Teachers and technology: what parents should know

By Cheryl Walker
June 16, 2006

The more parents know about the technology available to teachers, the better they can help their children make the most of it, according to Ann Cunningham, associate professor of education at Wake Forest University.

"Technology helps improve communication between teachers and families (through) e-mail, Web sites, newsletters and postcards," Cunningham said. "These techniques save hours of valuable teacher time and make communication with the home easy to do with a higher frequency."

Using e-mail and Web sites to communicate with teachers is far more efficient for many parents, particularly those who work during the school day. These technologies increase communication between the school and the home.

Cunningham said teachers are more likely to update class Web sites and use other technology resources when they get positive feedback from parents and students. So, visiting the teacher's Web site regularly and e-mailing the teacher to let her know what information or links are the most helpful is time well spent. The best teacher Web sites will include information that can educate parents about state and national standards, Web safety strategies for the home, enrichment activities for students of varying ability levels and resources for parents of students with cognitive and physical disabilities.

Templates for letters, postcards, class newsletters and awards also make group mailings fast and easy.

"Technology can help a teacher be more productive to help get families involved with a child's education," Cunningham said.

Parents also need to know what technologies can help their kids if they are struggling in school. Students who have difficulty reading and processing text can benefit from text-to-speech software that reads what is on the screen to a student. These software packages are available with a range of features. Programs that allow greater user control are the most helpful.

Students struggling with writing can benefit from word prediction software. The software allows the user to type a letter that then generates a list of word options that begin with that letter. These programs are also available with a variety of features, some include text-to-speech and dictionaries. Sources like LD Online, Closing the Gap and, in most states, the Assistive Technology Project (a federally funded resource) can help parents locate software tools that are best for their children.

Technology, used effectively, can help promote higher order thinking skills like analysis, synthesis and problem-solving. Instead of rote memorization, requiring students to use technology to create projects moves students far beyond the multiple-choice or short-answer test, Cunningham said.

"The more students are engaged with an assignment, the more they are likely to commit that knowledge to long-term memory," she said.

When technology is included, students begin to recognize the value of the tools for creating and publishing their work. The National Educational Technology Standards for students emphasize the use of technology for communication, problem-solving and representation of information, she said.

"The technology skills are necessary to ensure that all students are able to access, evaluate, process, manipulate and communicate knowledge," she said.

So, making sure technology tools are available to teachers is important. Parents can take a role in organizing parent-teacher association fund drives to help if schools cannot afford certain technologies or can help build awareness among other parents of tools that are available. Parents can also work with school personnel to help identify grant sources and share their expertise and time.

Cunningham also encourages parents to push for professional development for teachers, not just tools for the classroom.

"The only way that technology can be integrated effectively and appropriately into the classroom is for the teacher to know what is available, how to use and how it can be used to support instruction," Cunningham said. "Too often computers and software are put in a lab or classroom and teachers don't get any training on how to use it to teach."

Cunningham, who teaches a technology in education course to future teachers, emphasizes the importance of making technology instruction a core part of teacher training.

"Knowing how to use technology appropriately before you get into the classroom can help get future teachers on the road to being better at high quality instruction."

Parents need to be aware that technology can improve instruction if used appropriately. But it is not easy and teachers need good training and the support of school administrators and parents.