Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

All the Things We Learn in High School

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My daughter, who is now finishing up 11th grade in our public high school, shared with me a College Humor video called “Some Study That I Used to Know,” that she and her classmates were watching in AP English (they were all finished with standardized testing so the teacher let them watch Youtube videos as  a reward). College Humor videos are a big favorite – highly inappropriate for younger viewers but most are quite funny and original.

This particular video was about all the things we learn in high school but promptly forget or never use again, for example: igneous vs. metamorphic, iambic pentameter, geometry, Millard Filmore, Eli Whitney. This made me chuckle, especially thinking about all the things I covered in college that I don’t even remember knowing! I once came across a 5 page biographical essay I wrote in my “Modern Russia” course and didn’t even recognize the name of the person I wrote about! And no, it wasn’t because I partied too much. It was probably from sleep deprivation and too much marching (I went to a military academy).

There’s a lot of attention these days on what our kids are learning (Common Core for example) and how we might get them to learn it better. Even amongst the homeschool crowd, the discussion is more often about the best way to promote retention, not “Do we really have to learn this?”

I’m not claiming to have any definitive answers about what our kids should learn, mainly because I think it should depend on what the kids want to learn. But I was inspired to make a list of all the things I learned in high school that turned out to be useful, whether I knew it at the time or not:

  • How to format, write, and fold a business letter
  • Commonly misspelled homophones
  • European history (the big picture – even if I don’t remember all the details)
  • U.S. history (same as above)
  • How to use ratios to solve practically everything
  • How to determine the amount of wall space in a room I am about to paint
  • How to use a computer
  • Rudimentary Spanish
  • How to cut out a pattern and use a sewing machine
  • Making and reading graphs
  • Use of the vanishing point while drawing
  • Some chemicals are very very dangerous
  • How to serve in tennis
  • Converting units of measurement – units are very  important!
  • How to manage my time
  • How to prepare a Bibliography
  • How to find what I need in a library
  • Evaluating source material before writing

I’m sure there are more items to add, but you can see that this list might be different for everyone. How about you? What did you learn in high school that turned out to be the most useful?

How Do Homeschooled Kids Learn to Take Notes?

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Note-takingMy daughter, who goes to a public high school, has been exclaiming about her heavy homework load this year – particularly in AP American History where she is expected to take copious notes from her textbook reading. I’ve been watching with interest, to see if this method helps her retain any of the information. It also got me thinking about my boys off at college. They never took notes in high school, because they didn’t go to high school. It never really occurred to me that they should learn such a thing. In my mind, note-taking was something you did during a lecture to help remember what the teacher said, and this was before the age of Powerpoint and online course notes. I did show them how to take notes for research papers, and how to keep track of works cited. But we didn’t do “lectures” in our homeschool, so they never learned to record information in this way. Did this handicap my kids when they went off to sit in lecture halls at college?

What my kids think of taking notes

When polled, my oldest son said:  “I don’t think the lack of note-taking lessons hurt me at all.  I just sorta DO it, it’s not exactly rocket science.  I feel like everyone ends up developing a unique style anyway, so there’s not a huge amount of benefit in learning a particular method.”

My younger son reported that he does have a hard time taking notes, but mainly because his handwriting is so slow. If he brings his laptop to class though, he can type amazingly fast – being ambidextrous may be a disadvantage with pen or pencil, but it’s pretty handy with a keyboard! Most of the time, he prefers not to take notes at all because it distracts him from listening to the professor. He listens with intense focus and somehow remembers everything he hears. It depends on what type of course he’s taking as well. Most of his classes now are about math, computer science, physics and music theory. For these topics, it’s more important for him to understand what is happening then to absorb a lot of random facts and figures. Later, while studying or doing homework, he pulls it all together in his notebooks to solve problems.

What about those information dense courses such as history, biology and foreign language? My daughter’s not sure yet if her history teacher’s note-taking requirement will help her remember, but she is a devoted believer in flash cards. For her, making little flash cards for vocabulary words, grammar rules and biology facts really helped her learn the material in past coursework.

What the pros think of taking notes

In an interesting paper called “Note Taking and Learning: A Summary of Research” presented by the WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum) Journal, the authors state that the function of note-taking is twofold: “Note-takers take notes to fulfill two major functions: to record information and/or to aid in reflection.” It’s not surprising that note-taking is really a very complicated skill that requires the student to decide what is important and how to describe it in a few keywords. The very act of note-taking is supposed to help students remember – especially if they transform the original information source and put it in their own words. Summarizing has been shown to be more effective than simply highlighting words in a text.

This paper also summarizes the studies done to evaluate the effectiveness of different methods of note-taking. It seems that recording information in a matrix or keyword tree type diagram is more effective than the outline structure, which in turn is more effective than the linear method used by most students. This means that using the whole page to spatially organize information into categories is more effective than just line after line of abbreviated notes. For examples of what this looks like, please do look up images of this type of note-taking online.

How does this work for homeschooling kids?

I can certainly understand how matrix style note-taking could really help the university student, which is the focus of the WAC Journal paper. And even though homeschooling students don’t typically sit through lectures, I can see how some form of note-taking would help “aid in reflection” as kids process information learned through reading, watching or learning from experience. It also occurred to me that some of our common homeschooling methods already fill that role.

Charlotte Mason style narration for example, asks kids to summarize material learned in their own words, first through oral narration and then written as they get older. There are many other narration methods for kids with different learning styles to transform raw information and put it in a form that is personally meaningful.

Lapbooks, notebooking, foldables, and other forms of paper projects all seem to serve a similar role in helping a student create something unique out of pure information. Another style that might appeal to your kids is visual note-taking or sketchnotes. A little online searching will yield some amazing examples.

As in so many other things, I think the best way for a student to “take notes” and process information will depend on his or her learning style. Show your kids examples of what other people have tried, and see if anything jumps out at them. They might want to try different techniques for that biology textbook or those world history DVDs, all with the objective of retaining and understanding what they learn. Next week I’ll post some examples of cartoon timeline cards my boys made for studying history – humor being their favorite way to spin any subject.

New Resources to Geek Out Your Homeschooling

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The very first worldwide virtual Homeschool Conference was a success!  With 8 great keynote addresses, 48 presentations, and 1600 registrants, you wouldn’t believe the amount of information and inspiration that was traded this past weekend! The co-chairs for this conference, Steve Hargadon and Pat Farenga, hope to make this an annual event, with the next one penciled in for January 2014.

The great thing is it’s ALL FREE, including the recordings of every presentation. You’ll find the recording of my presentation on “Self-Directed Learning and the Roots of Success” here. This is also a great way to see  an overview of the material covered in my book.

I will be listening to various presentations I missed in the weeks ahead, but there are a few resources I learned about that I want to bring to your attention:

The first is a site for K-12 educators called It’s still in the beta stages, and not specifically for homeschoolers, but it’s a great place to ask questions, participate in discussions, and share resources. They have also compiled an amazing, growing database of learning websites that you can search by grade, subject and category. So, if you are looking for ideas or help with something specific, say Middle School Math, you can search their library and find all kinds of websites pre-screened for relevance (not just a Google search which may lean heavily towards commercial sites).

 EDK12 Library

A similar resource, provided by a nonprofit organization that includes such heavyweight backers as Google and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is Goorulearning. This site provides search engine capability for standards-aligned learning resources, along with a nifty way to organize your favorite sites into “Playlists” and create a virtual classroom for your students. This site is also in the beta stage, and only has search features for grades 5-12, but K-4 is in the works.

Another site you might find useful is Have you ever wanted to participate in homeschool co-op classes but didn’t have enough homeschooling families living nearby? Or maybe you couldn’t find enough families interested in learning the same topic/s? Now there is a VIRTUAL co-op, run entirely by homeschool volunteers, using online classrooms and tools to work together. You can even create your own course to share with others.

Virtual Homeschool Group

If you attended the conference, or have a similar site to share, please let me know in the comments!

Inaugural Worldwide Homeschool Conference

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homeschool conference logo

If you have some time this weekend and could use some FREE inspiration to get your school year started, then check out the very first Worldwide Homeschool Conference, to be held online starting tomorrow, Aug. 23rd 2013. Here’s the description from their website:

“On August 23 – 24, 2013, we will hold the inaugural worldwide Homeschool Conference. This two-day, online, and free event will provide an opportunity to share strategies, practices, and resources for those involved with homeschooling, unschooling, free schools, democratic schools, and other forms of alternative and independent education.”

Some of the keynote speakers are Pat Farenga, David Albert and Peter Gray. I will also be giving a presentation on Saturday morning at 10am Pacific Time – check the website for a complete schedule based on your timezone.

What the World’s Best Basketball Coach Can Teach You About How to Homeschool

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John WoodenThe late John Wooden was a highly esteemed coach who built up the UCLA Bruins into a powerhouse team with 10 National Championships. The Sporting News named him “The Greatest Coach of All Time” in 2009, and he wrote several books about his principles of coaching, success and leadership. There is a lot we could learn from him, but the wisdom I’d like to borrow from him today is about the way he taught athletes during practice.

He used what is known as the whole-part-whole framework: first introduce the big concept, then break it down into smaller parts, then put the parts back together after they are mastered. Wooden carefully planned all of his practices, using 3X5 cards to keep his drills and teaching points in order. He was adamant about the fundamentals of ball handling, and took the time to teach his players exactly how to do each move, routinely demonstrating first the right way, then the wrong way, then the right way again. His feedback to the players was short, concise, and packed with useful information related to the task at hand.

He also kept his practices moving along, keeping the players focused and alert, with the first half devoted to new material and the second half devoted to repetition of previously learned skills. He believed that his players must be able to perform the fundamentals so well that they don’t need to think about them. Then, during games, their attention could be focused on the dynamics of the court.

John Wooden’s methods worked spectacularly well in basketball, and I think they could work equally well in any teaching environment. But the thing to remember is that he didn’t teach his skill drills in isolation. He taught them within the context of something the players cared about – basketball.

A lot of the skills that students are expected to learn in school, such as reading, writing and multiplication, are indeed fundamental and require lots of practice. However, teaching them in isolation, with one workbook for every subject is hardly ideal. Teachers are then forced to find some external motivation such as bribes, praise, or punishment  to keep the kids’ attention.

The better way is to teach basic skills within the context of something your kids already care about or have an interest in learning. This is really pretty easy when kids are little. Have you ever used the “Five in a Row” curriculum series developed by Jane Claire Lambert? They are an excellent example of using something a child cares about, in this case a wonderful storybook, as a starting point to teach various skills or concepts. My family LOVED using these books, and I was sad when we outgrew them.

Another thing we used were certain Scholastic math skills books because my kids thought they were fun. They loved outlandish word problems, riddles, and games. Educational software games were a hit too.

It gets harder to do this as kids get older because you probably won’t find prepared lesson plans full of advanced skill-builders in the topics that your kids most want to learn about. In this case, you might have to come up with your own 3X5 cards with ideas for practicing the fundamentals – this is the virtue of “Unit Studies.” You might be able to find pre-packaged unit studies that suit your student, but be wary. I’ve seen a lot of dull stuff out there, clearly written by people who don’t have a passion for the topic.

Better yet is to work with your student to craft your own unit study. Take whatever they are passionate about, say fashion, and brainstorm ways your child could practice some of the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic. Along the way, there will undoubtedly be a smattering of history, geography, sociology, critical thinking about media and pop culture, and who knows what else.

John Wooden was able to keep the same stack of 3X5 cards and use them over and over again because he always had students who were interested in the same thing: becoming better basketball players. You will not be able to do that because your kids will all be motivated by something different. But you can use the same framework of whole-part-whole.

Can you think of ways to teach skills within the context of something your child is already interested in learning?

Depth vs. Breadth

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Buckminster Fuller

Buckminster Fuller


C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis

Eccentric visionary Buckminster Fuller believed that universities spend too much time graduating specialists when what we really need are generalists. Furthermore, he believed that all children are born with the natural instinct to think and learn holistically, and blamed society for interfering with this natural tendency to instead promote specialization (see his “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” for more info here).

C.S. Lewis however thought that we did a great disservice to children by trying to teach them about too many things instead of focusing on teaching a few things very well. He wrote:

“In those days a boy on the classical side officially did almost nothing but classics. I think this was wise; the greatest service we can do to education today is to teach fewer subjects. No one has time to do more than a very few things well before he is twenty, and when we force a boy to be a mediocrity in a dozen subjects we destroy his standards, perhaps for life.” (see citation below)

I think they both made good points, but in reality we need both generalists and specialists. We need generalists like Steve Jobs or Leonardo DaVinci who can make the connections between widely disparate subjects such as art and science, in order to see something new. But we also need people who are really, really good at what they do, even if that means they don’t know much about anything else. I don’t need or want my surgeon to be a generalist, I want him or her to be the best specialist I can find.

Fortunately, it seems that people naturally gravitate towards one or the other. Those kids who become fixated on a topic early on and never seem to want to do anything else are future specialists. Alexander Graham Bell, Pierre Curie, Albert Einstein, Walt Whitman and Louis Armstrong were all like that. If they were growing up today, we might have called them “geeks” in the sense that they were obsessed with their personal interests.

Those kids who seem interested in a wide range of topics but have trouble choosing just one might be future generalists. Thomas Edison, Agatha Christie, John Muir and Benjamin Franklin were like that.

So, how should you approach this dilemma as a homeschooling parent?

We don’t want to peg our kids as either specialists or generalists because we might be wrong, and it’s not really fair to label our kids with any preconceived notions that might limit what they believe about themselves.

I will propose two solutions . . . and the first is this: let your kids guide their own studies. If they are interested in a million different things, just roll with it and help them find the books or other resources they need to satisfy their curiosity. The same applies if they are only interested in one topic. Just keep feeding them more complex material as they need it.

This was the case with my son who is obsessed with programming and math. I had no idea what resources might be best for him to learn, but he knew. He researched all the books, tutorials, and online courses available to him and made up Amazon wish lists of bizarre titles, such as 3D Math Primer and Real-Time Collision Detection, for his birthdays. He definitely went into DEPTH with his programming studies.

We also covered other topics, because they were required by college admissions offices and my son wanted to go to college. However, these topics, such as English Composition, never fired him up the way programming did. This doesn’t mean he was completely oblivious to the outside world though. This is because of my second proposed solution: Living Books.

Living books, or those books written by talented authors with a passion for their subject, expose readers to meaningful context and information in a BROAD range of subjects.

One of my son’s favorite books was The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, not because he was particularly interested in serial killers but because of the historical context of the events surrounding the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. This led to an avid interest in Edison, Tesla and other inventors; along with other books set at the turn of the 20th century involving science or the rise of industry. This didn’t make him an expert on any of these subjects, but the books he read pulled together strands of world events, geography, business, science, ethics, history, economics, and others in a way that was enjoyable and memorable for him.

This doesn’t mean that every kid would like these sorts of books, but there are wonderful living books available for every possible interest. It’s just a matter of hunting them down. Here’s a few good online sources of inspiration:

The great thing about reading good books is that they introduce new ideas and topics to the reader or listener in a way that is meaningful, and thus more likely to be remembered than a textbook. Of course, a work of historical fiction will not be as thorough as a textbook, but if it leads your child to new interests or inspires deeper thinking, I’d say that’s a win.

Let your students choose which subjects they want to explore deeply, and rely on well-chosen living books to provide some breadth in their studies. I think Buckminster Fuller and C.S. Lewis would both be satisfied with this compromise.


Citation:  p 112-113, C.S. Lewis. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. New York 1955.

Path from “What do you want to be?” to Reality

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By John Kolko at MyEdu Corporation

By John Kolko at MyEdu Corporation

An online educational service called MyEdu recently published a study called “The Academic Journey,” which neatly summarizes their research, based on surveys of 300,000 college students, on the decision making process students use to finally settle on a career after graduation.

I found this very interesting, because the study highlights how stressful it is for students to choose a major, and then possibly change their major. A lot of kids just don’t know what they want to do. They’ve spent their high school years just trying to get in to college, and once they get there, the choices can be overwhelming. It seems that liberal arts colleges are well aware of this though, and try not to force a decision until just before a student’s Junior year. Until then, students concentrate on their General Education credits, taking classes in a variety of basic subject areas. But even then, how is a person supposed to know the best fit for them if they have only taken courses such as English, College Algebra, and Psychology?

I understand why liberal arts schools do this, because it helps to create reasonably well-informed citizens with higher level thinking and communication skills. But it takes time and a LOT of money to reach that graduation platform . . . then what?  Get a job? Go to graduate school? What if that new graduate still doesn’t know what he or she wants to do?

The problem is that our public school system works hard to get kids through the conveyor belt to a productive career. There are classes that must be taken, grades that must be earned, tests that must be passed, and extracurricular activities that must be done to prove one’s worth. It is a system that takes a lot of time, and ironically, the kids who do it well may be the ones who are most lost at the end. These kids worked so hard to please everyone else that they may have forgotten what it feels like to follow their own instincts.

Just look at all of the books and programs available to help us figure out what our talents or interests are. It’s kind of weird if you think about it. Why should any of us need help to figure out what would interest us? Yet we do need help, because we have forgotten. And all of those programs attempt to return our thoughts to a time before we cared what other people thought of us, before we were conditioned to follow the system.

I wonder how things would change if every kid had 3 more hours a day and the freedom to pursue their own interests? One of the findings of MyEdu’s study was that the students who had the opportunity to partake in a “Non-Traditional Academic Experience” seemed to find it very helpful. Here’s what they said:

“Some students described a non-traditional experience that dramatically changed their outlook on life and their academic trajectory. This experience – an internship, or a semester learning abroad in another country –seemed to either reinforce a good decision to change majors, or prompt a fresh set of introspection.”

This is the sort of thing that helps kids step outside the system, even for a short period of time, and experience real life. This is the sort of thing you can do anytime. Homeschooling, if led by the child’s interests, gives kids so much more time to be themselves. The system will still be there, and you should be aware of it, but live outside it. I mean really live – go places, meet people, read books, work, volunteer, take long walks, make things – and let your kids tell you who they are before anyone else tells them who they should be.

I’m not guaranteeing that self-directed learning will help every kid choose the right life path from the beginning. Sometimes kids will have to choose between several good options, or maybe they just need more time or experience, but at least they’ll have a head start.

Big Change Starts Small – Pass it On

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Girls + Education

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the plight of women and girls around the world. Is it just me, or does the situation seem to be getting worse? Domestic violence, rape, exploitation, forced marriages, poverty, disease . . .

On Valentine’s Day, I marched with a small group of people around  my local town in support of V-Day, a movement which hopes to draw attention to the ghastly problem of violence against women. Today is International Women’s Day, another movement, which is more about empowering women in general.

These are all important – there is so much work to do! But the movement that really has my attention right now is captured by a new documentary released yesterday, called “Girl Rising.” Here is the trailer:

I haven’t seen the whole movie yet . . . but I will. This issue is SO important!

Education is empowering. It’s transformative for a girl to learn how to read, how to calculate, how to take care of herself, and then to be given access to knowledge beyond her family’s experience. Studies have shown that educating girls in particular has a multiplying affect, because she will then pass on that influence to her own children and community. Educating girls gives them a chance to find a job or start a business, becoming more self-reliant, and breaking the chain of marrying young. It also teaches them that they are WORTH teaching.

Just think how life might change for these girls if they believed that they were valuable enough to go to school. Just think how their communities might change if all children, including girls, were given the tools to learn and the chance to initiate new projects or ideas.

I’m glad to know that there are already quite a few organizations on location working on this problem. What they really need is money, and for everyone to spread the word. So, I’m doing what I can.

Please check out this website to learn more about what you can do.

What About Gaps?

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Crossing the Gap

Have you ever felt that surge of alarming doubt when your homeschooling friend talks about her ten-year-old’s rigorous curriculum, complete with 3-page written reports, Latin flash cards, accelerated math program, and violin lessons? Or how about when your neighbor gushes praise for the new local school science program or marching band?

Does it make you reassess your decision to let your daughter play “Sims,” draw horses, and read fantasy novels all day every day?

You would have to have nerves of Zen not to let this bother you. It may be true that your daughter will miss out on the benefits of Latin, violin, marching band, and all the rest. But it is also true that those other children will miss out on the benefits of “Sims” and unlimited hours of free reading. Is it an equal trade-off? That’s the big question. Students who receive a rigorous academic education may indeed be better prepared for further academic studies at college or university, particularly when compared with an average U.S. school experience. But if you know any teachers, or spend time reading the forums that teachers frequent, you’ll hear that two of the biggest indicators for student success are having parents that care and students that care.

Students that Care

It doesn’t matter how rigorous the curriculum is if the student doesn’t want to do the work. Teachers, or parents, might be able to convince or coerce a student to complete an assignment, but that doesn’t mean the student will retain the information. There will always be those achievement-oriented students, especially with helpful parents, who work hard to earn top grades and extracurricular attainments in order to impress college admissions offices, but how much are they really learning? And what about the rest of the students who are bored, or confused, or just getting along until graduation sets them free?

This is where the true benefit of self-directed education comes in. When children (or adults for that matter) have ownership over their own education, they will care more. They will pursue subjects that are interesting to them . . . or necessary in the pursuit of something else.

When Teddy Roosevelt was a boy, he was passionately interested in the outdoors, birds, animals, taxidermy, adventure stories, and naval history. His aunt, who taught Teddy at home, required a few other subjects, such as letter writing and French, but he was “behind” other boys of his age in mathematics. It wasn’t until he was fifteen, and eager to get into Harvard, that his father hired a tutor to help him prepare. He worked so hard (6-8 hrs a day) that he was able to do three years of mathematics in only two years.

Kids probably will not pursue subjects that you wish they would.

An 8-year-old would never say, “I want to learn more about language arts.” But they might pick up a book beyond their present reading ability and read it anyway. Or they might enjoy making up stories to play with their friends. Kids want to find answers to their own questions (“What does a leech look like?” or “Where would I look for a Sasquatch?”), and explore their favorite subjects in exhaustive detail. I had one son who was obsessed with deadly snakes (non-deadly snakes were of no interest), and he wanted to read every book we could find on the subject until his interest shifted to Aliens (deadly ones). Later, he moved through a procession of interests, including Greek Mythology, Yu-gi-oh cards, Tin Tin comics, fantasy novels, Shakespeare, weight-lifting, acting and singing. Along the way, he also learned how to read well, spell, write amazing prose, conquer math tests, memorize long poems, and identify logical fallacies.

Younger kids prefer concrete over abstract learning. They would rather build perfect squares out of Legos than learn how to square a number on a workbook page. This doesn’t mean they will never learn about square roots or grammar or the scientific method; it just means that they will learn it when they are ready for it. When they are ready for abstract concepts, it’s much easier for them to dive in and cover more material.

There will ALWAYS be Gaps

Even if your child went to the best college-prep school in the country, there would be “gaps” in the curriculum. There is no possible way we could teach children everything there is to know in a dozen years of school. There is no possible way any of us could learn everything there is to know in a dozen lifetimes. The thing to ask yourself is this: “Since we can’t learn everything, what are the most important things to learn?”

If your child doesn’t get to have a say in this, then she must decide . . . either to do as she is told or to rebel. With the first option, it’s hard to say how much the child is truly learning and she may forget what it feels like to be truly interested or curious. With the second option, the child might just reject any and all adult help, which will make independent learning very difficult.

If your child does get to have a say in what is most important to learn, and their opinions are truly honored, then a balance can be reached. Both parents and children will care. Children will feel a sense of ownership, but also know that they have their parents’ support and help whenever it is needed. It’s good to research college and/or job requirements together, but remember that sometimes a student’s true zest for learning can lead to places that neither one of you might expect.

Following along with someone else’s curriculum is like following along someone else’s trail. It may be a fine trail, but you will always end up where the other trailblazer meant it to go. Take the chance to go off trail and explore a little – or a lot. Teddy Roosevelt would approve.

How do your children feel about their curriculum? Did they help to choose it? Why? If it’s boring, do they understand or agree with the reason to stay with it?

Video Interview Thursday Jan. 24th

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Would you like the chance to ask me questions about homeschooling? There will be a one hour live interview with me tomorrow at 12:00 pm (EST) on WizIQ, an online learning platform that has been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Mashable, and other media sources.

Here is the link for more information.

The interview is part of a series called WizIQ Conversations, which is a live online course that connects people from around the world with experts in a variety of fields. The course is included with a paid membership, but they do have a 30 day free trial if you are interested in trying it out. If you are busy tomorrow, I believe the recorded conversation will later be added free to viewers on the course website. WizIQ has a variety of courses, especially in language learning, music and technology.