When Parents Aren't Comfortable with Technology
I’ve spent more than a decade as a college professor, conducting research on digital and mobile media use among teens, preteens, and parents. But last year, I faced a brand new challenge as an educator: helping to start a new community after-school program at an urban high school.
Called the Digital Media Club, it would give students a chance to become more informed digital media consumers, skillful digital media producers, and active citizens. How the club could become an incubator for fostering informal learning was of special interest to me. We wanted to use digital technologies to serve as a bridge between school, community, and home environments, but we faced a fairly large hurdle: The young people who attend the club have limited language skills and limited access to technologies. Most students have phones, but not all have smartphones, and some share their phones with other family members. Few have state-of-the-art laptops at home, and some have no Internet access there.
When parents face literacy, economic, or health challenges, they may need special encouragement to participate in their child’s education. Fortunately, today’s do-it-yourself technologies allow young people to play a role in this encouragement.
Several students have parents who face language, employment, and disability challenges. Some don’t live with their parents at all. Clearly, we couldn’t capitalize on using technologies like a parent portal to link school and home. How could we use technologies to involve these parents and caregivers in their students’ learning?
A “Shared-Power” Approach
Concha Delgado-Gaitan, an expert who has studied parental involvement in education among families facing sustained challenges, observes that, too often, schools take a “deficit-model” approach to parental involvement. They see parents as inactive, incompetent, or incapable of helping their children due to language, work, and child care obstacles. She advocates a shared-power approach that, through mutual respect and critical reflection, recognizes the structural limitations and the unique contributions these families make to education.
When parents face literacy, economic, or health challenges, they may need special encouragement to participate in their child’s education. Fortunately, today’s do-it-yourself technologies allow young people to play a role in this encouragement. In our Digital Media Club, we have students interview their parents and caregivers about what they see as strengths and problems in the school and the community, and they then discuss those interviews among their peers. Some students might have access to a phone with recording capabilities, but others will borrow an inexpensive take-home recorder to conduct these interviews. Students will then be given time to edit and add music so as to share their creations with the class and, later, with their caregivers. Only with parent or caregiver permission will these interviews be shared beyond the classroom, but we do want students to share them with their parents and caregivers to encourage further discussion. We also encourage students to share a list of topics to be covered in class with their parents and caregivers, so that they might do similar interviews on topics of civil rights activism, immigration, small businesses, military veterans, or other topics that might be related to their class materials.
Open Dialog Between Caregivers and Educators
In our Digital Media Club, we’re planning an open house and exhibit that gives students an opportunity to showcase their digital media work for their family members, and we’ll combine that with presentations about three things we know that parents and caregivers care about:
- presentations on how technologies are being used in the classroom;
- a discussion of the school’s digital media expectations and rules for both in and out of school; and
- a review of some free resources caregivers and their students can access for help with assignments.
We’re modeling our event on an open house hosted by the Katy Independent School District in Texas. The students there conducted panels covering what they did in classes and how that differed from previous years. Caregivers could then ask questions of the students. Breakout sessions enabled caregivers to learn and see demonstrations of digital whiteboards, Web 2.0 tools, and digital citizenship.
Our open house and exhibit will give us a chance to connect with caregivers through our shared concern about and pride in our students. And as students explain and show their work to their caregivers, they will draw on and develop leadership and communication skills and also have an opportunity to reflect on how they can build on their work and make it public in future efforts.
Finally, the event will provide an opportunity for educators to address parental concerns about the potential student misuse of technologies, but in relation to a more positive framework. This third goal is important, for as educators we need to be clear about what schools can and cannot do in terms of monitoring online behaviors, as Katy ISD’s Chief Information Officer Lenny Schad has noted. Schad says that at their open houses, they outline behavioral expectations as well as school policy. But such events also give caregivers a chance to see how the same technologies that can be a source of worry may also be employed within the school day for educational purposes.
Such efforts help maximize caregivers’ sense that their contributions matter to the student, the teacher, and the school. In a study conducted in the U.K. several years ago, researchers Alma Harris and Janet Goodall of the University of Warwick found that when schools were prepared to listen to parents’ needs and experiences, parents were more involved in their students’ learning.
It’s important to remember that not all parents have the same levels of access or comfort with technologies that educators do, and so our goal isn’t to use technologies because we can, but so as to maximize involvement. When caregivers feel that technologies are being used to validate their own cultural experiences, and when their own knowledge, life experiences, and needs become integrated into the curriculum, then schools and families can interact with one another in a way that positively reinforces achievement for students, both in school and in the home.
Lynn Schofield Clark, Ph.D., is an associate professor in Media, Film, and Journalism Studies at the University of Denver and author of “The Parent App: Understanding Families in a Digital Age.” Winner of the university’s 2012 Service Learning Professor of the Year award, Clark has been an active volunteer in high school and junior high school after-school programs for more than 20 years and writes a blog, Parenting in a Digital Age.
This article is commissioned by Amplify Education Inc. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not represent those of Amplify Education Inc.