Herman Perez has twin sixth graders in Texas’ McAllen Independent School District. He’s used to seeing them hop on the school issued iPads for homework. Last spring, when the pandemic hit and McAllen closed, the Perez twins picked right up at home where they left off at school.
Perez attended a virtual session through the school district, learning how to help his kids with iPads and apps they would need to continue school from home. “There was communication daily with their teachers,” he says. “We went from doing school one way forever to, OK, we’re going to do it differently today.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, remote and blended learning is a reality for the Perez twins and families around the world. While Perez was not exactly anti-technology before remote learning, he thought of it more as a supplementary tool. “Now, it’s a necessity,” he says. “It’s not just a neat little add-on.”
Even before the emergency distance learning experiment took place last spring, technology use in schools was rising. Fueled by the hope of transforming education into a more student-centered and inspired experience, 59% of high schools and 63% of middle schools reported that all of their students had access to non-shared devices, according to a 2018 report by the Consortium for School Networking.
Today, increasing numbers of educators see the benefits of tech-enabled learning. Unlike Perez, many parents are not on board. It remains to be seen whether the experience with online learning will bring new insight into the potential of technology or inspire a backlash.
The hurried transitions to remote learning undertaken without much preparation, planning or intentionality may provide fodder for skeptical parents. Those parents, many of whom were forced to use tech as a babysitter or watch their teens sink hours a day into TikTok, may be ready to revolt.
Before online learning became commonplace, parent viewpoints varied widely. Research in 2019 by Jessica Kamp and Ja’Corie Maxwell from the University of Oklahoma found that many parents feared teachers were using technology as a substitute for best practices in the classroom. The study found parents were worried about the early age at which students were exposed to technology, the increasing amount of screen time and the adequacy of monitoring of that technology.
Some parents understood that the emergency transition to remote learning would not address many of these concerns. Still, the Los Angeles Unified School District released results of a survey of almost 7,300 parents in one of six subdistricts. While three-quarters of the respondents said the district did a good or excellent job “managing the situation of school closures caused by the coronavirus,” 46% of respondents felt that distance learning had been somewhat or extremely unsuccessful for their family. Only half felt “very confident” they have the equipment and “technological know-how” to help their child successfully participate in distance learning.
Now, more than ever, parents worry that substituting a device for face-to-face interactions will cause social skills to suffer and a loss in information retention. If technology is no longer an optional part of school, how can educators enlist parents as partners in making education exceptional?
Perez’s twins started school in McAllen ISD before the district had it all figured out. When Ann Vega, McAllen’s director of instructional technology, arrived five years ago, she found a mess. Each student had their own Apple ID, and there was not nearly enough supervision. Fourth graders were downloading Snapchat. Parents were, understandably, frustrated.
Now, McAllen students are allowed to download only district-approved apps from the McAllen ISD app store. The district also has outside filtering so that a student using Wi-Fi from, say, Starbucks on a school device is routed through the district’s filtering system. If parents suspect their student is watching something they shouldn’t, the district can run a report that shows searches or everything watched on the district device. “As we’ve gotten better at managing those devices, parents have become more confident in allowing kids to bring the devices home,” says Vega.
To keep parents up to date on how the district uses and monitors technology, Vega makes informational videos and posts them on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. Every August, the district holds a professional development seminar for teachers called Technovate that focuses on how to use the tools. Last fall, the district invited parents, and 350 attended.
Acknowledging parental safety concerns can go a long way toward building trust.
Amelia Archer, a teacher at Purley Church of England Primary School in Berkshire, England, holds annual tech nights for parents. She starts by discussing risk.
“The internet is not always safe, but neither are the roads,” Archer says. “I share with parents that the way to help children navigate roads safely is to ensure they are taught properly and have the opportunity to practice under guidance. In the same way that keeping children away from roads would severely constrict their freedom, keeping them from internet access would also be to confine them.”
Archer’s tech evenings include an introduction, a hands-on session where parents can use the same tools their children use in school, asking parents to do simple coding activities, create a Padlet or undertake a math challenge.
Show what tech can do
The idea of digital devices at school may conjure images of the distracted kids parents see at home. Addressing that concern head-on and transparency about how devices are used in the classroom can make a big difference. The grand finale of Archer’s tech evenings is student work. She shows off to oohs and aahs what students are creating with the tools.
Cathy Yenca, a math teacher at Hill Country Middle School in Austin, Texas, says seeing is believing for many parents. “Share what tech can do! The pedagogy, the good strategies we use, and good teaching should stand alone without tech,” she says. “The beauty of having tech is the ability to monitor students’ thinking in the moment and have that inform my next instructional move, as well as help students become more metacognitive in their own thinking.”
Yenca, also known as the blogger Mathy Cathy, says distance learning has increased her appreciation of edtech. Teachers at her school had eight years of experience with their devices and tools, and students were already comfortable using devices before the quick transition. So, they were more fortunate than others who had to scramble to catch up.
She emphasizes that good learning is a very social activity. Regardless of whether students are in a classroom or connect through technology, tech can gather and organize what students are thinking anonymously through formative assessment; digital breakout groups can allow students to collaborate with peers; and AI-powered software can determine how much each student understands before taking the next academic step.
While the emergency transition worked well for Yenca and other teachers whose families were familiar with their edtech philosophy and usage pre-COVID, it was not a great experience for many other families.
On the other hand, parents will appreciate some synchronous learning to take pressure off and ensure that students maintain a relationship with teachers and fellow students. “At the end of the last school year, many schools were finding a sweet spot with a mix of class meetings and one-on-one time,” he says. “If you want to keep screen time warriors at bay, you have to be intentional about how you are using it and why.”
How do I …?
Amelia Archer spent the week before school closures in the UK meeting with a stream of parents with devices in hand so she could personally show them how to install and access Google Classroom. “Some brought in laptops, others tablets or mobile phones,” she says. “But I even had one parent bring me a calculator!”
Clearly, some parents started without any knowledge at all about technology. A survey by Learning Heroes (bealearninghero.org/research) showed a gap between what parents said would be “extremely helpful” and the resources available. For example, 39% of parents said having a hotline or online chat function to ask questions about helping with online learning would be helpful, but only 12% said their school has such a service. And 80% of parents say a text is the most effective method of communication, but only 28% said this is how educators contact them.
Ninety percent of teacher headaches this past spring were caused by helping parents and kids with logins. Hooker said he recommends creating a one-page cheat sheet with all the logins to share with families.
In districts that are not 1:1, it’s important to make things easy for families using various devices. Some students in Canada’s Toronto District use cell phones as their primary device, so the district offered a course for teachers in designing tasks, documents and sharing from mobile devices.
“It’s important to realize that families are on a spectrum of digital fluency,” says Jason Trinh, assistant curriculum numeracy and secondary science teacher in the district.
“We have a wide spectrum of knowledge, devices and competency. Our district focuses on using tools that are versatile in every platform. Google Classroom works on every device, so there are no barriers. We also have a lot of rural areas with intermittent access, so we ensure the tech we use has offline capability.”
Trinh produces single-page instructions to use technology like Google Meet and other common tools. The district holds webinars or families and educators about digital platforms, offers a direct tech support line to families and hosts regular office hours for teachers assisting families with tech issues.
Digital fluency is not the only equity issue among families, of course. Families with education and resources may have an easier time adapting to new technology use by their child’s teacher. Reaching all families, including those whose parents work long hours, don’t speak English, or have less experience with technology, may mean differentiating the mode of communication. Educators should reach out to families to find the mode of communication that works best for each family.
Trinh says using email, text, social media, mail and phone can ensure that parents who are too busy to check social media or don’t regularly check email will still get the information. Make sure electronic information is mobile friendly, and share recordings of any live information sessions to reach those who can’t attend.
Translating for non-native English speakers is non-negotiable for achieving more equity. This can be done easily by demonstrating how to use the translate document feature in Google Docs, using text translation such as Talking Points or providing subtitles for all videos.
Don’t let relationships suffer, even at a distance. In study after study, the relationship of the teacher to the student is the most critical factor for parents. The top concern for 59% of the parents responding to the Learning Heroes study was their child’s lack of in-person connections.
“The thing we have to remember is that relationships are the key thing,” says Trinh. “Students may not remember your lesson on triangles, but they remember their interactions with you. Parents look to teachers to build that positive relationship, which is, of course, more challenging in a remote phase.”
If parents feel technology is used as a substitute for their child’s relationship with their teacher, they will remain skeptical of edtech. Some of this fear can be addressed by daily video contact with students, both as a group and as individuals.
For Archer, daily interactions with her students during remote learning both helped break down the workload into manageable chunks and facilitated a sense of connectedness with the teacher and each other.
“In this way, students have been able to continue learning – and having daily interaction with their classroom teacher – even during lockdown,” she says. “I think this has also served to draw parents into their children’s learning, too.”
Let students lead
After gaining parent trust by reassuring them of technology’s safety, demonstrating what tech can help their kids do and keeping a personal connection with students – even if it’s only by video – it’s time to let students teach their parents!
Archer did this by asking students to lead iPad workshops for senior citizens in the community. Students showed the seniors how to unlock the photographic, video and communication potential of their devices.
“The workshops offer lonely people an opportunity to meet with our school youngsters, facilitate genuinely useful learning for both parties and help to rectify the misconception that digital devices are solely for gaming and entertainment purposes,” she says.
Craig Kemp, an educator and edtech consultant who lives in Singapore, says hearing about tech from a kid’s perspective can make a big difference. As a classroom teacher, Kemp organized a social media session where kids answered parent questions about social media usage. The only rule was that they couldn’t be at the same table as their child. The session feedback was extremely positive, and the demand was high for follow-up sessions.
While the first session was dedicated to social media, the discussions naturally moved into technology as a tool. The sessions now involve all aspects of technology that students feel are relevant. Students lead the development of the sessions, which happen every other month.
“Parent education sessions are critical,” says Kemp. “If you don’t have their buy-in, they won’t be able to support you on this journey. You won’t get them all, but the ones you will get will share their voice across your community and build over time. Start with what they want to hear and know.”
Parents as education partners
The Learning Heroes pol l found that two-thirds of surveyed parents were more involved with their child’s education during the pandemic than ever before. Parents have always been part of the learning team for a child, and that has never been more critical than now.
For that reason, offering parents professional development that’s similar to what teachers get can be helpful. Not only can such sessions help parents understand the value of edtech, they can also help bridge the knowledge gap. This is especially true of parents with young children who need help navigating platforms.
PD can be especially useful, says Trinh, if it comes from the teacher. Educators are often just becoming familiar with these new tools themselves, so learning together can be a bonding experience. It can also be an opportunity to model perseverance and a growth mindset when those inevitable glitches happen.
“Parents now realize technology is going to be a part of education,” says Trinh. “It’s always been a team between parents and teachers, although we had lost sight of that. Now, we need to foster those relationships and empower parents and guardians to engage in learning in a different way. There is an opportunity to be brought closer together while being further apart.”
Jennifer Snelling (@ jdsnell jennifer) writes about educators using technology to empower students and change the way we learn.