How Edtech Should Unite Latino Families—Instead of Driving Them Apart

How Edtech Should Unite Latino Families—Instead of Driving Them Apart

Blake Montgomery

American kids are using more and more media both inside and outside of school. Latino Americans are the largest minority group in the American population. Where do these two facts intersect?

Last Friday, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center convened two panels discussing diverse families’ representation in and usage of media, followed by a design workshop, at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Co-hosted in a partnership between the Cooney Center, Digital Promise, and Stanford's new Technology for Equity in Learning Opportunities (TELOS) initiative, the event promoted the release of the Center’s recent publication: Diverse Families and Media: Using Research to Inspire Design, a free design and research guide developed in conjunction with Sesame Workshop.

One question in particular—“What needs and concerns do diverse families have that designers and educators might not be aware of?”—quickly arose as a theme for the day. The latter of two panels, moderated by Karen Cator, CEO of nonprofit Digital Promise, gravitated towards answering the question in relation to a specific constituency: Latino students and their immigrant families.

Academics Margaret Caspe, Senior Research at Harvard Family Research Project, and Carmen Gonzalez, a professor at University of Washington, joined Eric Cuentos of nonprofit Mission Graduates and Cator to discuss the relationships between Latino families and student use of technology. From that discussion came frank observations of the role reversal that many Latino parents and students experience—as well as fruitful advice for organizations on how to better support those families.

The phenomenon of immigrant children becoming “brokers” of their families’ new culture is well-documented and studied. Children translate phone conversations, documents and even road signs for their parents, which throws traditional family dynamics for a loop—a point that both Cuentos and Gonzalez brought up.

“Kids run into problems with technology where they need their parents, but their parents can’t help them. As kids become more involved with technology, the parents see it as the magnet that pulls the kids away from the family,” said Cuentos. He referred to the new relationship between a parent and his or her broker-child as “asymmetrical acculturation,” where a child becomes accustomed to a new culture faster than a parent.

According to Cuentos, Latino parents often struggle to feel in control of their children’s activities, and children have taken on more responsibility than they may be ready for. Technology brings a whole new dimension to this challenge.

So then, what can be done to support both parents and their children? All of the panelists agreed that Latino parents deserve the attention necessary to bring them up to speed on technology’s uses, risks and developments—not only because it seems like the right thing to do in helping a parent understand his or her child, but also because Latinos are becoming a significant user base.

Gonzalez noted that Latino families place a large cultural value on education, so they are eager and willing to know more about technology that supports their children’s learning. Though there is a large “digital divide,” or access to technology, between wealthy and poor families, Latino parents are still buying technology to support education and maintain contact with their home countries.

“One of the best strategies for reducing discomfort with technology,” Gonzalez said, “is to tie it to maintaining Spanish or sharing cultural history. Engagement with these kinds of tools is much higher.” As such, Latinos are not only the largest minority demographic in America—they are an exploding consumer group.

Cuentos observes that smartphones are currently being adopted by Latino families faster than any other technologies. He has seen that texting is one of the easiest things for families to adopt. He encouraged members of the audience to create low-tech, high-touch programs that hold the hands of people who may not feel as comfortable with technology.

“You can create all the apps you want,” Cuentos said, “But but the challenge is the regular adoption of them from a subset of families that will then spread them to other families. It’s very relationship-driven.”

Before he left, he also made a plug for more Spanish-speaking women in the tech industry to join Mission Graduates. These are the people his clients—Hispanic women with families—can relate to best.

In the case of companies and nonprofits looking to act on these insights, Cooney Center Founding Director Michael Levine recommends consulting the Center’s casebook. It contains no solutions, rather focusing on questions and challenges generated from in-depth profiles of how different families use media and consume technology. Each case is a deep dive into the questions asked on the panels:

  • How do we enable simultaneous parent and child learning?
  • How do we facilitate connection between home and school, which has been shown to improve student outcomes?
  • How do we integrate the parents’ and grandparents’ home countries into the media?

All are design principles and empathy guides that the Center hopes those acting on the panel’s insights keep in mind.

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