What is the best way to support people who don't know much about a subject? Evidence shows that the development of literacy skills is far greater where a child's parents are literate. I believe the same is true of technological literacy. Professor Seymour Papert, an educational information and communications technology (ICT) expert, sums it up: "I have come to see parents' expanding ideas about what children can do as one of the important contributions of computers to how children learn."
Schools are positioned to be the key providers of support to parents. And they can directly benefit if the role of parents as co-educators is enhanced, especially in relation to ICT. But if they are to go down this route, schools must know and listen to their audience, and while it is impossible to classify parents as a single entity they can be broadly identified as the few who are computer literate, and the majority who have little or no computer expertise. One factor they have in common is that, not being trained educators, they tend to draw on their own learning experiences when supporting their children. This can cause problems since their educational experience does not include computers.
In addition, parents are targeted by a heavyweight marketing and media campaign that makes all manner of claims about the values of ICT in education. And because they know little about the subject, it's not surprising they believe much of what they are told. By contrast their children are very sure about what they want - computer games.
The general lack of understanding of, and confidence in, the role of ICT means parents are not in a position to fully encourage their children to push the boundaries of learning. So how does one support this group of people?
In my past five years at PIN, I have been involved in helping parents use ICT to support their children's education. For example, parents' calls for help in selecting educational software led to us setting up an evaluation scheme to identify programs suitable for home use. If you have ever tried to choose a piece of software based on a 50-word description in a catalogue or by looking at boxes on a shelf, you will know it is almost entirely down to pot luck. The challenge was to use our educational expertise alongside teams of teachers and, most importantly, families and put software through its paces. As an initial step towards supporting a very uninformed audience, we decided to recommend the more appropriate titles, backed up by evaluations. I believe that if parents use these recommendations to inform their first few experiences, our initiative will have taken an important first step.
My commitment is to move parents on as discerning users and effective supporters of their children's learning. Parents tell us they want information in manageable chunks. What we aim to do is present these chunks in such a way that parents can develop an understanding of ICT and learning as their confidence grows.
Schools are also starting to provide support and selective advice for parents. Thanks to home-school agreements, Internet-use policies and the development of school websites, there are plenty of opportunities for schools to communicate with parents. The website is a real opportunity to do this and many schools use theirs to set out the school's requirements and ethos with a view to informing parents of their role in that.
More interesting is that some schools are exploring ways their website can better engage parents in the school's activities, for example by providing guidelines on study skills, termly content coverage, communication about school events or support activities for out-of-school learning. Therefore we are starting to see the first plank towards a powerful means of providing parents with the level of support they need to play an active and constructive role in the education of their children. There is still a long way to go, but I believe these first few schools have identified a route and a practice which can only enhance the progress made by pupils.
However, to set up a successful website, schools must consider both their audience and aims. How appropriate is the design and language used on the site? Is it welcoming to parents? Is the information provided for parents clearly evident on the home page or is it buried deep in the site? If guidance is provided for parents, is the language appropriate?
Such questions make it clear that schools need to carefully consider the long-term goals of websites. They must decide the extent they wish to include or exclude the parent community. It's a big point to ponder and ICT is making it bigger.
Jacquie Disney worked as a teacher and ICT advisory teacher. She is the director of PIN (Parents Information Network), which has its own website (holding its software recommendations) www.pin-parents.com as well as an area on The TES' Learnfree website www.learnfree.co.uk Email her at email@example.com.