Classroom Technology

Want to Make Virtual Learning Work? Get Parents Involved in Meaningful Ways

By Alyson Klein — July 27, 2021 2 min read
Student Maddi Dale focuses on her remote French class in her bedroom in Lake Oswego, Ore., Oct. 30, 2020.
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For years, the biggest players in teaching and learning were students, teachers, and instructional materials. But with the pandemic and the resulting explosion in online learning, another key group has emerged: Parents.

In fact, students can learn just as much virtually—if not more—than they would have in a typical, in-person school year, if they are given access to high-quality content and have support from a parent or caregiver, according to a report released July 27 by the Center for Public Research and Leadership at Columbia University.

Those conclusions were based on nearly 300 interviews with students, families, and educators from nine school districts and charter school organizations across seven states during the 2020-21 school year.

“We heard teachers speak at length about how having curriculum that helps coordinate the collaboration between teachers and families actually helps teachers do their jobs better and connect better with kids,” said Elizabeth Chu, the executive director of the Center for Public Research and Leadership, and an author of the report, in an interview.

Districts should make it a priority to find instructional materials that are driven by technology, responsive to students’ cultural contexts, and designed to help families support curriculum and instruction, the researchers suggest.

For instance, at least one site included in the study provided families with “Homework Helpers,” short informational summaries that helped families assist their children with schoolwork. Video-recorded lessons were another useful feature.

Other good tools and approaches, the report noted, included programs that allowed educators and students to set weekly goals and provided regular reports, so that families and teachers could monitor students’ progress; and tech tools with features that pinged families with information about where their students were excelling or struggling.

What about children whose parents or guardians don’t have the time or inclination to help with schoolwork, or those who come from non-English speaking households? Chu emphasized that the term “family member” referenced in the report was a broad one and could include older siblings, aunts and uncles, neighbors, and more. And in some cases technology can help overcome barriers, such as when materials are translated into students’ home languages, she said.

The findings jibe with those of a survey released by Rutgers University earlier this summer, which found a major uptick during the pandemic in parents’ involvement in their children’s education, likely because so many parents and guardians helped with online learning. The survey was based on interviews with 1,000 parents of children age 3 to 13, all with household incomes below the national median for families in the United States. (That’s about $75,000 a year.)

Two-thirds of parents reported that they now know more about their child’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to learning than they did before the pandemic. And 43 percent said they were more confident in communicating with their child’s teachers than they were before the crisis.

Chu, the Columbia University researcher, said her report underscores the importance of making sure there’s “cross functional collaboration” between families and schools. “One of the things that became really, really clear over the course of this study is just the extent to which family engagement has historically been siloed from teaching and learning,” she said in an interview.

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