Friday June 06, 2003
Homeschoolers wary of virtual classes
06.06.2003 - By ANITA MATTHEWS
Homeschooling parents in the United States now have the choice of sending their children to kindergarten and primary schools in cyberspace, courtesy of programmes initiated by the states and private entities.
Some have embraced it; others are questioning it.
In New Zealand, Homeschooling Federation founder Claire Aumonier is wary of ceding the entire learning experience of a toddler or young child to the computer.
"I don't see virtual schools inundating homeschoolers but I do see the Government leaning towards it because they are cheaper," she says.
Although the framework of subjects taught using the internet is designed for children to communicate and share projects, Aumonier argues that the substance of learning is questionable.
"Online learning doesn't respond to the heart of the child who needs to learn in a warm, humorous and verbally interactive environment."
Aumonier says a maximum of 90 minutes online a day - in blocks of 30 minutes - is more than sufficient for a child.
"I personally believe that information-based learning material is very limited in terms of what a child's mind needs to be productive.
"A mind needs to be devoured."
Joan Kluge, head teacher at Rainbow Cottage Kindergarten in New Lynn, also cautions against introducing virtual classrooms to toddlers.
"Social development - interacting with one another - is one of the most important things children learn and I don't see interaction with the computer giving the same learning experience.
"It is fine for play but could be problematic as the main teaching tool."
The Ministry of Education website says there were 5976 homeschoolers from 3370 families as of July 2001 (the latest available data).
Although that is less than 1 per cent of total school enrolment, the number of homeschoolers has increased 118 per cent in less than a decade, from 2738 students in 1993.
Virtual schools catering to younger children will inevitably emerge in tandem with the number of distance-learning courses at secondary and tertiary level.
Kings College director John Powell says the potential for this borderless education has expanded with increased access to affordable broadband.
Kings Institute, the college's enterprise arm, has started Scholarnet, offering a range of subjects online.
More than half of all secondary schools and a growing number of intermediates now incorporate at least one Scholarnet subject in their curriculum, says Powell.
Last December, the Correspondence School extended its e-learning network for secondary and NCEA students after a two-year pilot.
"Evidence showed that distance learning with good interaction through discussion boards and forums provides for an engaging environment and makes a difference," says Derek Wenmoth, the school's e-Section manager.
Parents initially felt left out so the school expanded the opportunities for them to take part in the learning process, he says.
"Students like the immediacy of contact and the opportunity to collaborate on projects with their peers from other parts of the country."
Wenmoth acknowledges that e-learning will be extended to younger students in future.
"However, the approach will be different as it is dependent on the nature of the child."
The virtual class idea fascinates homeschooling mother Jane Crighton, who says she might use such a facility.
She and her husband, Euan, have taught two teenage daughters and a 9-year-old son since 1999 at their 133ha farm north of Levin.
"I do see the potential and a place for it among busy homeschooling parents but there are many factors to consider," says Crighton.
One consideration in her case would be if it matched the Christian-based homeschool programme her children use.
Another homeschooling parent, Esther Sunnex, of Te Puke, says virtual classes would eliminate the negative peer pressure in schools.
"But this is already a general benefit of homeschooling," says the mother of four.
Bill Crighton, the managing director of online tuition site Tutech, cautions that virtual learning is no escape from teaching responsibility.
"You could dispense with the skilled teacher by having a good workbook and the video, but you always have to provide someone familiar with the course material to help with the unpredictable questions that students need to ask."
©Copyright 2003, NZ Herald