Connecting to Learn: Creating Digital Opportunities for Hispanic-American Families

According to the 2010 Census, the number of Hispanic students in American schools has doubled to nearly 12.9 million since 1997. And this school year, America's school children are represented for the first time by a "majority-minority" as the population of young Hispanic and Asian students continues to grow. This growth is largely driven by children born in the U.S., but immigrant families are having an undeniable impact on schools, as immigrant children or those who have immigrant parents often speak a language other than English at home.

Most policy and industry experts who study the educational technology sector realize that the growing ethnic and racial diversity in the United States is creating a tremendous opportunity. Recent studies show that Hispanic families are early adopters of new communications technologies and are eager to reap the benefits of wireless access and interactive learning products. As Dr. Vikki Katz of Rutgers University has pointed out in her recent book Kids in the Middle, there are clearly many positive assets to build on in supporting the educational aspirations of Hispanic families in America.

Wise deployment of technology has some potential to deliver a digital dividend. A growing body of evidence confirms that accelerated technological innovation and adoption rates are transforming family routines across the economic spectrum. However, it is clear that digital technologies are contributing to new equity gaps between higher- and lower-income families that map onto broader inequalities related to socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, immigration status, and geographic location. We can and must do a better job to support the deeply held values of these families as they strive to succeed in our educational systems.

Is there a prospect to accelerate achievement by building on kids' natural interest in media while building on family communication patterns that might be a source of strength? And can we engage kids who are heavy media and technology consumers with valuable digital offerings that will propel both engagement and advance learning trajectories? This week, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop has released three reports that explore the diverse and growing Hispanic population in the U.S. and how these families are using media to promote learning at home.

The first, a new national survey analysis written by Dr. June Lee of Sesame Workshop and Dr. Brigid Barron of Stanford University, examined the perspectives of nearly 700 low- and moderate-income Hispanic parents on the educational media and tech use of their 2- to 10-year-old children. In "Aprendiendo en casa: Media as a Resource for Learning Among Hispanic-Latino Families," Hispanic families report that they are utilizing some digital tools at rates that rival their middle-class white peers but have fewer opportunities to tap into educational content that could advance children's early growth and long-term achievement.

  • Access varies by language and income: The survey indicates that there are significant gaps in access to computing devices and high-speed Internet for children raised in English-only, bilingual and Spanish-speaking families. Families that speak primarily Spanish and had the lowest incomes were least likely to have home Internet access or own computers, tablets, and e-readers. They were also least likely to say that their children access educational content through these technologies.
  • Media matters: Parents of children who use educational media on a weekly basis report that this exposure supports their child's learning, particularly in literacy and mathematics. Television remains the most common platform Hispanic families use to access educational content.
  • A remaining challenge: More than 90 percent of Spanish-speaking families express a desire to have more resources that can help them find high-quality websites, games and television shows that can help support their children's learning.

In "Connecting to Learn: Promoting Digital Equity for America's Hispanic Families," Dr. Katz and I explore the new divide in digital opportunities and how it can be improved for low-income Hispanic families in the U.S. Featuring research conducted in Arizona, Colorado, and California with low-income Mexican-heritage families, the report considers factors at the family, school, and community level that affect adoption rates and the success of national digital equity initiatives. We examine the linkages between learning and developmental influences at the family, school, community, and macro-systems levels. Katz and I recommend some action steps to policymakers and education leaders to help build digital connections and engage Hispanic families. These include proposals for making families and community organizations partners for improving digital access for low-income children and parents; focusing on a modern mission for public-service media, particularly toward Hispanic audiences; and updating teacher training to encourage more early-childhood educators to use media to address the needs of diverse student populations.

The Cooney Center and the University of California Berkeley have also released an analysis of digital media in the lives of Latino families written by Dr. Bruce Fuller, José Ramon Lizárraga and James H. Gray. "Digital Media and Latino Families: New Channels for Learning, Parenting and Local Organizing" examines how digital media plays a role in Latino families and the possible social implications it can have on family dynamics. The authors point out that the rising use of digital tools changes the amount of time in which children work and play alone or with peers -- while potentially undercutting traditional forms of parental authority commonly seen in Latino households. A great recap of that work written by Dr. Fuller can be found here.

While Hispanic families are early adopters of technologies in the U.S., our survey research indicates that we are missing a key opportunity to tap the digital promise that may lie in both traditional television and the new, more interactive media. Our own "on the ground" observations of digital-access policies in communities and school districts also document an urgent need for a more culturally inclusive approach to designing media for our country's diverse children and families. Unless media designers and educators create materials that families value as culturally relevant, we run a clear risk of growing new divides and new barriers to a just and attainable shared future for all our children.