The computer is now as essential to home schooling as an encyclopedia was in days past. Fortunately, computers have dropped in price so they can fit into most family budgets. People who have problems budgeting for a computer can have free access to one at most libraries in Texas. The Internet is triggering a major revolution in the education community, including home schooling. Many futurists believe that, with the advent of virtual schools and the availability of online classes, public schooling as we know it may eventually be replaced. More than half the states either already have virtual online schools or have them in the planning stages. Home school curriculum providers are also beginning to have online classes, some with streaming video unit studies classes.
A tool is only as good as the craftsman who is wielding it. If you need to learn the basics of your computer or specific software, it will save you time and frustration to take a class; this is possible through free, online courses. There are books that teach how to use software, available for minimal expense, which can then be used to teach your teens this same software. (Teach Yourself Visually and the Dummies series are great.) But as with everything computer, things have evolved! If you click the “Help” button on almost any software, you will find tutorials. Even Microsoft now has online step-by-step videos to show you how to use their software. Some support groups offer hands-on co-op classes on computer use. Check your local library, your local community center, and your local community college under the continuing education department for computer classes.
The Computer for Teacher Support
Once you know computer basics, where do you start? You can join your support group’s e-mail list to keep in contact with the people in your group. Many support groups are now using Ning and Facebook for their group communications, so be sure to check those websites for groups in your town. You can join e-mail lists or the Facebook group for the curriculum you are using with your children. These lists help you learn from other moms who are using your specific curriculum, with advice and tips on how to overcome challenges. You can join FlyLady (www.FlyLady.net) to help organize your household without overload and burnout.
Now that your support foundation is established, where should you go on the Internet? There are many websites that have lesson plans, activities, worksheets, and even cameras in the jungles of Africa or the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico for exotic field trips.
Online newsletters or magazines are called e-newsletters. There are many e-newsletters sent by convention speakers, curriculum providers, and local home school stores. To find these, ask to be put on the e-newsletter list of your convention speaker and/or curriculum provider, and encourage your home school store to do the same. (Editor’s note: To receive THSC’s free e-newsletter, go to www.thsc .org/E-Newsletter.)
The Computer for Field Trips
Virtual tours can bring spark into your home school on dreary, rainy days. Do a search for virtual tours or webcams to find active websites with information. Review the site before bringing your children to the computer. You may need to read the site to your younger children, have children act out parts of the tour, or do some hands-on follow-up to explain written tours to your children.
Many of the tours are only pictures with words, but more and more the tours are real live, virtual video tours. Streaming video is now becoming easier to produce and to download. However, you should probably not depend on video streaming for classes unless you have DSL or cable modem connections.
The Computer as a School
Now that you have access to a computer, know how to use it, and have explored a bit, what else can you do with this puppy? There is software for individual courses or complete curricula. Some parents are using the computer for the total education of their children by registering them in virtual schools, of which there are several types. Some schools allow enrollment in individual courses rather than requiring enrollment in their complete programs. Just as you would investigate any school to which you would entrust your child’s education, be sure to investigate any virtual schools you are considering.
One of the types of virtual schools is the virtual charter school. Charter schools are schools established under most states’ charter school laws. These are public schools that are online. Therefore, be aware that, while they may be free or low cost, you may be under obligation to submit your child to testing and/or attendance requirements. Tim Lambert, president of the Texas Home School Coalition, warns, “People should be aware that charter schools are public schools and, as such, are regulated (to some degree) by the state. They ought to know what the regulations are before they opt in.”
Some have found these online schools helpful. However, virtual schools are not for everyone. There can be problems, as one mom noted in this e-mail: “Just the stories I heard from folks that called me in a panic near the end of the year: ‘hard drive crashed, children lost all their work,’ ‘modems were down, and my child couldn’t get work done,’ ‘computers didn’t arrive until January,’ ‘grades didn’t arrive in time for the subscriber’s school district, so the year was lost,’ and frustration in trying to reach a live person at the ‘school’ … R J”
There are many virtual schools that are private schools and therefore not run by any state. Even with these private, virtual schools, there can still be problems. If this is what you need for your school, be sure to check references.
The Internet as a Resource
To begin research on a computer, you need to have a good understanding of the library system. The Internet search engines were originally set up by librarians. Many libraries are willing to give classes to groups of home school moms; just call. You can access more than sixty databases from the comfort of your home by having a library card from almost any Texas library. These databases contain full-text articles from magazines and newspapers, literary criticisms, e-books, encyclopedias, almanacs, biographies, and much more.
Search engines come in many forms. When we think of search engines, we tend to think of the main sites known as search engines such as www.google.com or www.yahoo.com, although YouTube and Facebook are now edging their way into the top five search engines. There is also a search engine attached to your browser (the software you use to get on the Web). Most notably, whenever you see one of those rectangular boxes with the words “search” or “go” beside it, you are viewing a search engine. Some of them search the Web while some just search the site you are visiting.
In the past, search engines had sites listed in order of relevance. With the commercialization of the Internet, many search engines now have paid slots in the top three to five listings. Read the two sentences under the names of sites found to see if they are indeed relevant to your Internet search.
For the most part, the computer can be a useful tool for whatever you may be teaching your child. There are many sites specifically for children, such as www.ask.com and www.howstuffworks. com, with great information to answer those constant questions of the younger set.
Safety on the Internet
One of the things that needs to be taught to everyone who uses the computer is to not send personal information. Even home school moms have been known to give their children’s names and birth dates or their complete address and phone numbers in public forums. This type of information then makes it easier for people to steal identities and other things. Be sure just to put your general location, say things like dear son (ds) or dear daughter (dd) instead of your child’s actual name. Never give actual birth dates, addresses, or phone numbers in any group setting. You may think you are talking to a nice, home school mom across town, but there is no guarantee of who is behind that monitor. If you want to update your status, say you are at Panera Bread, but do not say which one. Tell of your wonderful trip to the mall, but not which mall. Talk about the wonderful birthday party, but not the age of the person or the exact location. We all want to let our friends know what we are doing, but we have to know that it is not just our friends who are listening.
You can use the Internet for a complete school experience for your child, for unit studies, or for whole courses and activities for your children. Happy surfing!