Matthew Hiefield
Family tech nights can narrow the digital divide

When we talk about digital equity, the conversation often focuses on providing opportunities for all students to learn in an increasingly connected world. We talk about devices and home connectivity. We talk the importance of parental support. We talk about training all educators to  integrate digital tools in their classrooms in meaningful ways.

Seldom, though, does the conversation focus on ensuring that parents acquire the same skills we want for our students.

But when schools support students in transferring their skills to their parents, they are narrowing the digital divide.

Studies have shown that in higher-income households, where parents have higher levels of tech proficiency, many parents educate their children on various uses of the internet and online applications. In lower income households, parents still do some of the educating, but their children often provide a significant amount of help.

Why is this significant? When low-income parents start learning online skills, such as accessing medical records and applying for jobs, their chances for a better standard of living increase.

When a school sends a laptop home with a student, it might be the first computer that household has ever had. Even in districts where student do not take home their school-issued computers, many students still offer computer guidance to their parents at places like public libraries.

These families can use these skills to tap into government programs, seek educational opportunities, access health care information and better manage their money.

Creating learning communities of parents

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So how can schools help? Educators can improve family tech literacy by sending home instructional handouts in the parents’ native language, including hands-on tech demonstrations at events like back-to school nights and hosting family tech nights aimed at families with low tech use.

Organizing family technology education nights can reap big rewards but they also require some planning. Here are some strategies for ensuring that your event is a success. 

Send notices in multiple formats and languages. To build a learning community for whole families, it is important to get parents to the training. To increase the chances, sending messages by phone, text and paper is essential. When a family’s first language is not English, having the phone message in the native language helps to ensure clear communication and a welcoming tone.

Remove obstacles. Providing childcare, securing translators, getting student volunteers for 1:1 help and offering snacks helps mitigate barriers to families. Getting a professional simultaneous interpreter is another step that can help build bridges. Most districts have interpreter resources they can use for the event. It’s often just a matter or contacting the right people.

Make participants feel welcome. Having the principal and staff greet parents at the door certainly creates a feeling of respect. For example, one of our principals took the extra step of barbecuing hot dogs and hamburgers for families. This act of service ended up creating a lot of goodwill.

Establish a clear agenda. How many topics you cover will depend on many factors including the size of the audience, the proficiency of parents and whether you intend to make this an annual event or something more frequent. It’s important to provide enough information but not overwhelm parents.

After introductions and an icebreaker to build community, we usually have an agenda for the evening that includes goals like these:

  • Establish email accounts for parents who had never used email.

  • Demonstrate how to access their students’ attendance and academic records.

  • Show them how to navigate the district’s webpage and switch it to the Spanish version.

  • Create a webpage scavenger hunt to allow parents to practice locating essential information.

  • Assure parents who had no computer experience that we were all in this together.

  • Show how to download relevant mobile apps like Canvas, Seesaw, etc.

  • Discuss principles of digital citizenship.

For an example of how to build a technology learning community, click here.

Embrace parents as learners

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The new normal is that educational technology extends far beyond the classroom. Parents, especially those who haven't used a lot of technology, often assume that younger people are just good at tech because they grew up with it. But research is starting to show that this is not necessarily the case. When schools explicitly teach digital citizenship and systemically integrate technology, students, in turn, can share these ideas at home.

Educating families and providing opportunities benefit families in multiple ways:

  • Students and parents can access school and classroom sites together.

  • Students and parents can figure out strategies to mitigate challenges like limited connectivity and/or mobile only connectivity.

  • Students and parents can better communicate with educators.

  • Students and parents can learn together and break down the one-way learning dynamic that sometimes occurs in families where parents have limited tech experience.

  • Parents can learn additional skills like accessing billing accounts, health records and job opportunities.

Embracing parents as learners — especially those with minimal technology experience — can cultivate a broader culture of involvement at school and can develop skills that can help family members outside of school. There is no one best way to take advantage of family dynamics and the emergence of technology in schools. However, recognizing the power of families learning together can make a significant difference in school engagement and a greater success outside of school for all family members.

Matt Hiefield is a digital curriculum specialist for Beaverton School District with a passion for investigating digital equity issues. He is part of the BSDFutureReady Team. Follow him on Twitter @MattHiefield. 




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