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In households that don’t have a culture of computer use, it is often children who teach their parents how to accomplish various tasks on the internet. In fact, technology can create anxiety for parents when they feel that their children know much more than they do.

Traditionally, the learning dynamic in families has been from parent to child; but as technology continues to evolve, the learning dynamic in families with respect to technology is evolving as well. Technology and its increasing integration into schools has been changing this dynamic into one of co-learning.

A Cooney Center report on digital equity observes that “Children and parents frequently learn with and about technology together, especially in families with the lowest incomes and where parents have less education.” In households where all family members use the internet, 77 percent of parents say they have helped their child with technology and over 50 percent said that their students have taught them. Among parents who have not graduated from high school, this figure jumps to 62 percent. (Check out more statistics about the digital divide here.

How Tech Integration in Learning Impacts Parents

It comes as no surprise that technology is changing how families learn. How parents and children engage with the world around them is radically different than how it was 20 years ago. Newspapers, magazines, books, television and radio used to be central components to learning in most families. This still may be the case, but a rapid transition to online learning has taken place, influencing the nature of learning within households.

Instead of students hovering over a textbook at a kitchen table and answering questions alone on a worksheet, many students are now engaged in real-time conversations and collaborative work online. Instead of accepting a historical document at face value, students can research origins, purpose, value and limitations of that document online by examining multiple resources, asking questions and digging deeper.

Likewise, students can engage in rich online discussions and peer review the work of others in multiple disciplines. Online learning has made learning less isolating and more collaborative. Sometimes, however, this type of learning can be more difficult for parents to access, especially in cases when they have less experience with technology.

What Four Divides Teach About Digital Equity, an Analysis

Even as school districts spend billions of dollars each year on technology, including hardware, software, broadband and maintenance, schools struggle to systematically integrate technology in learning. As a result, parents often experience significant classroom differences between different grades and schools as their students progress through the system.

The vastly different uses and expectations of technology by teachers creates uncertainty with respect to how parents can help their students be successful. Moreover, these investments and lack of consistency create confusion and, in many cases, a new digital divide.

The changing nature of family learning around technology coupled with the inconsistent use of technology across a school district often causes anxiety. In a Psychology Today article, author Jim Taylor observes that parent anxiety over technology can lead to an unwillingness to “to assert themselves in their children’s technological lives. Because of their children’s sense of superiority and lack of respect for parents’ authority in these matters, children may be unwilling to listen to their parents’ attempts to guide or limit their use of technology.”

It is important to realize that integrating technology into schools ends up extending far beyond the classroom. For parents who have lower digital skills, tech integration in learning can foster a sense of helplessness with supporting their own child or children, who then often take on a greater role of teaching technology in the home. If this leads parents to divest from being a supporter of student learning because they are confused about how to accomplish this, then we all lose.

When educators fail to recognize this dynamic, digital inequity flourishes as schools continue to move towards online learning platforms and tools.

Digital Citizenship for the Family

Given the fact that many students are teaching and exposing their parents to new types of technology, it is important that schools teach both students and parents about digital citizenship. Some successful classes supporting parental education in digital literacy have included

  • Learning with Technology: Supporting Education at Home (Checking attendance and homework)
    Aprendizaje con Tecnología: Apoyando la Educación en el Hogar (comprobar asistencia y tarea).
  • Connected Parents: Cyberbullying and Digital Drama
    Padres Conectados: Acoso Cibernético y Drama Digital
  • Social Networks: Videogames and Mental Health
    Redes Sociales: videojuegos y salud mental
  • Young Children and Technology: How long is too much?
    Niños Pequeños y Tecnología: ¿Cuánto tiempo es demasiado?
  • How to get your kids to sleep through the night
    ¿Como hacer que tus hijos duerman toda la noche?
  • Tips for families facing hate and mass shootings.
    Consejos para Familias que Enfrentan acciones de odio y los tiroteos masivos

Parents–especially those who don’t often use technology–often assume that younger people are “just good at it” because they grew up with it, but of course this is not necessarily the case. If schools explicitly teach digital citizenship and digital literacy ideas, students in turn can take these ideas back home. If parents become more aware of some of the challenges around technology use in today’s world, both parents and students can work together as a team when challenges arise.

When it comes to cyberbullying, online safety and privacy, digital footprints, digital citizenship, and more, families that talk about these issues are much more able to actively deal with these issues.

In the end, schools should offer opportunities for parents and students to learn about digital citizenship and digital literacy. These two strategies help when it comes to the “digital use and knowledge” divide that is found in many schools today.


This blog post was originally published in 2020, and has been updated.

Matt Hiefield

Matthew Hiefield

Matt Hiefield (MAT) has 25 years of experience teaching high school Social Studies. He is currently a Digital Instructional Materials Coordinator for the Oregon Department of Education as Digital Equity Advisory Council Member for the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). He serves on the District Equity Team for the Beaverton School District and is passionate about digital divide issues and how the lack of home broadband internet access affects both teaching and learning. He previously serves as an ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) Digital Equity PLN Leader and an ISTE Digital Equity PLN Editor. Matt is also a member of Beaverton’s team that won CoSN’s 2018 National Award for Digital Equity Work.