Paper or Pixels?
Updated: Nov 28, 2021
Can tech really help your homeschool?
There’s something really special about putting pen to paper. Maybe it’s the freedom of turning a blank page into your own creation, whether it be an expression of a thought or idea, your observations of a snapshot in time, or a note to your future self. Or maybe it’s the sensory experience of opening and closing a book, turning the pages and pushing the pen around the subtly textured paper.
I love paper too. And even after almost 20 years working in the tech industry, there’s still some things I will only use pen and paper for. I find it particularly useful for expressing abstract or conceptual thoughts or ideas, and pretty much any situation where you want to get something out of your head but don’t have a specific format or structure in mind.
I also love tech. Not just for gaming and keeping me employed, but also for capturing notes of a different kind. For example, I use Evernote for thoughts and ideas I might want to refer back to, or even copy and paste somewhere else later. I might use PowerPoint to progressively flesh out a flow chart that starts as a rough idea in my mind but isn’t useful to anyone else until they can see it in the simplistic form of boxes and arrows. And also Trello for “to-do” list items that might require a few steps and/or need input from other people.
As I was reflecting on the reasons why I preferred tech in certain scenarios, my first thoughts went to factors like automatic backups and access from different devices etc. But as I thought a bit deeper, I realised that there was a far more important and powerful reason...
Metadata - it’s one of those words that gets flung around a lot these days. But what does it actually mean? Simply put, metadata just means “data about data”. It might be tempting to overthink even that 3 word explanation, so let me give a simple example. Let’s say you use a note taking app like Evernote to jot down some notes. When that note is saved or updated, there will more than likely be at least a couple of pieces of metadata saved along with it e.g. the date and time it was created and/or updated. This metadata opens up many possibilities such as sorting and searching, making it far easier to find what you’re looking for quickly and keep your thoughts and ideas organised.
So, you might be asking, what does this all have to do with homeschooling? Well I didn’t see the connection at first either, not until Tiff and I put our heads together and really started brainstorming the challenges of homeschool planning and organisation, and the type of solution that might make it easier.
As Tiff mentions in her blog post How Freely Came to Be, we were about a year into our homeschooling journey when we started seriously considering building our own homeschool planner app. The first thing we did was start digging into the challenges that we saw, both personally and amongst other homeschoolers. I ended up down a research rabbit hole, taking me back to Prussia in the 1800’s, where the foundations were laid for the education system we see today.
Reflecting on the planning and organisation solutions that Tiff had tried and become frustrated with, I started to understand why they had been designed the way they had. I started to see that the rigidity of the education system, (the very reason we started homeschooling in the first place - more on our story here) was still very present in the majority of homeschool planners, both paper and digital.
As I looked more closely at the kind of planning methods they were based on, I was reminded of the early days of my IT career. Back then projects were usually around 6-12 months long, with every single feature and requirement needing to be clearly defined before any of the actual work would commence.
The problem with this approach was that, despite how well articulated a plan was, something would always change. There were many possible reasons for change to occur, but the underlying reason was almost always that someone had realised that some aspect of the solution that they thought would work, wasn’t going to work at all. This was frustrating for everyone involved. Those on the planning and analysis side, as well as the development side, would have to throw a portion, sometimes all, of their hard work in the bin and start again.
But eventually the planning methods started to evolve. Projects started getting broken into much smaller pieces and aligned to shorter timeframes. There was still a longer term end goal, but the exact path to get there wasn’t planned out. Instead, smaller paths were planned out a couple of weeks at a time, and this allowed for much greater flexibility and the ability to adapt to change.
As a result of this change in approach, the tools that were used for planning and organising these projects had to change also. Instead of using tools based on long term planning approaches like the gantt chart, tools with much more freedom and flexibility were introduced.
In other words, I got it! My eyes were opened to the frustration that Tiff had been talking about. I realised that homeschoolers are looking for something to help them stay headed in the right direction, but with the flexibility to choose each path to their destination along the way. They need a planning and organisation solution that works WITH them, not one that tells them exactly what to do and when.
To me, this was simply not possible with a paper planner. Paper works fine for a once off interaction like capturing something that happened at a particular time (provided you don’t lose that paper of course). But if there is any chance you might want to update, reschedule, or use the information you capture in a different context (like a report or portfolio) then this is exactly where tech shines.
I think there’s an argument to be made even for using a simple note taking app like Evernote. There’s a lot to be gained even with just some basic metadata and the benefit of knowing that your notes and plans won’t be completely ruined by a misplaced book or leaking water bottle. But with a rich set of metadata, like what we've built into Freely homeschool planner app, the possibilities really start to open up.