Digital Citizenship

Helping Parents Learn Tech Too

Every month this 1-to-1 district in Texas hosts parents in a "technology academy" to help them understand the digital world their students inhabit.

The idea of schools holding sessions with parents to explain the technologies their students are using is nothing new. Back in 2002, when Maine became the first place to provide PCs to every middle schooler in grades seven and eight, the state required its schools to meet with parents and share their plans for device usage before they could send the computers home. What is new, however, is the idea of districts taking it upon themselves to help parents better understand the technologies their students use so they can better control access at home, whether the usage has anything to do with school or not.

Little wonder. In 2018, Pew Research Center found that "fully 95 percent" of teens (those between 13 and 17) have access to a smartphone, and nearly half reported that they're online "almost constantly." In a separate survey, about two-thirds of parents (65 percent) reported concerns about the amount of time their teens spent in front of screens; and 57 percent said they set screen time restrictions one way or another.

Kyle Berger, chief technology officer for Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District in Texas started his school system's parent technology academy last school year when he realized the extent of the disconnect between district parents in regards to technology and "the world their kids were living in." Any time he ran into a parent, it wasn't uncommon for him to be pelted for advice on how best to filter a student's personal phone, what he thought about a specific app, or what kind of computer the child should have at home.

 Helping Parents Learn Tech Too

CTO Kyle Berger explains how social media can affect a student's college and career prospects in a recent Parent Technology Academy session in his district. Source: Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District

Rather than continuing to answer those questions one-on-one, he decided to help the school community come together to have those conversations "as an expanded partnership." Now, once a month, the CTO convenes an hour-long session at one or another of the schools in his 14,000-student district. It has quickly become apparent what types of sessions the parents are most anxious to attend.

What Parents Really Want to Know

While early plans included coverage of basics, such as the student information system and understanding Google Docs, it's the scary stuff that attracts the crowds.

A presentation on "Top Apps Parents Need to Know" consistently draws 200 parents, so Berger has begun delivering it quarterly. The focus: those apps that have inappropriate and unmoderated content, many of which can lead to cyberbullying. "Often, these apps are anonymous and will encourage students to behave in a way you have never seen before. When students use an app in anonymous mode, they tend to behave badly. They are also more prone to bullying and predators," he tells parents. And because the list is constantly evolving, "We just keep updating the content and having the conversation," he said. (At the top of the stack for the latest version of the presentation are Snapchat, Boo!, WhatsApp, imo, LivU and kik.)

None of the apps are allowed on the student devices in this 1-to-1 district, but that doesn't mean they don't show up on students' personal phones, Berger pointed out. "We see the trends before [parents] might see them at home."

 Helping Parents Learn Tech Too 

Another popular presentation covers "internet safety at school and home." The topics there include online risks for children, including content, online sexual solicitation and cyberbullying. As Berger has pointed out to parents, "Nowadays with bullying, it's connected to the kids 24/7, so there's no way to escape it." To help them help their children, he makes sure to talk about "free and great tools" to help them filter the internet at home, specifically, OpenDNS Family Shield and OpenDNS Home, both from Cisco.

Sometimes Berger hears from his peers that he's just opening a "can of worms" every time he tells his parents about the challenges of running technology in his schools. Their message to him: "What if they start to berate you on your 1-to-1?" That's a short-sighted stance in his opinion. "I hope that over this past year and a half we've built up a relationship with our community of parents to show that we're in this discussion together: Here's what we're doing. Here's how we're helping educate everybody. Let's just grow it together."

7 Ideas for Keeping Momentum

Now that the parent technology academy is well into its second year, Berger has hit his stride. Here are seven ways he keeps up the interest and maintains the relevance.

1. Maintain a consistent format. Berger scatters the sessions around to various campuses month by month, "so it's a little more convenient for parents to attend overall." And he keeps the format uniform: Each session lasts an hour. He'll speak for 45 minutes, leaving at least 15 minutes for questions. Of course, he added, "Sometimes, I've been there for up to two hours, because parents just want to keep asking questions." While he makes sure people know they can leave at the hour mark, many stick around because they want to "hear about what others are dealing with."

2. Partner with your vendors. The district has brought experts in from Microsoft for a session on Minecraft, to help parents learn how to set up the gaming software for safety and Cisco, on internet security. More recently, people from Microsoft's LinkedIn unit came to discuss how parents can help teens develop a suitable online presence for the purposes of college and career; but the parents themselves also "got some great tips on how to improve their profiles on LinkedIn for expanding the possibilities for themselves," Berger said.

3. Stay timely. Eight years into its 1-to-1 program, Berger has decided it's time to examine the question of internet and gaming addiction. "When a district is 1-to-1, some folks think that children are on that device eight hours a day," he said. "That's not the case at all. [The computer] is like a textbook in the classroom. It's a resource that's used to supplement their class activities. So, we're bringing in a psychologist to talk about what true internet or gaming addictions look like." Likewise, as the district sets up esports clubs, a lot of parents are wondering about why their students are playing Fortnight in school, so Berger has put coverage about that topic on the calendar too. For a session on Hour of Code, parents were invited to try out programming too, to help them understand "the importance of that and how coding education really is a need that is showing up more and more for all of our students at all grade levels."

4. Let parents inform the themes. Before the session on internet and gaming addiction, Berger queried parents to find out what the top questions were they'd like to ask. "We really want to take advantage of the time we have together, and then see if we can sort through those," he explained. Then, afterwards, as new topic ideas arise from the discussion, he'll incorporate those in future sessions or schedule a presentation to address them directly.

5. Cater to the languages your parents speak. Although 59 different languages are spoken in the district, Berger has tried various approaches for bringing in at least the top two — English and Spanish. At first, the Spanish speakers were segmented into a part of the room where they could listen to an interpreter. When that didn't work as well ("I don't follow my script," he acknowledged), he would finish the English session then sit down with the Spanish speakers to answer their questions, using the interpreter as an intermediary. "That tended to work pretty well," he said. "Then we'd provide the material in English and Spanish too in a follow-up communication." Now he's considering doing a recording of the session that's delivered in Spanish and making himself available for follow-up questions after the parents have viewed the presentation.

6. Experiment with formats. This year, Berger ran two virtual sessions, both around lunch time, and at least one of which was attended by some 150 parents. Since a virtual school in the district uses Adobe Connect, that's what he's using too. He's not going to rush into the use of online presentations, he added, "because I really wanted to do the face-to-face type of meetings and communications to help build that relationship first, before I become 'just some talking head.'"

7. Remember, you don't have to know it all. There have been several occasions where Berger was asked questions that he didn't have answers to. "I'll be upfront [and say], 'You know what? I don't know. I'm battling that too.'" That honesty helps the parents understand "that there is no silver bullet," he said. "We don't have all the answers. We're human too. But I'm trying to keep that conversation going. Maybe we can all sort through it together and find out better ways to help our kids."