When students don’t have technology access at home, they miss out on a lot of benefits — a crucial one being tech-savvy parents who can support their digital learning journey.
Schools can send kids home with technology, but where can they turn for help with their online homework? Who will iron out their technology glitches at home? Who will help them safely navigate the digital world outside of school hours?
Since parents in high-poverty areas often have even less experience with technology than their children, they’re unable to model its effective use in their daily lives. This limits their ability to do everything from monitoring their children’s school performance online to improving their employment situation.
“We get a lot of parents asking for computer classes for themselves,” says Nadia Hillman, executive director of elementary education for the Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD). “Computer skills for parents were top on the list of things they know they need if they want to be able to help their kids. But many don’t have the resources to buy a computer, or they don’t have easy online access at home.”
So how do you build parent technology capacity in a district with 56,000 students, where nine in 10 live in poverty and 60 percent are English learners? As the largest district in Orange County, Calif., SAUSD needed to find a way to meet the overwhelming demand for adult technology training.
“We want parents to have the capacity to not only support their students, but to really have their own technological ability to engage with the world,” Hillman says. “Knowing our parents are our partners in all this, we need them to have a firm understanding of how technology can improve their lives.”
The answer turned out to be simple: Instead of training parents to use computers, the district is teaching them to become technology leaders, giving them the skills they need to go forth and train others. Through its Digital Citizenship Academy, the district has supplied more than 150 parents from 43 schools with curriculum and resources for leading digital citizenship classes of their own.
“Now we have these parents in our community who are leaders in own neighborhood schools.” Hillman says. “We’ve got cohorts of neighbors and friends and family members who want to build their capacity to help their neighbors get email, or know what it means when their nephew or niece is talking about digital assessments.”
Parents teaching parents
Elevating early adopters into leadership roles isn’t a new strategy. Many tech integration initiatives rely heavily on teacher-leaders who are on the ground sharing ideas and building proficiency among their peers. These folks often have greater reach than school or district administrators.
It’s true for parents too. In fact, in districts with a large population of English learners, parents who lack technology skills may be reluctant to seek help from educators. Fellow parents, however, can seem far more approachable.
“We’re very dense, with people living together in closely knit communities. Many parents are connected to their neighborhood school but may not be willing to come to the district office for training,” Hillman says. “We want to open up this global world for parents within their local school. That’s where the Digital Citizenship Academy really works, because we have parents who can help each other.”
More than just digital citizenship
Curriculum for the Digital Citizenship Academy is threefold.
First, it helps parents build fundamental technology skills using the same tools their kids are using at school. They learn how to perform basic functions like set up an email account or search the web. Second, it teaches them online safety and digital citizenship practices they can model for their kids.
“By using technology as part of the instructional program, it becomes more than just making sure kids aren’t cruising the internet on questionable websites,” Hillman says. “It’s more about how they can use technology in productive ways in their own adult lives.”
Finally, the academy trains participants to lead their own training sessions for other parents within their school community. Schools are even equipped to provide technology and logistical support for parent-led computer classes, ensuring parents have everything they need to keep paying it forward.
“We know that technology is the key to all of us who are working individuals. Every kind of job requires some interface with technology,” she says. “Students will need to be flexible and nimble. That’s our goal. We need parents to see that as their goal too.”