This post reviews Albert G. Andrade, “An Exploratory Study of the Role of Technology in the Rise of Homeschooling” (Ph.D. Diss, Ohio University, 2008).
This is Andrade’s doctoral dissertation. After an excellent and thorough review of extant literature on homeschooling he asks what forces led to its explosive growth in the 1980s and 1990s. He has a hunch that the technological growth of those decades, especially the rise of the personal computer, might be an important factor. Andrade interviewed 27 former and current homeschooling parents in the greater Albany, NY region to ascertain to what degree technology played a role in their decision to homeschool and the way in which they did so.
Andrade suggests, provocatively, that homeschooling might not really have been a movement at all but was perhaps simply an inevitable outcome given “convergence of several global forces.” Some of these forces include the rising cost of schooling, the emergence of radically individualist notions of intelligence and self-fulfillment, the politics of privatization, the evolution of copyright law, and the changing status of women. But the changes in information and communications technologies that have transpired in the past three decades are his main target.
To justify his suggestion that homeschooling emerged not out of the dedicated work of grassroots organizers but as the inevitable outcome of social changes, Andrade notes that many countries outside of the United States have seen a sharp rise in homeschooling too. He describes in great detail the rise of the post-industrial, communication technology-driven workforce and its trenchant critique of industrial-era public schools. He also notes much secondary literature that has stressed the technological savvy of homeschoolers, typically the quintessential “early adopters.”
To test his hunch about the connection between the rise of homeschooling and technology, Andrade conducted focus-group and individual interviews with his 27 New York homeschoolers, carefully compiling and coding their responses. He chose his respondents from a wide range of homeschooling groups reflecting diversity in pedagogical orientation, religion, and politics that, he hopes, mirrors the diversity “of the larger homeschooling community.” He acknowledges, however, the limitations of a sample consisting almost entirely of middle class white females (two of the 27 were men and one was Asian). Interestingly, 11 of his 27 subjects said religion played no part in their family’s life and only 7 said it played a central role. Andrade mentions at one point how he had had trouble recruiting homeschooling families for his study–his results here make me wonder if devoutly religious homeschoolers might be less likely to volunteer to be research subjects. Andrade describes two basic support groups for Albany homeschoolers, one an inclusive group (or “open communion” as I call them in my book) and one an exclusively Christian (“closed communion”) group. The Christian group is about three times larger than the inclusive group, yet his sample doesn’t reflect this. Andrade himself suggests that Albany likely has a lower percentage of devoutly religious homeschoolers than would southern or mid-western regions, and this is probably true. But he doesn’t say exactly why the larger Christian support group produced fewer volunteers than the smaller secular one.
After extensive focus groups and interviews, Andrade concluded that technology does indeed play a large role in how homeschooling is done by most homeschoolers today. 25 of his 27 subjects rely on it heavily or moderately. But none of them noted its role in their journeys toward homeschooling until prompted by Andrade. Once prompted, many of his subjects did acknowledge the role computers played in teaching them about the topic of homeschooling, in connecting to other homeschoolers, and in providing some curriculum options. Veteran homeschoolers on the whole acknowledged the complementary role technology has played in helping homeschooling flourish, but they tended to cite other sources for the movement’s true power.
For homeschooling researchers, chapter two of Andrade’s dissertation is a true gem. It is as comprehensive and clear a summary of extant homeschooling research on every conceivable topic as I’ve come across. His brief summaries do not mention the limitations of much of the literature he summarizes, but to have it all in one convenient location in such a tidy form is very helpful.
But I found Andrade’s methodology inadequate as a means of addressing his central question. He wanted to know to what degree emerging technologies produced the homeschooling movement. Good question. But to answer it he just interviewed a bunch of people, most of whom didn’t even begin homeschooling until 2000 or after. Of course they were impacted by the Web and use it to network. Who doesn’t these days? But back when the movement was changing State laws and winning court cases all around the nation it was phone trees, mailing lists, newsletters, and conventions that informed and connected people, not Yahoo!groups and blogs.
The problem is that Andrade is asking a historical question but doesn’t have the historian’s tools to answer it. Interviews with participants can be a great way to do history–it’s called oral history, and its got its own theoretical literature Andrade should consult. But any good historian will acknowledge that the memories of participants must be juxtaposed with other sorts of evidence–documentary, visual, material culture–for a complete, nuanced picture to emerge. Had Andrade done this sort of work I’m not at all sure he’d be able to assert anything so reductive as the claim that homeschooling was merely the outgrowth of global events.
Which brings me to the deeper philosophical issue. At root Andrade here is a technological determinist. Generations of historians have been debating the degree to which history is the inevitable outcome of broad social events, whether it is dependent on the choices people make, or whether it is just a bunch of random stuff. The determinists have typically argued that the economic system is the substructure upon which culture is built. Andrade’s view is a variation of this theme. For him, social systems “tend to mimic the prevailing technologies of the time.” And he continues to believe, even after his study failed to show it, that “the modern homeschooling movement appears to have provided the research community with an illustrative and instructive example of this theory in action.”
Had he skipped these theoretical flights of fancy and simply limited his conclusion to the more modest finding that computer technologies, once made available, seem to have helped many homeschoolers learn about the practice, network with others, and deliver curriculum, that would have been enough. But he overreaches considerably when he tries to turn the things his 27 subjects said in interviews into a causal explanation for the entire homeschooling movement and, indeed, an overarching theory of history.