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Life Learning in the Internet Age - Beyond Video Games

Life Learning in the Internet Age
By Suki Wessling

There’s no doubt about it: The Internet has changed homeschooling. If you’re not sure about that, read a homeschooling book from ten years ago. Accessing the information, goods, and services you needed sounds so complicated then. Go back another ten years and it feels like Little Homeschooling on the Prairie.

But it seems to me that much of what people think of when they think of online learning has to do with the “schooling” half of homeschooling: access to online curriculum, teacher-led classes, and instructions for doing just about anything. What interests me more are the possibilities for homeschoolers that emphasize the “home” part of the experience: What is the Internet allowing life learners to do now that we couldn’t do before because of physical limitations?

Exploration

When my son was born in 1999, we started a small tradition of buying a big, colorful atlas for him and for many of the other babies we knew coming into the world at that time. We had in mind the idea that the children would grow with a picture of the way the world was when they were born, so they could really get a sense of how things had changed around them.

Little did I know then (even though my husband and I were amongst the earliest users of the Internet and then the Web) that the atlas would be so overpowered by the interactive and real experience of Google Earth. My kids and I do use the atlas, but more often, we “visit” places we’re talking about in Google Earth. There is nothing more immediate-feeling than being able to see a crowd of people who were waiting on a street corner in Tokyo only a month before. Now that the data is being archived, we can even go back in time.

My daughter has become obsessed with Greek mythology, and one day I was thrilled to see her reaction when I suggested we visit Mount Olympus online. “You mean Mount Olympus is real?” she asked, astonished.

It used to be that when we wanted to learn about a place we would depend on the library to offer a book that was often out of date. We still use those books, but we supplement with reading people’s blogs, reading the local newspaper, or chatting by email with someone who’s been there.

Community

I grew up in a small, Midwestern town that seemed to be lacking in people who had interests similar to mine. It took going to college before I felt like I’d found people I could really talk to.

My kids are growing up in a small town, too, although much closer to the urban sprawl of Silicon Valley. The reality is, however, that we drive to Palo Alto even less often than my parents drove to Ann Arbor for their doses of culture. They didn’t have much choice.

“Last year, in the process of doing a science fair project, my son accessed Al Jazeera and used their Arabic homepage as an example in his presentation. In her science fair project, my daughter corresponded with a chemist who designs pH paper. As a family, we not only get to read and share ideas we are attracted to, we can hear ideas that we disagree with directly from the source and discuss them. Our lives are richer for it.”
In fact, the Internet allows us to find our communities so easily that we are more connected with people who share our interests than we would have been in the past. My daughter took an online Greek Mythology course that wouldn’t have had enough enrollment if it were an in-person class. My son and I are starting an online literature circle for teens, which will be so much easier to get going given that none of us has to drive to get there.

In-person community is important, too and, once again, I find that the Internet age facilitates rather than hinders. I attend a popular homeschooling support group that would have a hard time finding attendees without Facebook and our e-mail list. In the book club I run for my daughter’s cohorts, I can dash off an e-mail asking for someone to pick up an item I forgot and fully expect that it will happen. My son is studying history with a group that meets physically once a week and online anytime they want to.

Worldview

My childhood experience was defined by borders: Unless my parents chose to go somewhere, which didn’t happen very often, I was stuck going only as far as my bike would take me. As soon as I could, I up and moved to a place where I felt like I’d meet a wider variety of people with a wider variety of viewpoints.

My children’s experiences are completely different. They “know” people online who share their interests, and don’t feel a burning need to get away from this place because of its isolation.

YouTube, the great cultural (and anti-cultural!) mishmash, brings anyone’s experiences and viewpoints right into our home. My kids have seen street children in India, have shared impassioned speeches about violence in video gaming, and have seen the results of people’s diverse pursuits, from creating Heavy Metal soundwaves with burning gas to balancing rocks in a mountain stream.

Last year, in the process of doing a science fair project, my son accessed Al Jazeera and used their Arabic homepage as an example in his presentation. In her science fair project, my daughter corresponded with a chemist who designs pH paper. As a family, we not only get to read and share ideas we are attracted to, we can hear ideas that we disagree with directly from the source and discuss them. Our lives are richer for it.

Possibilities

I already see a great opening up of experience due to the Internet, and life learners are at the forefront of it. The family you are born into, the place you happen to live, and the people you happen to get to know in your daily life no longer form the limits of your experience.

But I think we’re only just starting to figure out what all this connectivity is good for. I’d love to see more online learning experiences, not just formal classes but meeting places for like-minded kids who don’t live near to each other. As my son enters traditional “high school” age, I’d like to see him connecting with adults who have skills to share and other kids he can exchange ideas with.

I’m sure that I am seeing only a tiny fraction of the possibilities that will open up, things that will start as weird ideas and quickly become accepted as inevitable.

Can you imagine trying to explain a Facebook group to a 1980s homeschooling family who are living off the land and learning algebra by correspondence course? Can you imagine telling those parents that their homeschooled grandchildren would be able to have friends that they chat with daily all over the world?

I am sure we will look just as quaint to the homeschoolers of the future. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what they come up with.

Suki Wessling write about parenting, homeschooling, and gifted children and is the homeschooling mom of two. Her book, “From School to Homeschool,” helps parents leave the world of school physically and mentally as they start their homeschooling journey. Learn more on her website.

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