With middle and high schools increasingly using iPads, laptops, and even smartphones in classes, the key question for parents is: how can you tell if your child’s school is using technology in a meaningful way that promotes learning — rather than just fun and tech smarts?

No question, “ed tech” (or educational technology) is making headlines. What qualifies as ed tech ranges from devices to apps to software. Unfortunately, research on what works and why is limited — and mixed. One study shows that simply handing kids technology, without further assistance, actually increases the achievement gap. Another study shows that tech tools like the iPad can be really effective in helping students grasp complex concepts like the solar system. Yet another shows that ed tech efficacy depends on factors like the teacher’s familiarity, use, and enthusiasm — and having the tech tools be required rather than optional.

So how can you tell how well your school is incorporating technology for learning?

Classroom tech: what really matters

At school, you may see iPads, interactive whiteboards, or software that enables your child to blog, shoot video, and package it all in a very cool way. These are definitely fancy tools, but according to Punya Mishra, professor of educational technology at Michigan State University, they don’t necessarily mean effective learning. “There is nothing you can look at and say ‘This [device] is here, so learning is happening,’” says Mishra.

What’s important is how technology is being used to realize classroom learning goals or Common Core State Standards. “It’s less about the media and more about the approach,” agrees Alison Carr-Chellman, a professor of learning, design, and technology at Penn State University’s College of Education. Ideally the focus should be on mastering a skill — how to write, how to think like a scientist — instead of one specific app or program.

Katherine McKnight, head of Pearson’s Center for Educator Learning and Effectiveness, says teachers need training first on how to use the device itself, secondly on how to incorporate it into instruction effectively. “We went to a number of classrooms where I’d see teachers using high-end tech like a whiteboard, but using it in a way that just replaces the traditional blackboard,” McKnight says. Rather than using the Smartboard in an optimal way so students could drag and drop items, edit with their fingers, and work collaboratively, teachers were using it as a screen for Power Point slides. “When teachers are using tech to replace paper and pencil or a chalkboard or a movie screen, then they’re not using it in a way it was intended to [be used],” she says.

Using tech to prep for college and career

Middle and high school tech programs should also help students get comfortable with tools they’ll need to use in college, and ultimately, in the workplace. That may mean exposure to tools that will help them get organized and collaborate with colleagues. One useful tech project, according to Carl Hooker, director of innovation at a one-to-one iPad school district in Austin, TX, is a digital portfolio because “it captures the process of their learning.”

It’s also important for tweens and teens to become more critical consumers of information. A key part of your child’s learning should be helping them decipher which sites to trust for information.

You should also see your child evolving “from consumer to producer,” says Carr-Chellman. “You play a lot of games when you’re a kid, you start learning to build games when you’re older.”

Do all students need their own iPads?

Does every student have his or her own laptop or iPad? Or do they have to visit the media lab? It’s not essential that all students have their own device, but experts say it does make it easier for kids to develop a level of comfort with the tools.

McKnight’s team visited seven schools with effective tech initiatives and saw classrooms where students were assigned to share devices. But, she says, it’s “not as much of a problem for teachers who know how to get students to collaborate well.” The problem that can arise, however, is a group dynamic that pushes students out. One student tends to emerge as the leader, she says, monopolizing the technology and making others lose interest. It’s up to the teacher to put them into group situations that keep each student engaged and prevent that drop-off effect, McKnight says.

Writing vs. typing notes

Sure, your child can take notes faster on a tablet or laptop, but new research indicates putting pen to paper is better when it comes to learning. Psychologists had students watch a 15-minute TED talk and take notes, with some students writing by hand and others typing their notes. The surprising result? Students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. Laptops enable students to take more notes, which can help in some situations, but can also hurt as typing note-takers tend to start transcribing rather than processing the information and putting it into their own words — negatively affecting their conceptual learning.

Internet issues you can’t ignore

Is the campus completely wireless? How long does it take pages to load? How often are there tech problems — and does anyone on staff know how to solve them? Connectivity issue can cripple a school’s tech program — and your child’s learning — by delaying delivery, losing hard work, or killing kids’ focus.

Is that app teaching my child anything?

In middle and high school, students are introduced to more field-specific software and apps, like CAD software in an engineering class or spreadsheets when learning about statistics. Teachers often use apps to individualize lesson plans, too. Students can work independently, at their own pace, asking the program for help when they get stuck or moving ahead when they’ve mastered a skill.

More and more, brick-and-mortar high schools are offering students the option of an online course or two. Some are introducing even more involved blended learning models. (Check out this article about the 6 types of blended learning programs). Whatever kind of blended learning the school offers, it needs to offer some kind of improvement on a traditional classroom. Does it offer a differentiated curriculum, an online dashboard that motivates students to keep trying, or perhaps a way for the teacher to help with homework?

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

  • What access will my child have to technology in the classroom?
  • How is the school incorporating technology to make sure my child is college- and career-ready?
  • Do the technology-focused lesson plans align with Common Core Standards?
  • What sort of professional development training do teachers receive to help incorporate tech into their lesson plans?
  • What skills will my child learn as a result of using this app/website/program?
  • Can you see examples of students demonstrating what they’re learning on the computer or iPad?
  • Is the whole school connected wirelessly?
  • What sort of tech support does the school have when problems arise?
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Updated: February 9, 2016