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Image: SecularHomeschool.com
SecularHomeschool.com
At this forum on SecularHomeschool.com, one of many home-schooling websites and blogs, parents ask and answer questions about teaching curriculums and resources.
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/29/2010 6:29:25 PM ET 2010-09-29T22:29:25

Evidence suggests that home-schooling in America is a growing trend. In a weeklong web-only series, TODAYshow.com reports on the challenges and creative opportunities presented by this approach to education.

Carolyn Morrison home-schooled her two children from 1993 to 2004 — and the tools she had available to her then seem primitive today.

"Our computer was used primarily for e-mail, word processing and games, with CD-ROM resources filling in the gaps left by the paltry online reference sites," she said. "We even pre-dated Google!"

And for sure, that was before the term "social networking" was part of the vernacular.

Internet resources now available to parents who home-school their children not only include the vast amount of information that's online; parents are turning to social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and blogs geared to their home-schooling interests for help, humor and how-tos.

"What a fantastic blessing that can be to someone who lives an hour's drive from the nearest library or bookstore," said Morrison, of Marshalltown, Iowa, who has a popular blog, Guilt-Free Homeschooling.

"Online resources have truly shrunk the world to manageable proportions: There is no longer either a time barrier or a distance barrier between people." 

Social networking to the rescue
Among her Facebook friends, Morrison says "the ones whose status updates I read daily are individual moms and dads in the home-schooling trenches and home-schooling support services, whether curriculum distributors, home-school magazines or bloggers like myself. The exchange of ideas is astounding.

"One person will post a simple question and receive a variety of helpful answers within minutes. The stagnation of downtime that I used to experience while struggling with teaching a concept has been virtually eliminated, or at the very least, cut down to a fraction and replaced with dozens of new ideas to try."

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Melissa Wiley, a home-schooling mom and children's book author, has six children ranging in age from 15 to an 18-month-old. The San Diego woman also has a blog that "has played a tremendous role in our family's home-schooling life," she said.

"I use it to collect links and resources for topics the kids are interested in. For example, right now, I'm working on a post about free Japanese language instruction sites and links that my 9-year-old daughter is enjoying," Wiley said. "Often I'll post a request for other people's favorite resources, and my readers will write with excellent suggestions."

For parents who home-school, "learning isn't confined to specific hours of the day, and isn't dependent on formal curricula," she said. "Learning happens all through the days, in myriad ways. For my family, Twitter and Facebook and my blog are all ways for us to share our interests and enthusiasms with others, and to have immediate access to information about every topic under the sun."

Learning with help of FarmVille, hashtags
Some of the games on Facebook, like FarmVille and Farm Town, which may annoy fellow adults with posts about plantings and purchases, "have provided quite a lively and enjoyable learning experience for my older children," Wiley said.

"Last summer, my 10-year-old played a lot of FarmVille and Farm Town on my Facebook account, and I was amazed at how much math the games involved, including some quite complex calculations to determine which crops had the best profit margin."

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Her daughter "didn't think of it as 'doing math' or 'calculating profit margins,' but that's what she was doing," Wiley said.

Twitter, the microblogging site that limits posts to 140 characters, has been a huge help "every day" for Gina Kleinworth, who home-schools her three children, ages 7, 9 and 12.

"It can be a great tool for locating articles on specific topics or incidences, finding other home-schoolers that are sharing what they are doing each day, [finding] new activities and projects, and can also be a great place to find report topics and compile research," said the Nevada mom. "If used correctly and responsibly, it can greatly enhance the learning experience."

Lisa Stauber says she and other parents often use the Twitter hashtag "#homeschool" on the site "to ask questions, find out about great blog posts or articles, or get action alerts [and] news.

"I twitter a lot and tweet to other moms," she said. "Sometimes I have questions that they will answer for me; other times I'll help new home-school moms out."

Story: State-by-state look at home-schooling data

Home-schooling mom and blogger Shannon Entin said participating in social networking sites like Facebook "has helped foster an even better sense of community among our 'real life' home-schooling group. It's wonderful to pop on Facebook and see photos from a friend's field trip or ask a question about a book or resource."

"Home-schooled children can also use blogs and social networks in their education," she said. "In our local group, I taught a Web design class last year and the kids now have a private blog.

"Some kids who are currently involved in a Game Maker class will be using the blog to share games they created on their own, so others in the class can download them and try them out."

Story: From home-school to classroom: Kids face challenge of transition

In all, there is "an amazing amount of information available for home-schooling parents to choose from when deciding how they want to educate their children," Entin said. "I personally love reading blogs that give me new ideas, whether it be for curriculum, unit studies, books, crafts, projects, clubs, classes or competitions."

Finding connections, encouragement
Robert Kunzman, an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Education, has spent much of the past decade studying home-schooling, and is the author of "Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling."

While many parents home-school their children for religious reasons, not all do, he said.

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"Home-schooling is frequently a reaction against standardized approaches to education, and so the informal word-of-mouth dynamic of online social networking really appeals to home-school parents who want to consider a variety of approaches to teaching and learning," he said.

"Online social networking can serve as an important and easily accessible source of encouragement for parents who may feel isolated or overwhelmed with the challenges of home-schooling," Kunzman said. "I frequently see posts that say, 'I've been there, too; take heart; you'll get through it; here are a few suggestions...' "

Morrison started her Guilt-Free Homeschooling blog six years ago, and has since posted more than 250 articles covering various topics such as teaching preschoolers, writing transcripts for college admission, home-schooling while pregnant and handling distractions and disruptions on a daily basis.

"I get e-mails from parents asking the same questions I had so long ago," she said. "I wish I'd had the type of resource that my website is now. People are much more willing to proclaim themselves publicly as home-schoolers today, but it can still be very difficult for a newbie-home-schooling family to find or make connections with other home-schooling families."

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