Happy Homeschool: Harnessing Technology

Oh, the irony of this post! After recently writing about taking strong steps against the encroachment of the internet in my home, I'm now introducing it even more heavily into my homeschool. I know... make up my mind, right? What I'm actually doing, however, is making technology work for us instead of allowing it to consume us. It has something that can help us. And if we can master ourselves, implement solid accountability, and keep it in it's place, the internet can be a great companion this school year. 

I'm going to list the tools first and then follow with an explanation of how they will work for us. If you read my last post, you know that I am energetically seeking a system that works with my personality to meet our needs and keep us consistently above survival mode. I've scrapped our old system and am making an adventure out of something entirely new. For more about my plan for this year, please read: Happy Homeschool {Rising Out of Survival Mode}: 2015 Overview

THE CONTEXT

We are a homeschooling family using an eclectic approach with 7 kids: 3 teens, 2 grade schoolers, 1 preschooler, and 1 toddler. The need for this technological overhaul did not exist when my kids were all younger. My primary impetus for doing this now is managing the older students (who have many online courses and resources between them) so that we can maximize the resources that we have. In a perfect world with unlimited energy and time, these plans would look different... but as I seek to restore our foundation to peace and focus on Jesus Christ, this is making it possible for me to thrive.

Please note that this post does not focus on the meat of our homeschool curriculum but primarily on the way we use technology to enhance our primary goals. Our families may not share the same academic goals (or personalities, weaknesses, and strengths) and consequently, may not find the same tools useful. 

THE TOOLS

(Mandatory disclaimer: There are some affiliate links in this post. If you buy through my link, I might get a few pennies. But there is nothing linked here that we are not currently using or that I wouldn't link regardless.)

Chromebooks
Google Docs
X3Watch/Covenant Eyes
Asana
Khan Academy
Homeschool Connections Online
Hillsdale College Online Courses
Evernote
Disc Binder System (yes, I know this is good old fashioned paper and pen. But it is a big part of my support system so I thought I'd throw it in for good measure.)


CHROMEBOOKS

For years, I scoffed at the idea of Chromebooks or tablets in the institutional schools (and still question their value over danger without proper oversight). What is the problem with good old fashioned paper and pencils? Now I am chewing my way through a big piece of humble pie as I confess that I love the way they work for my homeschool.

Chromebooks are not strictly laptops but rather a direct doorway to the internet using Chrome, Google's web browser. That's pretty much all they do. So if you are not in a wifi zone, your chromebook becomes a shiny doorstop - good for nothing. Ours do allow for limited offline use in Google Docs and Gmail (a nice advantage that older versions did not have), but nothing beyond that. That explains the affordability. We purchased our two Toshiba Chromebooks on sale for $200 each and consider that a great value for the extent to which they are used. (Our high school senior purchased his own laptop which suites his purposes better than a Chromebook would.)

I am the primary owner of each Chromebook (you have to be the first one to sign up on the device to be the "owner") and can manage the other users. That means I can kick kids off forever. I also turned off the ability to navigate the internet without needing to sign in (guest user) so each child must sign in via their own google account or mine in order to access the internet. That means that only teens have their own access since Google does not allow users under 13. That's fine with me!

Allowing kids to have unrestricted internet even for brief periods is dangerous and requires a high level of monitoring and accountability. I'll write more about our concrete plans for this later in the post. 


GOOGLE DOCS

I love/hate Google but it's hard to get around the beast these days. I figure if anyone really wants all of my sensitive information, they likely already have it. And I try only to write emails that could be read in public without much humiliation anyway. So... I've reconciled my relationship with Google... or justified... not sure which yet. At any rate, I use it frequently; and while I like Gmail just fine, I am quite smitten with Google Docs. Why?

  • Write and format documents online.
  • Automatically saves as you work.
  • Online storage and easy organization and search features.
  • Share via email or link with the option for others to view, comment, or edit.
  • Google Sheets functions much like Excel

Google Docs is one of the primary reasons I was first attracted to the Chromebooks. I have been using Docs for a while now for personal and professional purposes and find the ability to share and edit with multiple people incredibly useful. I'll give you an example from our first week of homeschool use...

My 13-year old was in the family room (the only place the Chromebooks are allowed to be without permission) working on a letter. I was upstairs occupied with my youngest but had my ipad with me. I received an email notification letting me know my teen had shared a Google doc with me and had invited me to edit. I wasn't able to sit with him and work on it right then but I was able to edit on my ipad app while he watched the changes happen downstairs. I was able to make notes in other colors and he was able to finish and print the document without having to wait for me to come downstairs.

Would it have been better if I had been able to sit with him and work on it together? Absolutely. But I'm a homeschooling mom of 7... and if I can't have the perfect, I'll gladly embrace the good.


X3WATCH or COVENANT EYES

I'll get this one out of the way before I go further with online resources. Accountability is king with navigating internet usage. I need it. You need it. And our kids absolutely need it. Having an open portal to the internet in my home is terrifying and I alternately cheer and cringe when I look at those Chromebooks. Instead of sticking our heads in the sand, we're being proactive. We had originally chosen Covenant Eyes but are now considering switching to X3Watch since it seems to offer the same services at half the price. If anyone is doing the same research or has experience, I'd love your input.

X3Watch and Convenant Eyes are accountability programs that send a regular report of all online activity to one or two accountability partners. They also offer options to block selected sites and porn. Adults choose another trustworthy adult and kids' reports are sent to parents. The kids know this. They know we see all and it helps them monitor their own activities better. We are not trying to "catch" them, we are trying to mentor them... and hopefully help teach them to monitor themselves in the long term. When they leave our home, they are welcome to retain us as accountability partners on our plan but we hope will at least transfer that role to another faithful person.

UPDATE: 
Apparently, I did not do enough research and have since learned that neither of these accountability programs works with Chromebooks. These are both great resources and work well on our other devices, but if you have Chromebooks, there is currently only one resource you can use: Accountable2You.com


ADDITIONAL USE GUIDELINES

  • No internet use is permitted in bedrooms and must be in public areas.
  • No internet use without permission (this varies according to age).
  • Parents have access to Gmail passwords with the understanding that we can access if we feel we need to. (We have rarely done this. We are attentive, not controlling.)
  • One fast day per week. This will start with the school year when our schedule is set. Wifi goes off and people will have to order their schedule appropriately around this day.
  • One strike and you're out... until/unless the powers-that-be detect a significant increase in maturity. Evil can enter a home very quickly via the internet. We don't mess around. Internet is a privilege, not a right.

ASANA

Asana is an app that is designed to maximize productivity in collaborative business projects. I have tried all kinds of homeschool planners and systems, on and offline. The ones that look most promising are pricey. Asana gives me what I'm looking for in those other systems... for free. There is a paid account but I don't need it because I have these things without cost...

  • The ability to assign projects; big and small, long and short term, with or without due dates to all students in my home
  • Collaborative and individual calendars 
  • Comment system which allows quick notes and instructions to students
  • The ability for parent and student to link and share documents (perfect way to incorporate Google Docs)
  • Option to add subtasks. For example: The "Project" is a students academic year. The "Tasks" are individual courses. The "Subtasks" are assignments within a course.
  • Email notifications for assignments given and also completed. 
  • Transparent overview of each student's progress and ability to give immediate feedback.
  • Option for kids to participate in their schedule, add to it, and use a personal page and calendar to manage their days.

The screen shot above was taken the first time I started tinkering with Asana but it gives you a basic idea of the primary project page.


KHAN ACADEMY

Math is not my academic strength so I rely on good programs like Math-U-See and Khan Academy to keep my kids moving forward. Khan is free, self-directed and a phenomenal supplement for my students. They love it because the lessons are bite-sized, well-taught, and their progress is visible and rewarded through a system of badges and such.  I love it because they actually ask to log on and because I can see their progress without having to take time out. I created a classroom, made myself their "coach," and assigned them the course that I wanted them to take. I opted to receive a weekly progress report in which I can see how much time each student spent working and whether there are areas in which they are struggling. (This also helps with accountability. For example, if they claimed to be on Khan for an hour every day and my weekly report says they were on for a total of 45 minutes for the week... well... let's just say they have some explaining to do and the accountability reports will be brought out!)

As you can see in the above screen shot, I'm doing pretty well with my basic addition and subtraction today. I'm pretty sure it was the awesome video featuring blueberries, cherries, and Sal Khan's pleasant voice.


HOMESCHOOL CONNECTIONS ONLINE

Catholic, online classes taught by someone else , live or prerecorded with materials. I'm pretty excited. We don't have the budget to do live courses (we SO wanted to take the Joseph Pearce course!) so we are going to take advantage of the 150 recorded courses (and course materials) for a monthly fee. After having explored the course selections upon signing up at Homeschool Connections, I'm seeing a whole lot of value for our buck. $30/month covers access to unlimited recorded courses for as many students as we have here plus a certificate of completion after each. (And maybe a course for mama, too!) The Chromebooks will allow multiple students to work at one time. They can write their assignments in Google Docs. And if anyone is struggling, many courses have the option to pay a fee for instructor support and grading. Live courses would be wonderful... maybe someday!


HILLSDALE COLLEGE ONLINE COURSES

Free and excellent courses from Hillsdale College. A wonderful resource that we are using for junior high and high school. I wish I had the time to take them along with my kids. Also, the companion reader to the Constitution courses has become a valuable resource in our household: U.S. Constitution: A Reader. I suspect that if every American citizen made use of these courses, our electorate might actually be literate. 


DISC BINDER SYSTEM

As much as I love technology, I enjoy planning and brainstorming using a real pen and paper. I use the Arc notebook system from Staples and wrote about this at the beginning of the New Year in "Taking Up Dreams Again in 2015" (mid-post)


EVERNOTE

Evernote has saved my brain many times, particularly when I struggle with the limitations of low-energy or chronic fatigue. I will go through long periods where I use it almost exclusively to dump ideas and notes and links when I am in "survival mode," times when I use it for scheduling and reminders, and still other times when I use it hardly at all. I recently revisited the vast archives of brain dumping (often simply emailing a note or link to my evernote address) that I did during the post-partum year after Peaches was born. It was like opening up a treasure chest! I uncovered valuable resources and even many writing excerpts that have become the basis for bigger articles. Evernote is full of possibilities beyond the ways in which I have used it. It remains a vital member of my homeschool toolbox.


This post has covered the basic overview of technology use in our home but has necessarily excluded a myriad of details related to our homeschool, online and off. Typing practice is online as well as doula studies and miscellaneous enrichment. But learning with real books makes up the bulk of our days here. In the event of a power outage (short or long term), we will still know how to interact and study and thrive. A Christian plan that incorporates heavy internet use must also require a willingness to die to that plan if God calls us to. If I find that Chromebooks begin to suck up the energy and focus reserved for God alone, then they will go back in their boxes and become what they were be before entering our home... shiny silver doorstoppers. And we'll simply start again. A.M.D.G!

Read Part One: Happy Homeschool {Rising Out of Survival Mode}: 2015 Overview

Posted on August 5, 2015 and filed under homeschooling, high school.