Dusty media labs with a few ancient desktop computers — or gleaming iPads synched to brand new Smartboards? In this day and age, the range of what passes for “ed tech” (or educational technology) ranges wildly. If a school’s technology is shiny and new, it’s easy to assume your child’s getting a cutting-edge education. But how does all this ed tech really affect learning?

Unfortunately, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about technology’s relationship to learning. The research on what works and why is limited — and mixed. For instance, one recent study found that simply handing new tech tools to all kids without further assistance actually increases the achievement gap. But there are studies — like a new one showing how an iPad can help students grasp three-dimensional concepts like the solar system much faster — that show tech tools can be effective for learning. Another study illustrates why some programs, with in-the-know faculty who use the tools well and require students to use the tools to learn, thrive — while others programs, where tech use is optional or ill understood by either the teacher or students, don’t.

Still, there are simple ways to figure out whether or not your child’s school is using technology effectively for learning.

Evaluating tech use in your child’s classroom

First and foremost: the presence of technology alone is not a panacea. Why? Success hinges on how devices are used. “It’s less about the media and more about the approach,” says Alison Carr-Chellman, a professor of learning, design, and technology at Penn State University’s College of Education.

Whether your child is actually learning still depends upon the teacher. You don’t want to see teachers taking their usual activities, digitizing them, and that being the end of it, cautions Carr-Chellman. Instead, look for teachers thinking creatively about how they use technology to engage students. If your child is working on a unit on oceans, for instance, she needs to be free to explore oceans beyond simply filling out a digital worksheet. No matter what the project or the subject matter, the technology should help kids ask their own questions, find new answers, and show what they’ve learned in challenging and useful ways.

Finally, experts caution that technology should never be the center of attention. You don’t want students working for long periods in isolation on their device. Students should be interacting with the teacher and other kids while using technology. And in elementary school, kids should still be working with tangible materials like crayons, glue, scissors, and construction paper.

Do Smartboards make kids smarter?

Interactive whiteboards in classrooms have received mixed reviews from educators. Research shows these boards can increase both student interest and participation. For instance, studies show that students respond well when teachers use the board to enliven their instruction by adding colors, streaming videos, and letting kids physically interact with the Smartboard. But Carr-Chellman warns that you don’t want to see an interactive whiteboard essentially turned into a fancy sheet projector. In fact, she says, some educators have lost enthusiasm for interactive whiteboards because they don’t change the dynamic of the classroom.

But patience is in order. Research shows it can take a few years for teachers to get comfortable incorporating new tech tools into their lessons.

Is it okay to share — or do students need their own devices?

Some schools assign laptops or tablets to every student in a class. Others have carts of devices and require teachers to schedule time for their class to use them. Still others offer a shared media lab that classes may visit once or twice a week. The question is: do students need their own device for the school’s tech program to succeed? The rationale behind one-to-one technology is that it helps kids truly become fluent in using the technology. “If you have a sharing-type scenario, you don’t have that next level of integration,” says Carl Hooker, director of innovation at a one-to-one iPad school district in Austin, TX, and a consultant for EdTechTeacher. “All of a sudden your device is taken away and given to someone else, and you don’t have that ownership.”

So far, most studies of one-to-one programs haven’t shown significant increases in student achievement, experts say. Why not? According to Krista Glazewski, an associate professor of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University, success hinges on implementation. “When schools call me to consult with them about technology choices, my biggest question is not what devices they are considering for purchase, but what investments they also plan in teacher development to make in tandem with technology purchases. Because it’s the teaching practices associated with technology use that matter most.”

What ever happened to the media lab?

As schools move toward one-to-one programs and in-class tech, the role of the school media lab has shifted. Many media labs have gone mobile, other have disappeared.

“A media lab is better than nothing, but can you really get value out of that when you can only get in there Tuesdays and Thursdays?” says Kyle Peck, co-Director of the Center for Online Innovation in Learning at Penn State’s College of Education. In the near future, schools are expected to move toward the cloud, which means software and projects won’t be accessed from one physical device or location in the media center.

Connectivity matters

A big part of your school’s tech program’s success depends on the basics, starting with the quality of your school’s wireless network. Can everyone stream what they need, when they need it? Can kids interact in real-time? No matter how great the lesson plan, learning will be hindered if students are wasting time waiting for pages to load.

The second factor to consider is adequate technical support. Is there a dedicated staff person to deal with the devices when they break down? If not, what’s the plan when things go awry?

Is that app worthwhile?

Researchers can’t keep up with the onslaught of new ed-focused apps, but in general the research indicates that many apps are not as effective as having a real person working with the student on something. That said, Carr-Chellman says parents shouldn’t necessarily fret when they see students playing video games in class. “Games are unbelievably educational,” she notes. A growing body of research has found many video games have the ability to improve cognition, and — online or not — gamification is a proven learning technique.

Some districts appoint vetting committees to select apps for the classroom, while others look to recommendations from educators. In many cases, teachers may find them on their own. Wondering if the apps your child is using are doing any good? Ask your teacher how the app reinforces learning goals. No matter who vetted the app, your child’s teacher should be able to articulate why he’s having students use it.

Modern communication between parents and teachers

In some towns, the PTO meetings or school newsletters are still the best way to convey important messages to parents. Many schools use email listservs, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, or robocalls to enable parent-school communication. At the very least, teachers should be available to respond to emails from parents. Increasingly, the norm is to have a parent portal, such as School Loop or TeacherEase, where parents log on to access their child’s grades, attendance records, lunch money balance, and ask questions of the teacher.

8 questions to ask about tech at your child’s school

  • What access will my child have to technology in the classroom?
  • How many hours a week does my child have access to the media lab or media cart?
  • How does using this technology (iPad, laptop, whiteboard, app) reinforce learning goals?
  • What professional training do teachers receive to help them incorporate technology into lesson plans?
  • What sort of tech support does the school have?
  • How strong/reliable is the school’s wireless network?
  • Does the teacher or school use email, a portal, Facebook, Twitter, or other online systems to communicate with parents and students?
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