Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Review: Lord Heritage HomeSchool Office

As a busy mom of four, three of whom are preschool age, I know how important a plan is in getting homeschooling done. So far, I have always made these plans on my own, on paper, and that has worked well for me. Last month, The Schoolhouse Review Crew offered me an opportunity to use and review a web-based program from Lord Heritage called HomeSchool Office. This program is an all-in-one solution for homeschool planning, organizing, keeping track, recording marks, and reporting. I mainly used the planning and organizing sections of the program. My province does not require me to report to them (except for intent to homeschool), so I did not need to use the reporting aspect of HomeSchool Office.

The layout of HomeSchool Office reminded me a lot of the office management programs I used back when I was a working girl. As with those programs, there are tabs across the top with the main tasks you can do with the program. First, you set up your team (enter all the people involved in your homeschool), then, you follow the "POWER" acronym to Plan, Order, Work, Evaluate, and Report.

Team: This is where you enter all the people involved in your homeschool: the teachers (you and anyone else you use for specific subjects), the school district you report to, the students, and anyone else. This information is mainly for the reports the program can generate, but even if you don't use that feature, you do need to enter your students so you can manage their subjects and lessons. 

Plan: This is where you enter your subjects by student, your lessons, your school year plan, and your master schedule. You can also enter individual projects and keep track of your budget, though I didn't use those features. It was in entering the subjects that I realized that homeschooling the Charlotte Mason way might be a bit of a drawback with this program...with only one student in grade one, I had to enter thirteen subjects to cover the "feast of ideas" that I try to offer in our homeschool!

After entering the subjects, I began to enter the individual lessons for each subject. This was a huge project, and I quickly realized that this was a task I would need to do weekly rather than all at once at the beginning of the term. But I was beginning to wonder if all this data entry was a wise use of my time, or if it was adding a step that didn't need to be there. 

Next, I filled in my Master Schedule. This, finally, was akin to my normal planning habits. It allowed me to enter my normal weekly homeschooling routine. My Charlotte Mason-style short lessons (mostly 5-15 minutes, since SA is six years old) make it impossible to read what my schedule is here, but the purpose of this screen is to populate the "Order" and "Work" calendars in the program, which are much more readable. I also had to enter the lessons at specific times, though my usual way of working is more of an order and routine rather than a schedule. (I do certain things after breakfast, and other things between teatime and lunch. Tying my homeschooling to-do list strictly to a clock with babies and preschoolers in the house is a recipe for feeling like a failure, in my experience...) However, it put my lessons in order, and I could work with it.

Order: This is the screen for the day-to-day management of your schedule. The program automatically filled in the information I had entered under Plan, including my school year, my subjects, and my lessons. I also appreciated the simple "To do List," where I could add reminders to myself of things to do and cross them off.

I discovered that I could click on any subject on the calendar and add notes, pull the lesson forward or push it back, skip it, or mark it complete. I also had the option of adding a reminder to myself (This would appear on the home page when I log in.)

Work: This screen looks and works exactly the same as the "Order" screen, and the idea is that you can give your student access to it. I thought it was redundant, and suspected that perhaps it was there so the acronym "POWER" would have a "W" in it. :)

Evaluate: This is where you can enter grades and attendance for your students. This was a section that was not applicable to me, as I am not required to report to the school district here. Of course, I do evaluate SA on some level, but I don't assign grades, especially at this age. I know what he knows, and we work at his level, whatever that may be, until he really knows and understands (achieves an "A"?). So I didn't use this portion of the program.

Report: The report builder allows you to create reports for your local authority, if required, and it also can be used to create a professional-looking transcript. You choose which information to include on a report (things like goals, attendance, progress, subject hours). You can fill in your own starting and ending dates for each quarter, and then the program generates a beautiful, professional-looking report, which can be exported to Word and further edited according to your needs there. I think this might be one of the most valuable aspects of HomeSchool Office, if reports or transcripts are something you require.

As with those most office management programs, there is a learning curve to using HomeSchool Office. I explored and figured most of it out by trial and error before I realized that there are tutorials for that! Clicking on "Support" offered a "Knowledge Base" with step-by-step instructions for how to use the program. Support also offered the chance to ask questions or suggest changes to the program. I was always very impressed with how quickly Jennifer Desautels, the author of the program, responded to my questions and suggestions. In one case, my suggestion was implemented immediately. In another, she showed me a way to work with the program that I hadn't noticed previously. In the third case, she engaged with me, and I felt she really listened to my suggestion for a future improvement to the program (I suggested the possibility of a one-page printable weekly checklist for students.).

And now we get to the bottom line. Will I keep using this program now that my review is done? And the answer is no, I probably won't. In this season of life and of homeschooling, the things I value most in planning are simplicity and efficiency. This program is more complex than I need, and the time it requires to enter lessons each week is more time than I have to devote to it. I have too many preschoolers around. :) So this program will not replace my trusty one-page weekly checklist and the simple schedule my current curriculum provides.

If you are required to report to your local authorities, or if you have older students and need to keep track of their grades, you may find this program helpful. You can sign up for a free 30-day trial at their website.

The thing I appreciated most about Lord Heritage was the feeling that I was working with a home-based business. I felt that Jennifer Desautels cared about making HomeSchool Office work for me, and I appreciated the customer support she offered in every interaction. Even though HomeSchool Office was not a good fit for me at this season of my life, I would consider it in the future as my needs change.

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