Online Homeschooling Curriculums – a review: part 3

confused-homescool-review-300x300This is the final part of the reviews I am writing and, please, do keep in my mind that the most important criteria I used for choosing what to review was self knowledge of these online programs. The number of online curriculum (including Catholic online choices) continues to grow and the only reason any of the others currently available are not included in my choice is lack of personal knowledge. Without that, I did not feel I could give a solid and honest review.

With that out of the way, let me move right along to my family’s experience with Homeschooling Connections. This is the only online high school curriculum we have sampled and we started using it last summer in July of 2013. A friend (who was struggling with the same challenges that I have before me) dropped this lovely gem in my lap.

Homeschooling Connections is a Catholic curriculum taught by a variety of instructors. Some are college professors and others are high school teachers or professionals working in the area they are teaching. All are very proficient in their subjects. According to Maureen when choosing someone to teach in their program “We look for a number of things in our instructors. They need to have a love for their subject matter as well as be experts in their field. Emotions are contagious. If they are not excited about their subject matter, their students will not be excited about learning it. Our instructors include college professors, high school teachers, and working professionals. Of course, it’s important that instructors working with students in a Catholic classroom also be loyal to the Magisterium and have a love for the Catholic faith.” I don’t know about you – but that, is paramount for me too.

You can meet their instructors here, and if any of your children have a penchant for history they MUST try at least one of Phillip Campbell’s courses. I know my teens really enjoyed his classes. Homeschool Connections offers an incredible variety of courses and there are simply too many to list so I’m just going to send you directly to their catalogue. This fantastic collection of classes is offered in three different platforms. They have live courses which require the student to be actively involved in an online class, at the same time of the day and week, and to submit assignments online, as well as to dialogue with the instructor and other students. As more and more colleges and universities strive to expand their availability to the student population through online classes this make this online experience incredibly valuable.  These same live courses are recorded and are then available the following semester to students at a substantially lower cost through the unlimited access membership. This leads me to the third platform through which you may avail yourself of their services. Once you join the unlimited access membership you also have access to a number of marked classes. Again, at a much lower cost than when the class was running live which, by no means, makes the knowledge shared less valuable.

I’m sure by now – all of you are wondering what this must cost. If you have read part one and/or part two of my reviews you know by now that I’m continuously in search of very affordable curriculum due to the fact that I still have six children, of homeschooling age, at home.

In this review I am going to repeat the style I used for my review which was to break it into four sections: cost, ease of use, how much time a parent must invest as teacher and the quality of classes, so let me begin with cost and alleviate your fears that, with all Homeschool Connections offers, this option must break one’s budget.

COST

As I mentioned Homeschool Connections offers three tiers of education. Recorded classes (at last count this was over 150 classes) which can be accessed for the low monthly cost of just thirty dollars a month. No, that is not a typo, I said per month – not per class or per student. Now within that option is the availability of some classes to be marked by the original instructor. The price of this option varies by the course and professor and requires that your student finishes the class within a finite amount of time. This particular option greatly interested me as, in most cases I found the fee requested by the instructors reasonable and, more importantly, affordable. I think many of us who homeschool a multitude of grades can attest to the incredible challenge of keeping all of our hooligans students on track. I had, at one time, ten children at home with eight being homeschooled and the grades ranged from preschool to a senior in high school so the idea that my teens would have to answer to another human’s timetable simply enchanted me. And with prices for a marked course ranging from 15.00 to 105.00 with many averaging at about fifty dollars – I was hooked.  I do have to say that it would be a lovely advantage to have a section within the catalogue for marked classes, as determining what is available as a marked class is very time consuming. At this time, they have approximately 40 classes available for marking.

Their most expensive alternative is the live class and, there again, the prices range. I must refer you once more to their catalogue for a fair idea as to cost but I do not recall any going over 250.00 for a full semester course and many were well below that cost.  Typically there is a period of time during which you can enroll with a significant discount per course. Typically they offer around fifty live courses per semester and are trying to increase this yearly.

Ease of Use

As I’ve already hinted at – determining what classes are available as a marked option is a difficult chore that could be made easier if Homeschool Connections had a section for these classes. Another issue I had was trying to determine which child had picked which class. It was a tad disconcerting to sift through the various classes my teens signed up for under the “unlimited access” . Even I had picked out a couple to peruse. As a result,we had a long list to the left of our home page under “My Courses” and periodically classes seemed to disappear – causing a lot of confusion.  One day I began un-enrolling from a bunch classes my kids had signed up for and discovered the earlier classes had simply disappeared from view.  Lesson learned – keep it simple and don’t give into the temptation in to sign up for ALL of the interesting classes. Mind, I had four students using the same “my courses” section and I wanted to be able to look in detail at some classes so it did not take too long to build a hefty list. The middle school classes, which I was looking at in detail in order to determine suitability of teaching style and depth of material for my speech impaired adolescent, were mixed in with the high school classes. Between the sizable list, and sometimes similar titles, confusion sometimes frustrated the kids when they were trying to open their courses.

Homeschool Connections has a very straightforward section on what you need in order to make use of their courses. Rather than re-invent the wheel I’m just going to send you directly there. We experienced a few small hiccups the first time we signed up with a live class and occasionally there were problems with recorded classes when we tried to view them. We typically found it easy to resolve the problems and when we couldn’t, either Maureen Wittman or Walter Crawford were very quick to answer emailed requests fro help.

I must also admit that we are very technically advanced family. We have been using computers since the late eighties and on the internet almost since its inception and today we are very involved in livestreaming events for our parish and other groups. Therefore, while we did not find any hiccups much of an issue, a family less technically inclined might have more difficulties resolving them. None the less, I feel the classes were pretty easy to use and follow.

How much time does a parent have to be involved as teacher?

That is actually a bit of a loaded question. As I have hinted at there is a substantial selection to work with and with that, there is is also a huge variety in how involved the instructors are. Both in terms of what type of homework they are requiring of the student and how involved they are with the students. Many of their instructors are actual professors accustomed to working with young adults who are expected to keep track of their own due dates and assignments. They bring this same attitude to the table in many of the courses. How that impacts on you as parent/teacher is going to be a very individual experience. If you are prepared to let your student take the full consequences of learning how to track their own progress and assignment due dates it’s not going to impact that much on your time. But if you have a student that you are hoping will be more proactive because they are answering to an adult outside of the family – don’t count on that happening. It might or it might not. My personal experience was that this did not always happen. Note the word personal – this may or may not be your experience. I make a point of this only because I was actually caught off guard when one of my students did not respond to the “pressure” of an instructor expecting items sent in in a timely manner when we payed to have a class marked yet he did not miss a single due date for his live class. However, I must note the more involved the instructor was with any my students, the more likely they were to take the course seriously. I think it would be helpful for some parents when choosing marked courses to know what the individual instructor’s expectations are of the student;  such as whether they are expecting a more college styled relationship with your freshman, or if they are willing to send the odd email reminding a student or parent of a missed due date.

Another point to consider is that while a recorded class (without marking) provides a recorded lecture and there is an outline available for the child to follow with the assignments (and possibly self marked quizzes), some courses require you to be able to grade the written material yourself. There is a great variety in this and you will need to take a close look at the material in the course to know if this is a course you are comfortable handling without an answer key. This is NOT an issue in either a marked course, or in a live class, but it can certainly become a problem with the unmarked recorded classes. This does not mean that watching the videos or reading material is not valuable, but it might be a problem as far as providing proof the student completed the course without some kind of marked assignment.

Quality of Classes

We were happy with most of the classes we participated in. My eighteen year  old son, who was a senior, last year really enjoyed participating in the live class that he took.  He liked being part of a class and chatting online with the other students and found the classes entertaining and interesting. Our only disappointment was that we had not found this resource earlier in his high school career.

Occasionally, we ran into the problem of sound not syncing up with video but this is a very new industry and there are going to be hic-ups and glitches as it’s developed.  Sometimes we did run into the odd instructor who was slightly challenged in the technical area which the kids found distracting enough to drop that particular (unmarked) class.

Communications with Walter Crawford and Maureen Wittman has been great and, typically, communication with the instructors is awesome. However, in one marked class one instructor simply stopped marking the assignments. I will admit I dropped the ball as I was so incredibly busy at the time that I did not try to connect with him to determine the cause. Both my daughter and I, though we thought she was more or less in sync with the due dates, wondered if perhaps we had somehow run pass the allotted time the instructor was available to mark the subjects. We will never know, as I was simply too busy to take the time to find out.  Still, it was disappointing to have an instructor seemingly just disappear and no longer mark any assignments without an explanation. A few other instructors were difficult to communicate with as well. Others were really on top of their game and responded quickly to any questions I or their student had. I have no suggestions or ideas how to remedy that. I think this is the same in every educational institute – some people are easy to communicate with and others, not so much.

Over all – for thirty dollars a month to have unlimited access to such a variety of classes and instructors is amazing and something for which we have been very grateful. My greatest complaint is constantly “where were you four years ago?” They were there – I just hadn’t heard of them. Now that I have – I intend to keep making sure others are aware of this very inexpensive option. Homeschool Connections‘ live classes are also an excellent value and, in my opinion, available at a very reasonable price. According to Maureen Wittman they started off five years with only two live classes available. It is so exciting to see where they have gone with this and, with still more middle and high school students in the pipe line, I’m really happy to know they will be an option for the years to come.

If you missed part one or part two of this series you can read about time4learning here and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Resource Center here.