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10 Questions About EdTech to Ask Your Kid's Teacher

Photograph by Getty Images/Cultura RF

Is your school beefing up computer labs, getting wired, buying devices, and investing in teacher tech training? Are you hearing more about "blended learning," "flipped classrooms," and "adaptive software"? It's been a glimmer in the eye of many school districts for years, and now edtech -- a catchall term that incorporates everything from Common Core standards and STEM initiatives to coding classes -- is finally becoming part of many K–12 classrooms.

When a school adopts edtech, it means that technology -- computers, software, media, networks, and the like -- are incorporated into teaching, communication, grading, and homework. Some schools add a lot, some a little, but all edtech adopters promise it's a way for students to gain essential 21st-century skills.

As with anything new, edtech takes patience and flexibility. By asking the right questions of teachers and administrators, you can help your kids get the most out of it, foster their learning, and support your school as it shifts towards edtech. (For definitions of edtech terms, check out our glossary.)

1. Which edtech tools will my child be using in your class?

One reason the word "edtech" can be confusing is it applies to a wide variety of classroom technology solutions, from educational video lessons to online systems that connect students and teachers.

The teacher or the school should be able to provide a list of the resources they're using. A well-prepared teacher will be knowledgeable about them, able to discuss the learning potential, and possibly even be connected to professional support networks where he or she can find additional information and ideas. (As the field grows, more and more educators are sharing their experiences through blogs such as this one on our sister site, Graphite.) Ask for a demonstration of the software or check it out online yourself. Many educational software developers include information for parents on their websites.

2. What is the learning purpose for each of the tools?

Though new computer labs, video studios, and laptop programs look impressive, you want to make sure the tech choices are intentional and integrated into lesson planning purposefully. In general, when schools adopt new edtech tools, they make sure teachers are trained and have some practical experience with the programs. Ask teachers to explain the learning goals of the tools they're using; they're often tied to state requirements for the grade and subject. See how teachers learn how to design tech-rich lessons.

3. Will I be able to access or monitor my child's work/interactions in these tools?

When your kid is working on a printed worksheet, you can easily track her progress. But when she's entering information into a software program? Not so much. Edtech requires everyone -- teachers, students, and parents -- to work a bit differently than they're used to. Ask your teacher how you can continue to support your kid's online learning and monitor interactions (if necessary). The software may have a teacher dashboard that can be shared with parents or a parent log-in, or the teacher can give you access to your kid's account.

4. Are the sites/apps/games approved by the school, or is the teacher free to choose the edtech?

Depending on the school, teachers may have a lot of flexibility in what technology they use in their lessons. So long as the tech they're choosing serves a learning purpose, it's great to encourage forward-thinking teachers to innovate in the classroom.

The only issue is that when students aren't using a school-wide program, they may need to create individual accounts on the software, which invites some privacy concerns. If that's the case, find out who creates the account, what information is needed, and whether parental consent is required, and dig into the software developer's privacy policy to make sure you understand what student information (if any) is collected.

5. Does the teacher or school assess the privacy and security of a tool before letting students try it?

Awareness about protecting student privacy is growing. Still, some edtech software developers have complicated student privacy policies that request non-essential information and collect and track data. Find out whether the school has information about its edtech review process and whether student privacy is part of it. The bottom line is that any information should be for educational purposes and companies should not be able to use or monetize student data. Learn more about how to protect your student's privacy at school.

6. Does the school or class use a digital citizenship curriculum or any lessons to prepare students for using technology in class?

Just the process of using edtech can impart digital citizenship lessons. For example, as students reply to classmates' comments online, they learn how to give feedback responsibly and respectfully. But schools also can employ comprehensive K–12 digital citizenship lessons that help students think critically about using technology. Point teachers to Common Sense's collection of digital literacy and classroom curricula, if appropriate. It covers everything from how to cite online resources to how to fight cyberbullying. If you want to work on digital citizenship lessons at home, check out Digital Passport for grades K–5 and Digital Compass for 6–8.

7. How much time during the day or class period will kids be using media or tech?

Edtech holds a lot of promise for engaging students, tailoring lessons, and reaching more kids than a single teacher can. But overuse of educational technology can lead to rote learning. A balanced curriculum will incorporate variety, including moving and learning through hands-on, real-world activity. If kids are spending a large part of their school day with media and tech, consider limiting it at home to maintain overall balance.

8. Will my kid need to have access to these tools at home?

The at-home requirements for technology vary a lot from class to class and school to school. If your school has a 1-to-1 program, your kid will be using that device (and only that device, since the software on it is part of the curriculum) at school and at home. If your school uses a "flipped classroom" model, meaning kids watch online videos or interactive presentations at night and do guided practice (aka homework) during the school day, you'll probably need a device for that. "Blended learning" classes, which mix technology into the school day, may or may not require the use of a device after school.

Many teachers recognize that not all students have computers or even high-speed Internet access at home. They try to make sure that their online assignments can be completed at school during the day. But that's not always possible. Get your teacher's input on the kind of device you might need, the programs and accounts you'll need, and which apps and other software might be useful. If you need more help and advice, ask an administrator to connect you with the school's technology specialist.

9. What does it mean if my school is using an "adaptive learning system"?

Adaptive learning systems change lessons on the fly in response to a student's performance. Typically, each student has an individual log-in and works on lessons that change based on his or her answers -- for example, adding extra work in weak areas and moving quickly through areas of mastery. The students' progress is automatically uploaded to the teacher's account. Adaptive learning can be used in conjunction with a 1-to-1 device or on the schools' computer lab. Find explanations for other edtech terms, including "blended learning," "flipped classrooms," and "Learning Management System."

10. Is edtech better than traditional ways of learning?

Most school districts are realistic about the limits and potential of learning with technology. A balanced teaching approach, with instruction that requires kids to use their brains and bodies and that takes into account various learning styles, is crucial for a well-rounded education.

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