of text to be read, the student is able to engage another method of learning and further aid his or her comprehension of the subject matter.

The weight of the record-keeping and grading process is often enough to dissuade a parent from embarking on the rewarding experience of home schooling. The advanced LMS, however, alleviates much of this anxiety by silently, in the background, keeping track of everything. Every time a student logs into the homepage, the time is logged and tracked while s/he is online working. Should he have to spend time off the computer, for reading or working on math problems, he can enter the "study hall," where the time will be continue to be tracked and recorded.

Additionally, in the case of multiple-choice assignments, grading is automatic. For parents who choose a teacher-led option, they do not have to worry about grading any tests or assignments Ė all checking of work is performed by the academic counselors online. This is particularly appealing to families with more than one student, as the parent teacher can now devote far more time to quality one-on-one interactions with their children, as opposed to being buried behind paperwork!

All the grades are tracked in a virtual grade book, accessible at any time for up-to-the-moment, on-demand "report cards." At the end of the academic year, the parent simply prints a transcript and the time log, as well as any other information that may be necessary for their records or for state requirements.

Whether itís the rich and varied multimedia components now available in the most advanced curriculum, or the harnessing of technology to better support and facilitate a homeschool experience, these new possibilities are opening brand new vistas for home-schoolers. The parent who was on the fence about embarking into the challenges of homeschooling can finally begin to breathe a sigh of relief. The days of the parent brooding over his/her child, undertaking homeschooling with dread and trepidation are truly behind us. Online academies, with their advanced curriculum content and delivery mechanisms, are highly cost-effective, efficient in knowledge delivery and give the parent the freedom and ease required in homeschooling. What a wonderful time to be joining the millions who are successfully educating their children at home!

(Mimi Rothschild is the CEO of Learning By Grace (LearningByGrace.org) in Philadelphia, PA. Learning By Grace is the premiere developer and provider of online Christian curriculum, with students enrolled from around the world. Mimi may be contacted at Mimi@LearningByGrace.org)