By Teachers, For Teachers
“Technology in the classroom” has become the buzzphrase for cutting-edge classes that are plugged into the latest education trends. Not surprisingly, it takes a lot more than a room full of computers, iPads, and apps to turn technology in the classroom (or ed-tech) from marketing to mainstream. For parents, where schools fall on that continuum -- mostly marketing hype or taking the necessary steps to integrate tech -- is critical. When you start at a new school (or classroom, or teacher), it's important to understand the part technology in the classroom will take to improve educational experiences for your child. Here are some questions you can expect stakeholders to answer -- in depth:
Many teachers (too many) think students arrive at school as digital natives, with all necessary digital knowledge downloaded into their brains. This myth exploded when students taking the year-end online tests didn't know basic tech skills like copy-paste, keyboarding, using dialogue boxes, and more. So it's a legitimate question: Who teaches students how to use the school's digital devices and what training do they get to support that responsibility? Is it a one-off PD day or ongoing? Is there a ed-tech curriculum to ensure topic coverage and that teaching is done "the Right way" or is it up to the teacher? How does the school handle an unexpected tech need -- say, programming for December's Hour of Code?
Without direction to the contrary, students enter the world of the Internet thinking it's the 21st century's version of the wild wild west: Go anywhere, grab anything, with impunity and few repercussions. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially with the huge changes likely to occur as the Internet home changes from the U.S. to the U.N.
Being a good digital citizen requires an understanding of the inherent rights and responsibilities, including Internet privacy, cyberbullying, the legalities of using online materials, and more. Who is responsible for teaching that in the school? Often, when I talk to educators, the consensus is that "Someone else is doing that." Sometimes, the tech teacher admits it's them, but they have neither the time nor resources allocated to do it right. Teaching digital citizenship is easily done either through dedicated platforms like Common Sense Media and Netsmartz, or a full-blown curriculum like this one from Structured Learning. If the school doesn't have a proven method of teaching these topics, accept that this is one of the topics you as parent will be expected to teach your children. Because, like crossing the street safely and not talking to strangers, it must be taught.
How knowledgeable are teachers about technology? I often hear teachers complain that their students know more about using tech tools than they do. If this is the case in your school, what is being done about it? Who picks the digital apps, software, extensions, and programs used in the classes? Is it established by district policy or is each teacher encouraged to pick her own? Depending on the school, teachers may have a lot of flexibility in what technology they use in their lessons. This isn't good or bad -- just something to ask about.
Do teachers pull out the iPads only to practice rote math drills (which is a good idea), or do students become inspired by the creativity of apps like GeoGebra and take notes using a digital tool like Google Keep? If a school is new to integrating tech into the curriculum, they may be using it more for substitution than redefinition (as described in the SAMR Model). That's fine, and valuable in its own right, but, you want to confirm that the school has bigger plans for technology like augmentation of existing lesson plans, modification to extend and deepen learning, and using it to include higher-order thinking in inquiry.
What digital devices are used for classwork? Is it provided by the school or parents? Can students bring it home? If not, what if the parent doesn't have an up-to-date computer/iPad at home? What if they don't have a robust Internet or Wifi available? And if the child doesn't have these digital tools at home, will s/he be behind classmates? Are computers available after school to complete tech-intensive work, with dedicated teachers to help with problems?
Know whether there's a dedicated tech specialist or if it's the classroom teacher to assist students with tech skill problems. Find out if this is informal or planned in advance, like a regular session that the student can attend (like after school for 30 minutes).
Find out if there's a parent tech class you can attend and how often it is. Or is it a 1:1 program, offered as needed? This isn’t an uncommon concern. Largely, there’s a gap between what our children know about technology and what adults know.
End-of-year assessments of the Common Core grade-level standards are delivered online. That's fine, but teachers have discovered that lots of kids don't have the rudimentary knowledge to succeed at these. That includes skills like highlighting, copy-paste, and typing in dialogue boxes. Here's an article that discusses SBAC/PARCC testing in more depth. The school likely has gone through multiple end-of-year tests and has an idea of where students need help. Discuss that with them to be sure your child has the greatest opportunity to share his knowledge and succeed at the testing experience.
What digital tools are required at home? This might include a desktop/laptop computer, Wifi, and an ereader, as well as software, apps, extensions, and bookmarked websites used to complete schoolwork.
Additionally, lots of schools now make classes available online for students who have to be out of school for any reason -- an unexpected trip, sickness, or even snow days. That might be as simple as a Google Hangout while the class is occurring or a webcast of the completed class. Find out if this is available and what is required of you to make this work.
Should the parent join a blog or website? Or a stand-alone app like Remind? Does the school use programs like Google Forms to sign parents up for volunteer positions? How can parents track assessment such as grades, submitted classwork, and class behavior issues? Find out what program or tool is used for those purposes and how to make that available on personal digital devices.
One more: If you can't make a parent-teacher conference, find out if the school offers virtual meeting options such as Skype or Google Hangouts in off-school hours. These are free, easy-to-setup, and can fit the varied schedules so common with busy parents.
Such as cell phones. Are they allowed? Must they stay in lockers or backpacks? If the school is a Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) setup, what do they recommend?
The school's Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) should be rigorous, detailed, and comprehensive. A short list of topics should include:
Here's a post which covers 14 AUP guidelines and places to go to view standard AUPs.
This will partially be covered in the AUP, but there's more. Is the school Wifi private and protected? Are students permitted to log in from personal hotspots (say, on their phones, that tie into their home network and bypass school controls)? What provisions have been made to protect student information from malware and phishing?
It's becoming more common for teachers and students to be friends with each other online, maybe through Facebook or Twitter. This might be limited to class-related communications, but don't take that for granted. Ask teachers if they use social media with students and if so, how. Then, talk to your kids about appropriate communications.
As you dig into these questions, most teachers will embrace the conversation and make you comfortable and excited about the technology environment at the school. If the conversation raises more questions, don't be afraid to ask. You won't be the only person with these issues.
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Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the editor/author of more than 100 ed-tech resources, including a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in tech ed, CSG Master Teacher, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, CAEP reviewer, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.