Families are Already Digitally Connected—and We Can’t Ignore This Opportunity

A blog post by Nermeen Dashoush

Shows a woman on a smartphone A little over a year ago, I found myself in a Zoom class with a director of preschools in Detroit, discussing educational technology. I shared my approach with her and how, when I think of ways to provide quality education for children, I consider the caregivers and teachers who regularly interact with the child and the systems in which the learning is taking place. As a result, when I think about leveraging educational technology, I don’t only consider child-facing tools, but also tools for families and educators.

“Our parents don’t use technology,” she told me, followed by, “Our parents don’t even have smartphones!” She had been in her position for over 20 years and was certain that using technology to provide teaching resources or engage families would not be met with enthusiasm by the preschool’s parents.

While I do not know every parent in her district, I have been closely following the technology gap and the changing profile of parents of young children. We are living at a time when 90% of new parents are millennials—so, roughly in their late 20s to early 40s. They are online, connected, and on the grid—and in most cases, they are digital natives. The smartphone has been around most of their lives, and Gen Z parents have never known a time without smartphones. The most recent survey shows that 85% of adults in the United States have a smartphone, a statistic with minimal variability across race and gender (the most significant variability is by age).

All of this has significantly impacted access to technology and changed everything we know about who is connected and when. Simply put, the vast majority of parents of young children are connected. And because of this, we must break away from the misconception that they aren’t and leverage this opportunity to connect to them. Tapping into technology could be the key to communicating with working families who cannot connect to their child’s school due to work hours. It could mean giving families resources at their fingertips to engage with their children. It could mean access to informal learning opportunities outside of school hours. A mindset of “they just don’t have access” could be limiting the type of access we are providing them.

While there is no forum, tool, or medium to connect to all families, it would be remiss to overlook the ones that connect to most families. New technology has revolutionized home-school communications by telling families what happened in school and showing them. Childcare management systems—like HiMama and Procare—go far beyond attendance systems and allow educators to send home updates and photos about a child’s day. It’s a valuable glimpse into a child’s learning and development at the click of a button.

For the most part, parents want to play a role in their child’s development and education but may not have the time or the expertise to do so. Apps and parent-facing platforms such as Kinedu and Ready Rosie are designed specifically for family education that supports the child’s development. These technologies send short videos and prompt directly to the adults in the child’s life with easy-to-do activities that engage the child and support their cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development. Apps that I have developed allow parents to support their child’s STEM identities through videos and prompts to cultivate conversation and promote curiosity.

Advancements in family-facing educational technology also can break down language barriers, and educators are given options to share information and resources in multiple languages. Most edtech companies understand that all family-facing content must now be created in various languages and readily available to educators. Teachers no longer have to do the heavy lifting of translation. Motivated by expanding the usability of their product, edtech companies are now creating materials in dozens of languages. This possibility was limited by logistics and space when limited to paper-based resources. While not yet perfected, translation is a feature available on family-facing educational technology platforms that could make the difference between a teacher’s ability to communicate regularly with families.

Understanding this opportunity means changing teacher education and professional development to prepare them to select and leverage technology for family engagement carefully. Access to technology is less and less becoming an equity issue as technology is increasingly becoming an equity solution.

Shows Nermeen Dashoush of BU Wheelock Nermeen Dashoush is a clinical assistant professor of early childhood education at BU Wheelock College of Education & Human Development. Her work is primarily focused on STEM and early childhood education, and she has developed several award-winning children’s STEM apps and Emmy-nominated children’s television programming.