On the stormy seas of schooling

by Yule Heibel on November 29, 2005

Looking at my referer log yesterday, I experienced my personal equivalent of getting slash-dotted: Daryl Cobranchi, who writes a homeschooling blog, linked to my cocktail-party-piece, and I was inundated by hits from his site. They continued today — and after reading around in his blog, I can believe that he has a large and loyal following, for he has plenty of timely links to pending legislation; information on how homeschooling is evolving in tandem with (or should that read: is besieged by?) the growth in internet services; as well as other good pointers to around the US.

From my perspective, I found this Schooled in Streaming article fascinating, especially p.2, which quotes Jeffrey Jones, founder of YourOtherTeacher.com:

“I’ve been involved in education since 1990 and can say that the last three years have seen a marked uptick in the use of streaming for homeschooling,” said Jones. “We currently have 12,000 users but expect to grow dramatically within the next year based on several key relationships we formed.”

Prices range from $10 per month for unlimited access to pre-recorded streams to $40 per hour for one-on-one online tutoring via streaming audio and shared whiteboards.

“Many of our classes are taught by instructors that teach at a high school or college, so the material is constantly being updated to suit questions that arise in their classes,” said Jones.

When asked about the benefits of online supplemental learning, Jones explained his belief that he can provide 2-3 times more information in an online class as he can in a traditional classroom.

“As teachers we are always watching the clock and trying to get as much material into that period as possible,” Jones said. “That means we have to go faster, skip steps, and not present as many examples as we would like. On the Web we don’t have those constraints, we can take our time, explain every step, and do as many problems as we want. I tell my students to keep watching the lessons one after another until they get it.”

Since its inception, YourOtherTeacher.com has used Real’s SMIL technology to deliver synchronized content to its users, but is currently developing its own delivery tools.

“We are in the process of converting over most of our classes from Real Player format to our own Flash-based format called LectureMate,” said Jones. “Since the new lessons are vector-based, the lessons are perfectly clear and require less bandwidth. In the new version, to be released next month, teachers will also be able to conduct live office hours.” [More…]

Canada (and my home province of British Columbia) has far fewer lines drawn in the sand (between truly free home- and unschoolers on the one hand, and those who subscribe to some form of state regulation on the other). Even so-called independent schools aren’t really independent, for example, because they have to hire BC certified teachers and they receive subsidies from the government. (To whit, the average bloc-funding for BC students is $5753, and private or independent schools get roughly $3000 per student from that public tax-funded pot… My taxes, in other words, help fund another child’s private school education, whether British-style blazer & tie uniformed or fundie xian. No one here seems to find this strange. Go figure.) This also results in more homeschoolers willing to embrace a hybrid system whereby they fulfill high school requirements via distance education — BC has a consortium of nine distance education schools, some of which are loosy-goosy, some of which are academically rigid. All nine offer a BC Ministry of Education approved curriculum, and the “hoops” can be onerous indeed: in its wisdom, our government has strung together a new “graduation program” that involves more high school testing and a particularly bad example of bureaucratic portfolio management. We are considering Option-B, which is to tell the Ministry to shove it.

But let’s not forget Option-C, which is negotiate, negotiate, negotiate.

Furthermore, their courses are free (in the sense of not costing money) and my kids can take Advanced Placement courses as part of their public cyber education. This isn’t something I could offer them out of my own resources, nor would it be free if it weren’t part of public education. Every once in a while, there’s even a worthwhile online course or some offering that’s not a waste of time, but there are always Ministry-mandated tests and hoops, hoops, hoops. But at some point kids have matured enough to realise that they can have a non-herd mentality and a critical attitude toward these things, even as they negotiate their way through requirements — once they go to university (which my kids will be doing), they will have to deal with ongoing tests and evaluation anyway. It’s not a bad thing to learn about negotiation beforehand: we negotiate alternatives with the distance ed school about curriculum we feel is crappy (and there is lots of it) or inadequate teacher feedback/ support. I’m a thorn in their side, and I get a far better response from them than I would from a bricks-and-mortar school, and I feel that I’m doing something to improve the lot of the students who come after.

As the “streaming” article (cited above) would indicate, today’s sexed-up bits aren’t, in my opinion, about the freedoms of homeschoolers (because the option of leaving the system is still there), but about the profits to be made in developing curricula in partnership with industry, and which can be used by industry — used by industry to produce useful workers (which, according to Gatto and others, has always been the point of public education anyway: producing cannon fodder and/or industry fodder). Just like hot-talk about Web-twodot-oh!, it’s really about profits and making money and being there at the right time. In other words, it’s not about you. It’s about the money to be made, and the ideologies of P3 approaches to services. (More pro-P3 propaganda here.)

This is both depressing as well as liberating. Even if “it” is not about me (us), I can however try to extract from whatever “it” is that which will serve my (our) interests best. Right now, what serves our interests best is that weird hybrid of using Ministry-approved distance courses, even though I want to think that we are still homeschoolers (in the oppositional “we’re not anybody’s fodder” manner). As soon as the crappy courses outweigh the good courses, though, we’ll be out of there. And to keep the bad courses at bay, we continue to needle and dig and prod and poke. Bad systems aren’t staffed up and down by bad people — we meet plenty of allies and helpers along the way who are only too happy to do their bit to subvert the institutions they work in. That can be quite gratifying, something to restore faith in human nature — or at least help get one over the bad patches when yet another money-making “privateer” (isn’t that an old word for pirate?) blocks one’s path.


Daryl Cobranchi December 3, 2005 at 6:18 pm

Slashdotted? I wish I could throw that kind of traffic your way. Hell, I wish I could DRAW that kind of traffic. 🙂 Seriously, the piece was terrific; you really SHOULD write that book.

Yule Heibel December 4, 2005 at 12:38 am

Well, thanks Daryl. But I’m not kidding when I say that I have never had as many hits from any site as I had from yours. It was really unusual, but then again, that’s what homeschoolers are all about, right? 😉

For the record, there must have been nearly close to 200 hits from cobranchi.com within the 48 hours of your posting — for someone in the way-long-tail, that’s “slashdot” calibre… Which is not to say that quantity trumps quality — there was the time a porn-site referer spammer sent me dozens of hits, and yuck, I can do without those, thanks!

But I did find it heartening somehow to see that… no, to experience an aspect of the clout that the homeschooling community can bring to bear. I don’t agree with everything that’s happening in that community — and jeez, it’s way too heterogenous a community to gather general agreement with anyway! For example, I’m an atheist (actually, I resent even saying a-theist, since I think theism isn’t worth mentioning, regardless of what ethical imperatives I subscribe to), which would probably have a huge portion of the xian homeschooling community on my case (even though they could agree with most of my “do unto others” choices in daily action); and I’m not entirely an unschooler (although I look for the unschooling within the schooling); and I think government has a role to play (so, pace Daryl, I’m not a libertarian in any classical sense) in the affairs of citizens.

But there’s something in the way homeschooling — actually, is that even the right word?, shouldn’t it also be a word that captures something of the anti-institutional aspect, something of the forward-thinking anti-19th century, anit-Taylorist or anti-Fordist factory model of schooling?, something that speaks to the future and says, we want education-for-understanding that doesn’t rely on the templates provided by 19th and early 20th century industrialisation, but instead looks forward to distributed but democratic learning?: what is the right word for that? — there’s something in the way homeschoolers are creating a current, a movement, an alternative approach that’s viable. And it’s encouraging.

Daryl Cobranchi December 4, 2005 at 6:51 am

I think government has a role to play

Well, that might be because yours actually seems competent. Our current leadership is inept in basically every major category. Better a government that does nothing than one that does a lot and screws it all up.

Yule Heibel December 4, 2005 at 11:50 am

Well, the Canadian government is plagued with corruption and certain incompetencies, too, but it’s not (yet) as bad as Dubya’s regime, that’s for sure. There was an interesting article in The Forward by Martin van Creveld, castigating Bush’s policies. He writes, “For misleading the American people, and launching the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C sent his legions into Germany and lost them, Bush deserves to be impeached and, once he has been removed from office, put on trial along with the rest of the president’s men. If convicted, they’ll have plenty of time to mull over their sins.”

If not impeached for what he’s done in Iraq, he should at any rate be put in the stocks for creating such a huge deficit.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: