On a visit to the home of one my Hmong students ten years ago, his father and I had this conversation (through an interpreter):
I love what my son showed me he was doing in the school computer lab last week during Open House. I wish we had a computer here so I could use it to learn English—the adult school is so far, I don't have a driver’s license because you need to speak English to pass the test, and the bus takes so long.
Do you think other Hmong parents feel the same way?
Oh, yes. We were all talking about it at the Open House.
Well, if you could bring them together for a meeting, maybe I could get the principal and other teachers there, too, and we could see if there would be something we could do together to get computers in homes. I can't guarantee anything, but it's worth talking about.
Yes! How soon could we meet?!
That conversation led to a pilot project where our school provided computers and home Internet access to twenty families, and then an expanded program doing the same to fifty more. Immigrant students in those families quadrupled the progress in English assessments made by students who did not have home Internet access. We had, and continue to have, a school-wide commitment to improving reading by encouraging students to read high-interest books of their own choosing. Though the use of technology, our immigrant students were able to access thousands of higher-level "talking books" that provided audio and visual support for text, along with benefiting from numerous other online tools.
Our program was named the 2007 Grand Prize Winner
of the International Reading Association Presidential Award for Reading and Technology.
We subsequently expanded it even further
by cooperating with the Sacramento Mutual Housing Association, a nonprofit housing developer which housed a number of our families (and others) to provide more in-depth computer skills training along with English support at their affordable housing complexes.
The brutal impact on school funding caused by the recession forced us to stop our home computer project three years ago, though its loss for our families has been somewhat mitigated by a number of factors:
The increasing affordability of computers and Internet access
, and its increased accessibility due to the FCC's new rules
on cable companies providing hardware and DSL to low-income families
, particularly those with school-age students.
The advent of smartphones
, though they also offer their own challenges
to student use.
The dramatic increase of free online sites
that allow teachers to set-up virtual classrooms and allow them (and parents) to monitor student progress. During the life of the home computer project, parent commitment to accountability was key to its success, and these new sites make it even easier.
Recent well-publicized studies report that just providing free computers to students does not generate academic gains
. Those results should be no surprise to educators.
The key to the success of our home computer project, and the continued use of technology by our students to enhance reading and other English skills, is twofold:
Training for teachers, parents and students
and weekly monitoring and accountability.
Building a partnership between those same three stakeholders
in developing all aspects of the program, including weekly monitoring and accountability, so that it meets the self-interests and helps further the goals of everyone involved.
Without both of those key elements, it's unlikely that just about any program—technology or nontechnology related—is going to be successful.
For further information, a collection of resources, including in-depth descriptions and research on our home computer project and similar programs, can be found at The Best Resources For Learning About Schools Providing Home Computers & Internet Access to Students
Larry Ferlazzo has been a teacher at Luther Burbank High School is Sacramento, California for the past ten years. He's authored five books on education, writes a weekly teacher advice column for EDUCATION WEEK TEACHER, and a monthly post for THE NEW YORK TIMES on teaching English Language Learners.
© 2013 Larry Ferlazzo. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise. Technology Tools to Transform Teaching Text, Search, Capture, and…Learn? Using Cell Phones to Engage 21st Century Learners