No Parent Left Behind

by Terry White on September 5, 2012

An expanding trend is about to test parents and grandparents and students of all ages.  While our public school systems have been pitifully slow to experiment with technology-based learning, the tipping point finally appears near.  This is great for students and challenging for teachers, but it could change the whole educational dynamic for the current generation of parents and grandparents.

As an early Baby Boomer, in the mid-50s I watched my mother and father take on a new role as overseers of my education.  But they were quickly over-matched, having no role models but Dr. Spock and little connection to academic subjects even at the elementary and high school level.  Lucky for them the definition of oversight was handed to them by the PTA.

Of course the PTA had already been around for 50 years, but for much of that history the focus was necessarily basic—ending child labor and getting children into schools.  My parents went to PTA meetings once a month where the principal and teachers  spoke mostly about their needs.  My mother attended the 20-minute parent-teacher conferences in fall and spring and learned I wasn’t problem and showed college potential.  The news was good, so oversight was finished.  They really had no clue about my education.

Baby Boomers live to correct their parents’ mistakes with their own.  Fast-forward through all the years seeing bumper stickers about young honor students and car window signs about precious cargo.  Forget the bizarre propaganda messages that every child is simultaneously special and equal and that showing up is as good as winning.  In late 90s a gulf opened between most parents and most children so large the 60s generation gap seems like a crack in sidewalk.  Kids have merged with their game consoles, computers, and later smart phones, leaving us far behind.  And every curtain we hung to shield children from the stress of reality is shredded.

The last barricade of parental  control over their children’s education has been the inability of  schools to catch up with  the technology curve.  Schools seem  manageable because teachers and principals don’t want to piss off parents.  That comfort zone is about to disappear.

A recent article on reports that K-12 teachers across the country are striving to get their administrators on board with tablets and Web-based learning.  We know the Millennial Generation grew up amid mindboggling technological change, learning as much on their home computers as in classrooms, but finally the computer and the classroom are merging at high speed.  Here is what government and private sector research tells us to expect.

  • In a classroom led by a teacher students take a passive role, letting teachers make all the decisions about what they will study.  In technology-driven education young people go on the Internet, and they decide for themselves where they click next.  The teachers’ role is evolving into coaching students so stimulate and guide their independent education decisions.
  • Teachers also report a remarkable boost in student self-esteem, motivation, and initiative with technology-based learning.  For one thing students like the immediate results computers deliver compared to learning as a class.  While much of what young students were taught in the past was “dumbed down” adult knowledge, computers can’t be dumbed down, so students get a lot of pride from mastering a perceived adult technology.  Also, there are many reports of children who were reluctant participants in traditional classrooms or on the playground find ways to accomplish things independently by computer that turn them into stars.
  • Computers have become the ultimate collaborative tool—supporting simultaneous users and access to resources anywhere and anytime.  Teachers notice that when a student working on a computer reaches an obstacle other students crowd around with ideas fix it, or they search online for solutions and collaborate with distant peers.  Teachers don’t have to be authority figures but facilitators.
  • Reports cite a trend for students in technology-based schools to attempt independent learning ahead of their grade level.  In the past schools placed higher achieving students in separate accelerated classes with mixed results, but now anyone can be inspired to accelerate.  Of course, there are just as many opportunities on the Internet to decelerate and just goof off, so teachers need to be more alert in technology classroom to judge when students are creating their own knowledge and when they are not.

Universities are also at an Internet crossroad, according to a Pew study.  Facing complex questions about the cost of higher education and the relevance of many degree programs outside the ivy covered walls, they are exploring alternative delivery models.  The basic question—is it necessary to bring thousands of students together in one location to hear professors deliver the same lectures they delivered to last year’s class?  Two professors started a project that aligns academics from UC Berkeley, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Michigan to adapt courses for delivery through an interactive website.  For free!  Their initial efforts captured nearly 200,000 enrollees worldwide.   Imagine earning a degree online designed by taking courses from multiple prestigious universities.  The part played by social and nonacademic aspects of university education has to be considered, but Facebook seems to prove even the online dorm can be more satisfying than the onsite one.

How does all this change impact the role of committed parents? Here’s an example to consider.  California public schools in the distant past decreed that every fourth grader will learn all about the mission period of the state’s history by building models of a mission.  Translation—California parents will have to build these mission models for each of their kids.  Hours of gluing sugar cube brinks and bending cardboard roof tiles—with nothing whatsoever learned about the mission period.  In contrast, with Internet access in a fraction of the time fourth graders can digest articles about the people and places, the historical events, the social and political forces, and more—like the brutal subjugation of the native populations.

Here is where parents and grandparents find their role  in education today.  Technology-based education doesn’t hide anything.  Educators complain that the Internet isn’t scholarly—as if academia has much of a claim to objectivity and accuracy today.  Much worse is that the Internet is a haven for hatred, sex, violence, deviance, predators—not surprisingly, everything that’s out there in real life.  But on the positive side there are countless sites that can expand students’ thinking in good ways—school and personal life.  Rarely can teachers help them with their personal aspirations and doubts or improve their health or strengthen their character.  The Internet can.

Parents need to get out in front of technology-based education.   Be ready and available to help their children distinguish fact from opinion from hidden agendas they find online and interpret meaning, context, and implications of what they learn.  They should stop giving direct advice that wasn’t asked for and help their children search for answers online on websites and forums and offer commentary to fill in the bigger picture.  We are way past the casual inquiry about homework and thankfully past constructing mission models.  What an opportunity!


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