10 Trends That are Transforming Homeschooling in the Digital Age

Look for definitions of homeschooling on the web, and you will find:

“To teach your children at home instead of sending them to school.”  – Miriam-Webster

“The education of children at home by their parents.” –Oxford Dictionaries

“The education of children at home, typically by parents or by tutors, rather than in other formal settings of public or private school.” – Wikipedia

Look a bit further, and you will notice similar definitions, but ones that leave room for far more diverse practices. The three above largely define the term by breaking it into the two obvious roots of “home” and “school.” However, this does not necessarily represent the breadth of homeschooling practice today. For that, consider this definition:

“Learning outside of the public or private school environment.” – Family Education

Notice the two ways in which this fourth definition is different from the first three. First, it uses the word “learning” instead of “teaching” or “education.” In other words, it is a student-centered definition. Homeschooling is not always distinct because of who is or is not the teacher. It is more a matter of where the learning takes place. Second, it makes no mention of home. It leaves room for the possibility that homeschooling does not necessarily happen in a person’s home. Rather, it is defined by where learning does not take place, namely a “public or private school environment.” Think of homeschooling as learning contexts where the parent (and student) serve as general contractor for learning experiences and opportunities.

These are important distinctions if we are going to understand the nature of homeschooling in the contemporary world, a sector of education that is growing faster than any other. What most do not realize is that there are as many different approaches to and philosophies of homeschooling as there are of public or private schooling. Countless trends and innovations are changing the nature of homeschooling, things like adaptive learning, online learning, project-based learning, open learning, and community-based education.

If you have the image of a homeschooler sitting at the dining room table, learning from workbooks in isolation from anyone outside of the family for days on end, just note that this is only one of my possibly experiences of the contemporary homeschooler. To get a more accurate picture of homeschooling in the present and near future, I offer the following ten innovations that have already started to transform homeschooling.

1) Blended and Online Learning – In Disrupting Class, the authors predict that 50% of all high school classes will be online by 2019, making the typical high school experience a blended learning experience, mixing the best of online and face-to-face learning. This same trend hit hoemschooling years ago. In fact, without the data in front of me, I suspect that well over 50% of all homeschoolers of middle and high school age have taken one or more online courses as part of their learning experience. This is a commonplace practice among homeschoolers of all ages. Some sign up to attend public virtual schools. While “purists” claim that such students are no longer homeschoolers, that appears to be a statement driven by individual philosophies about homeschooling. In reality, the lines of homeschooling and non-homeschooling are blurred in such a world. Parents and students electing for this option often define what they are doing as homeschooling.

Similarly, many do not sign up for full virtual schools, but select courses from one of hundreds of online course providers, mixing courses from different sources. There are even free options like the Virtual Homeschool Group, a place where homeschool families gather into a virtual co-op.

There are dozens of free or inexpensive platforms that make it possible for anyone or any group to offer online courses or even an entire online school curriculum. Many of these are free and open, including the widely discussed MOOC-movement of the last few years. In fact, I’ve guided several such people as they try to do so; and this will continue to offer a number of options that will challenge even the most well-resourced traditional schools in the upcoming years.

Of course, online learning can be about more than taking courses. Scan the web and find countless tutoring services, more informal learning groups, and emerging opportunities like Google HelpOuts (schedule a time to chat with someone who has expertise that you do not have).

2) Project-based Learning – This is a movement that continues to spread in public and private schools, leveraging learning experiences where young people learn through self-directed work on rich and immersive projects. For one of the best descriptions of how this movement is impacting homeschooling, check about the book and associated blog on Project-based Homeschooling.

3. Digital Badges for Learning – An event happened in the summer of 2013 that may end up being one of the most transformational experiments in the last 100 years when it comes to the changing nature of education. It was called the Chicago Summer of Learning and it is quickly spreading to cities around the United States. The mayor of Chicago decided to put together a team that would unite the hundreds of community summer learning programs throughout the city: museums, parks, camps, libraries, etc. They worked with people at the Mozilla Foundation to draw them all together to build a city-wise digital badge project. Young people from all backgrounds were able to discover the countless opportunities to learn about science, technology, engineering, arts, and math across the city; earning digital badges that made it possible to document and display this learning. While such community programs have existed for years, this unified effort under the structure of digital badges makes this learning visible and potentially transferable. It opened the door for a model of learning that is not tied to a single school or context. Instead of schools holding the official records of a student’s learning, this digital badge movement makes it possible for the learners to possesses their own record of learning using digital badges that could be aligned to state or national standards, entry requirements for higher education, skills expected by specific employers, etc. This is still a new movement, but it is well-funded, well-resourced and backed by major groups like the Mozilla Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, the Microsoft Foundation, and many more. This movement has the potential to democratize the documentation of learning unlike any innovation before it, giving new power to practices like homeschooling. Why? It is because digital badges for learning are increasingly ambivalent to how one learns something. They focus on the results. Can you show that you know it? If so, you get the badge.

4) Community-based Education – Community-based organizations have always had educational offering beyond school. However, noticing the growth of homeschooling, more programs emerged in the last decade geared directly toward homeschoolers. You can find art classes taught by practicing artists in the community, immersive weekly half-day experiential environmental education programming designed for homeschoolers, flexible day schedules for young people interested in sport and dance, not to mention hand-on STEM courses and experiences for young people at Universities; technology companies, libraries, and independent organizations.

5) Adaptive Learning Software – The early promise for this development is in math, but there are a number of companies and groups working on the next generation of adaptive learning across content areas. Adaptive learning software is revolutionary becuase it moves away from a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching something like math. Instead, the software tracks the learner’s understanding and progress, and adapts the examples, lessons, and experiences to meet the distinct needs (and sometimes interests) of a learner. Students don’t take quizzes and tests for grades as much as they take ongoing assessment that give the software and learner feedback about what to do next. Two examples of this are Dreambox and Aleks, but a quick search on the web and you can find dozens of emerging adaptive learning software packages.

Since a learner’s progress is so carefully tracked, this also lends itself toward clear and documented evidence of learning, which is likely to connect with the digital badging movement. Such developments may soon get rid of questions and concerns about how homeshoolers demonstrate that their learning equals or exceeds what happens in traditional school settings.

6) DIY Learning – This is a movement that continues to gain traction as we discover a truth that many have known for centuries. When you learn by doing it yourself, it sticks and it helps you become a more self-directed and self-governed learner. In the digital age, learners have access to more resources for self-directed learning than any time in history. A simple “how to…” search on YouTube is enough give take us step-by-step through the most simple or complex problems, and homeschoolers are tapping into this power for rich and robust learning experiences.

7) Makerspaces – A maker space is typically a physical location in a community that includes the tools and resources to make things. Some makerspaces focus on electronics, building materials, crafting, or any other form of making. These are often community-based, available to anyone for free or a low-cost. It is not just the tools that makes a great makerspace, it is also the community of makers that go to it. Together, there is collaboration, informal mentoring, and more. Such spaces continue to expand around the United States, making the tools of making available to almost anyone in a given community, including homeschoolers. In fact, given that homeschoolers have more flexibility in their day, these resources are arguably more available to homeschoolers than to young people in traditional schools. Many traditional schools still tend to be largely bound by the walls of their schools and the boundaries of their grounds, with the occasional exception of field trips.

8) The Personal Learning Network – I’ve written about this elsewhere, but a personal learning network is just what it sounds like, a network of people and resources that one uses to learn. It leverages digital content, digital communication resources, online communities and groups, as well as physical communities, groups and resources in one’s region. By inviting students to build network by which they can learn, they are essentially creating a personalized “school” that they can adapt and expand throughout their lives. This is essentially about discovering and leveraging the nature of life and learning in a connected world.

9) Unbundled Education – Many do not realize that public and private schools are not always an all-or-nothing option. Many allow homeschoolers to participate in some portions of the schools and not others. Students might attend for a few courses and not others, come for after-school chess club but skip in the school day, or all sorts of personalized options. Flexibility and openness to such options varies by school, district and region; but the trend in most places is toward openness, even as schools in general are moving away from a one-size-fits all factory model to more personalized learning from individuals.

10) The Awakening – People today are getting more informed about the possibilities for life and learning in a connected and increasingly digital world. More are realizing that it is unnecessary and unwise to limit a learning organization or learner’s experience to what you get from a single curriculum-provider, textbook and workbook series, or school program. People have more choices than any time in history when it comes to finding the right learning fit for students. As this awakening expands, so will homeschooling, blends of homeschooling and traditional school, and what I like to call community-based connected schooling.

Posted in blog, education, education reform, home-based education

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).

One thought on “10 Trends That are Transforming Homeschooling in the Digital Age

  1. ralphsherman

    Another great post Bernard. I home schooled my son. Here in Oregon, they have a rather liberal policy for home schooling, considering that education is compulsory. We were to have complied with giving instruction on a par with the public schools system. However, once we took our son out of public school there was no contact with the system, except for one placement test around the 10th grade. I feel very strongly that our son, my wife and I are all the better for having made that decision. He was not at all happy at school. It stressed him out so much so going to school, that the principal told me Benn had the worse case of ADHD the he had ever scene. Well Benn did not have ADHD, What he had was ATSD or aversion to school disorder and it was bad. The school wanted us to support them, at the expense of Benn’s emotional well being and our family’s commitment to each other. We refused to comply and removed Benn from the school system when he was about 12 years old. When he later received his GED, he scored in the 98% on reading comprehension.

    Your post puts a finer point on the matter of home schooling with regard to the schooling part. This is a good example of how the words we use frame the discussion. By limiting the discussion to “schooling” it constrains the conversation to alternatives of schooling pedagogy. When, in reality living at home with your family and growing up with your father, who is always available to help you learn from life, is not at all like school but rather more like living.

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