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Web puts the home back in homework
(IDG) -- It's not easy homeschooling your kids. Each year, Shay Seaborne of Woodbridge, Va., finds out what her two elementary-school-age daughters should be learning, then spends hours designing lesson plans, compiling reading lists and coming up with ideas for field trips.
Teaching Caitlin, 10, and Laurel, 7, sometimes requires a massive research effort. Now, at least, Seaborne can rely on a virtual teaching assistant. She's been instructing her kids at home since 1995, but in the past two years, the Web has offered her a growing cache of free or low-cost educational resources and a nationwide network of like-minded parents. Seaborne even moderates her own homeschooling discussion group, which has expanded from 20 members to 231 in the past year. "Going online opened a whole new world for me. I could suddenly discuss things and ask questions," she says.
On a typical morning the 40-year-old mom is up at dawn, scouring the Web for materials on this week's subject, women's rights. She creates a slide show using pictures found on history sites. She downloads a movie clip from PBS and prints out Sojourner Truth's 1851 speech "Ain't I a Woman?" Later, she will scan no less then 39 parent mailing lists, looking for answers to questions she's posted. And before she takes a break to fix dinner, she'll help Caitlin update her Web site with a description of the girl's experience playing the wise old sheep in the play Charlotte's Web. Seaborne probably won't get a moment to herself until her husband and kids turn in around 8 p.m. -- and even then her work isn't done. "I go online and surf until midnight," she says.
Across the U.S., hundreds of thousands of parents like Seaborne are turning to the Web for help educating their kids, and online resources are growing to meet this demand. Traditional publishers, correspondence schools and dot-com startups are rushing to help overwhelmed parent-teachers, offering everything from interactive classes to one-on-one tutoring.
Domestic education first became legal in all 50 states in 1993, and current estimates of the number of children being homeschooled range from 1.5 million to well over 2 million. Depending on whom you ask, these numbers increase by 7 percent to 15 percent each year.
Combined with average turnover, these figures mean that as many as 1 out of 10 kids in the U.S. receive some domestic education by age 18. And, more importantly to businesses targeting homeschooling families, Internet penetration in these households is way above average.
Sure, 2 million kids isn't exactly a huge target audience, but consider this: Back in 1996, according to government data, 86 percent of homeschooling families owned a computer and used it for educational purposes. The average PC penetration at the time was 1 in 3 households.
"I think, by now, [homeschoolers] are among the best-connected people I know," says William Lloyd, a researcher for the Salem, Ore.-based National Home Education Research Institute, which advocates homeschooling.
Lloyd has two children and five PCs at home. "Homeschoolers are up to 93 or 94 percent with a computer, and most of them are probably online," he says. By comparison, only about half of all U.S. households had Internet access as of June, according to Nielsen Net-Ratings.
As increasing numbers of mainstream parents -- often single and working full-time -- pull their offspring out of public schools, many find they lack the time or background to teach effectively. This is a revenue opportunity for virtual schools and specialized portals that offer everything from free advice, reading lists, worksheets, books and CD-ROMs to subscription K-12 packages.
Education portals promise convenience. Sites like EdGate.com and Family Education Network aggregate learning content and offer free services geared toward parents in general, while sites like Homeschool.com, Homeschool World and Eclectic Homeschool Online target domestic education -- the latter two with a Christian slant. Most of these portals aim to profit through ads and sponsorships. EHO, the online portal of a nonprofit print magazine, sells books in association with Amazon.com (AMZN) and takes a cut of the sales.
Homeschool.com founder Elizabeth Kanna, who teaches her three daughters at home, turned her personal need for information into a for-profit business. In March 1998, she and fellow homeschooler Rebecca Kochenderfer launched the portal out of Sacramento, Calif. The site offers parents free advice via e-mail, guided tours of "safe sites" and recommended links and books on homeschooling. It attracts more than 60,000 unique visitors a month, Kanna says.
That audience is attractive to e-learning companies -- from correspondence programs that have hopped online to Net-only operations peddling curricula by the month or by the course.
Kanna cut a deal with ChildU this past April. The Florida-based educontent startup sells online classes for grades four through six on Homeschool.com, which takes a share of the fees. Classes cost $69 with an online mentor and $59 without. In the first three months, a modest 50 students signed up, but Kanna remains confident: Nearly 1,800 families took an assessment test on her portal and indicated interest in ChildU's K-8 classes, which are slated to go live in September. Once the full lineup is available, Kanna expects to host 5,000 students monthly.
As kids get closer to college, Kanna notes, their parents become increasingly willing to pay for outside guidance. This bodes well for distance learning companies such as Class.com, a 1998 spin-off of a longtime University of Nebraska program called Independent Study High School. "The Net has emerged over the past four to five years as a natural delivery and learning tool," says Class.com CEO John Blair.
More than three-quarters of Class.com's 7,000 high school students are homeschoolers, says Blair, and total registration for the company's online classes now exceeds 15,000, an increase of more than fivefold since July 1999. A similar program at Pennsylvania's Keystone National High School also caters mainly to homeschoolers.
Online classes command a premium over paper-based learning. Class.com charges $275 per course, Keystone $299. The same classes via mail cost $225 and $165. Both schools cite Web development costs of up to $300,000 and the cost of online tutoring as reasons for the difference, but both expect prices to come down as competition heats up.
Adding to development costs in the fickle homeschooling market is the fact that one size rarely, if ever, fits all. Class.com, for example, is considering different biology classes that stress creationism or evolutionary theory to appeal to Christian fundamentalists or secular families, respectively. "Homeschooling families are intimately involved in their children's education. The Net won't cancel that out," says Gerald Burns, Keystone's director of education.
Finally, there are startups like Blackboard.com and Kiko (Knowledge In, Knowledge Out) that dabble with both ad-supported free content and for-profit courseware. Three-year-old Blackboard, which lets visitors build their own courses, hosts more than 27,000 classes for students from kindergarteners to corporate learners. The site boasts 240,000 registered users.
In June, Kiko launched what it calls the open-source model for online learning. Targeting grades four through nine, the company gives parents, students and teachers templates to create and post their own lessons and organize their favorites in customized portals. "Homeschooling is very, very important to us," says Kiko co-founder and CEO Steve Perkins.
Say you like the biology course that slams Darwin: Kiko lets you add it to a personal folder and spread the word through your religious mailing list. "The parents decide what values their kids receive," says marketing VP Glenn Zawicki, who adds that the company filters out offensive material and that poor content is nixed through customer ratings. By late summer, Kiko hopes to have more than 10,000 lessons on tap, attracting several hundred thousand visitors a month. "We'll be in the black in the later half of 2001," Perkins predicts.
Initially, the site will make money through sponsorship agreements similar to those used by public television. Later, the Long Beach, Calif.-based company plans to charge for premium services including mentor matchmaking -- like Tutor.com -- and automatic delivery of new lessons. Kiko claims it's commercial-free, but some lessons include outside links with plenty of banner ads for credit cards and merchandise.
Education experts follow the advertising trend warily. "There's this assumption that you give [kids] the Internet and they're going to learn more and better," warns Dylan Bernstein of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education in Oakland, Calif. "We have to watch out not to use the Web as a commercial baby sitter so that it becomes more entertaining than academic."
Whether homeschooling families will shell out for online classes is another unknown. Why buy a science lecture when you can download a syllabus from NASA, the Discovery Channel or PBS for free, or plug into Swarthmore College's math education library? "You can get a year's worth of material absolutely free in one morning. I doubt that we spend as much as $200 a year on homeschooling," says Psam Ordener of Friendswood, Texas. She's been teaching Albert, her 12-year-old, for two years and plans to pull his brother William, 7, out of public school this fall.
"Freebie mentality is very common. I get lesson plans and resources from other parents all the time and pass mine on to hundreds of people," says Ordener, 52. "If one parent chooses to stay home for the kids, that cuts into your income. So I try to get the best resources online with as little money as possible."
Ordener's approach seems to be working. Albert is doing ninth-grade work at age 12 and just signed up for his first -- free -- online class on Java programming with CodeWarriorU.com. Jokes his proud mother: "The local college wouldn't take him; he's too young."
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