Are Virtual Schools the Future of Homeschooling?
By Beverley Paine, 2012
I recently read an article in a homeschool magazine from the USA extolling the merits of virtual schools. In the virtual school featured in the magazine students from preschool to year 12 are supervised at home by their parent ('Learning Coach') and taught by state certified teachers by phone, email communication and through online classroom technology. Teaching, testing, grading and motivating the children to learn is the responsibility of the trained teacher. Sign the paperwork, pay the fees, and the hassle of organising home education programs is a thing of the past. Is this the future of homeschooling?
We're not talking about parents selecting online learning programs in one or two subjects, such as Reading Eggs, Mathletics, etc or even a subject or two from Open University in the teen years, here and there to meet individual children's needs. We're talking about a service that is designed to meet the organisational and management needs of parents who, for whatever reason, don't want their children to be educated in a classroom in a school using very similar, if not the same, approaches or resources.
I applaud the ability we have as home educators to carefully select resources to match our children's learning needs and preferences: this is the foundation on which my understanding of home education is built and I believe accounts for its success. Home education is different from school education because it delivers truly individualised learning programs for children.
Distance education styled for adults also recognises the importance of being able to select resources to meet the individual's educational need. Distance education for children is different though: its compulsory nature disallows the ability to select according to individual need. Children are compelled by law to be educated and adults deem the how, where and why of it.
The way I see it, a virtual school is simply a private school offering distance education for children. No longer is the parent the person that determines the how, where and why of education. The larger part of the responsibility for the education of the children is transferred to the school. This is no different from enrolling in distance education schools or 'school of the air', except perhaps with less accountability by the provider if the virtual school is not registered or accredited as a school in Australia (an important consideration, especially for 15-17 year old students doing high school subjects).
The nature and direction of homeschooling has changed since my family began educating our children in 1985. The scope and practice of home education has broadened considerably as it has become a visible and viable option in the community. It took the 'school' out of education and placed the education of children where it belonged: in busy active homes nestled within and interacting with vibrant communities. Now the 'school' is back, seeking to claim a place within home education as a convenient option for parents.
When I first noticed this trend arising (alerted to it by the principal of my local school after a national meeting of school principals a decade ago on the topic of online learning and the effect that would have on schools), I felt sad and worried that something of the pioneering spirit of forging a new approach to education would be lost and with it the powerful message that children learn best freed from the limited resources and constraints of the classroom. I hope this isn't the case. I hope that the bold brave experiments in education of the last 40 years, with home educators at the forefront, won't succumb to another form of schooling, one that seeks to manage and control education rather than focusing on the needs of individual learners.
Online education suppliers and providers are already aggressively marketing their programs at homeschooling families. Most offer tuition in English and Maths and some offer topics in other subjects, but are yet to offer a complete and comprehensive curriculum able to compete with on-campus schooling. Many are foreign online suppliers that have started to adapt content and assessment strategies to suit Australian educational requirements. It would be interesting to know how many Australian homeschool families are enrolling in overseas-based virtual schools and homeschool programs, and if indeed there is a call or need for virtual schools to be fostered and established here.
If we accept virtual schools as just another 'school-at-home' approach to home education, we would need to also embrace part-time school and enrolling in public and private distance education schools as a legitimate form of home education too. Currently home education is defined in Australia by home educators and home education regulatory authorities as the parent taking responsibility for developing, implementing and evaluating their children's learning programs. By enrolling in virtual or distance education schools the parent delegates that a large part of that responsibility to the education provider.
I am concerned that this evolution of home education will sit suit the needs of the education authorities and provide timely solutions to current management issues relating to the regulation of home education. Instead of registering individual homeschools, by registering and accrediting virtual schools they could outsource education completely. There could come a time when all children will eventually be educated this way, some in child-care centres (currently called schools) and some from home. Private virtual schools would be responsible and accountable for attendance requirements with logging in and off by students monitored remotely. It was also be very easy for federal departments like the Australian Tax Office and Department of Social Security to check families' eligibility for the payments they receive. Payments could be linked to educational outcomes and penalties for non-performance easily applied. That may sound like a perfectly acceptable scenario for some, but what concerns me most is that education 'otherwise' would be legislated out of the picture. They system won't be set up to manage anything outside of the box. We're seeing this happen at present: the school system can't cater for the educational needs of children moving from one state to another and the answer has been to create a national one-size-fits-all curriculum. Educational diversity squeezed out of existence for the sake of management convenience.
There is definitely a need for flexible delivery of education in Australia: I see a time when parents will be able to choose the option that best suits their needs and those of their children. I am sure part-time schooling, learning cooperatives and centres, virtual schools, open or free schools, homeschooling and unschooling will be in the mix. It is my hope that Australian families will strenuously oppose actions that deliberately or inadvertently limit educational options, both now and in the future.
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We began educating our three children in 1985, when our eldest was aged five years. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn as they grew and explored and discovered this amazing world since the moment they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. I hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was!
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