Middle grades parents share their views of online homework assignments.
Homework is an important way for teachers to develop relationships with their students’ parents and other caregivers. The learning activities teachers assign for homework provide parents a window into the content and skills their children are learning at school. Parents have a chance to participate in their children’s schooling by monitoring and assisting them with their homework. As such, homework helps to keep schools accountable to parents:
[It] gives parents direct knowledge (albeit inevitably incomplete) about the school’s educational agenda and methods. It tells them what the school is doing and lets them—to the extent of their ability, inclination, and availability—oversee and participate in the education process by assisting their children with schoolwork. (Gill & Schlossman, 2003, p. 859)
A number of researchers have found that when parents are involved in their children’s homework, the learning value of the homework increases (Baker, 2003; Margolis, 2005). This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents emphasizes the importance of family involvement in children’s education (National Middle School Association [NMSA], 2010). Furthermore, parental involvement in student homework has been associated with higher student achievement (Cooper, Lindsay, & Nye, 2000) and the development of attitudes and behaviors associated with higher achievement (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2001).
Much of the research on homework has involved pen and paper assignments. The limited research on online homework has most frequently examined tutoring software. For example, Mendicino, Razzaq, and Heffernan (2009) studied the outcomes of the ASSISTment system that provided grade five students with interactive scaffolding and hints, upon request, while they were completing homework, or with multi-media and self-paced learning activities. Often, the homework involved multiple-choice questions that were auto-marked so that students received immediate feedback (Lewin & Luckin, 2010).
Our research contributes something new to the conversation on parental involvement and homework by presenting parents’ perspectives and recommendations related to online homework involving Web 2.0 technologies (O’Reilly, 2007). Framed by new literacies theory (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006), which views literacies as social practices that include new ways of communicating using digital and multimodal texts, our research examined the perspectives, observations, and recommendations of 19 parents whose grades five and six students contributed to wikis as part of their social studies and science homework. The two classroom teachers participating in this project had implemented an online blog for tracking and completing homework and a wiki for collaborative work in class and at home.
Two of the authors of this paper are researchers who gathered data about the teachers’ writing instruction over the course of a year, carried out the survey research, and wrote the description of the parent survey results. The other two authors are grades five and six teachers who provided an authentic perspective for considering how teachers might use the survey results in their classrooms.
Using wikis and blogs in class and as homework
For three years, the teachers involved in the study used online technology to communicate with their students and with the students’ parents. They began with a blogging website (www.blogger.com) and found it worked well for activities in class and at home. The teachers created an account through which they could post class assignments and inform parents and students about homework, projects, and upcoming school events. They also included a “Highlights of the Day” section to give parents a glimpse into their children’s daily classroom activities. Highlights included information about classroom guests and photos and videos of students working collaboratively. Because they intended the homework blog to be used primarily as a place to post information for students, they modified the permissions so that students would not post their own comments on the parent information pages.
The teachers envisioned the homework blog as a home base for students. When they first logged on at home, students received reminders about the day’s events and assignments. From the blog, they were redirected to specific subject/project blogs or wikis. Here students could post comments to each other, upload relevant research to extend their in-class learning, and include links to other resources, all of which contributed to their collaborative online assignments. For example, in social studies students were engaged in a project-based learning activity focused on current national (grade five) and global (grade six) citizenship issues. The issues were selected by the students and related to the big ideas in the provincial curriculum document. The students researched collaboratively in small groups online (see Figure 1) and then independently wrote persuasive essays about their chosen issue and social change, scripted a short public service announcement, and designed a book jacket relating images that depicted the issue and the desired social changes.
Screen shot from the student social studies wiki
As with any other inquiry assignment, students needed to gather information to address their inquiry question. Student participation on the wiki took the form of reading comments, sharing original ideas, or responding to other students’ comments. All of these forms of participation lead to active, purposeful learning which is key to successful middle grades education (NMSA, 2010). When collaboratively working in groups of four on the wiki, students contributed one-fourth of the information independently. Later, they read and talked with the rest of their group to become informed about the remaining three-fourths of the information. The teachers conducted both formative and evaluative assessments of the students’ independent work by reading and grading individual online contributions and each student’s final written projects.
Although this paper is based on the results of surveys completed by parents/guardians, this research was part of a larger year-long ethnographic study examining the ways in which middle grades teachers can use digital technology and multi-media to teach writing. As part of the larger study, the two teachers and two researchers met monthly to talk about the teachers’ classroom writing practices. At one of these meetings, the teachers expressed a desire to find out parents’ perspectives on the use of online homework. We developed a 21-question survey, using a combination of forced-choice and open-ended questions. We intended to elicit honest opinions/responses from parents, whether positive or negative, about the homework practices of their child’s current teacher. To reassure parents that their responses to the survey questions would not affect their child’s relationship with the teacher or any assessment or grade assigned to their child’s work, we asked that the surveys be completed without mention of parents’ and students’ names. All grades five and six students were given the parent survey, consent forms, and blank envelopes in which to seal the completed survey. The 58 students were asked to give the surveys to their parents or guardians. If their parents completed the survey, students were asked to bring it back to school in the sealed envelope and drop it into a box in their classrooms. The teachers did not track who returned the surveys, nor did they contact any parents to suggest the survey should be completed because of the potential conflict of interest. Only the researchers saw the actual surveys. Nineteen (33%) surveys were completed and returned.
The researchers tallied the answers to the forced-choice questions and grouped themes in the written responses to identify any patterns across the completed surveys. We used the patterns and percentages to report on: (1) daily online activity of parents and their children, (2) influence of online homework on children’s motivation and learning, (3) parents’ homework preferences, and (4) parents’ suggestions for improving online homework. A summary report was given to all parents who provided a contact address and to the two classroom teachers.
Daily online activity of parents and their children
Overall, 79% of parents rated themselves as comfortable or very comfortable using computer and online technology. All parents and students were using the computer or online tools for some purpose on a daily basis. Parents tended to use the computer for Internet searches and participating in online forums more frequently than their children, whereas children used the computer for games, socializing, and chat lines more frequently than their parents. Compared to their parents, the children used the computer more frequently for daily work and blogging, but this was likely because these activities were part of the children’s homework assignments (see Figure 2). One parent listed research as part of his or her daily computer use, and other parents additionally noted that their children used the computer for composing, drawing, communicating via Skype and MSN, and for posting videos to YouTube.
All but one of the children of participating parents could access a computer at home. Sixty-eight percent of the children were allowed to use the computer if they were supervised. Almost all the students used the computer every day for at least 30 minutes or more, with 44% of the students on the computer between one and two hours per day.
Eighty-nine percent of students spent less than an hour per day completing homework. According to parents, students who spent more time may have done so because they wanted to do more than their share or because they were distracted by other online activities and were online for extended periods of time, though not completing homework. Parents also explained that some students enjoyed the social and communicative aspect of the online homework format and simply spent more time on homework. The majority of students were reported to be spending three to four days per week on their online homework (see Figure 3)
Thirty-nine percent of participating parents checked the homework blog frequently, either a few times per week or every day. Half the parents checked the homework blog a few times per month. Because the online blog format keeps a record of all homework and postings, parents (and students and teachers) were able to track more than one day’s work at once. It is possible that parents who logged onto the homework blog a few times per month were checking not one day’s homework but the entire month’s work (see Figure 4).
With the introduction of the blog and wiki, the majority of parents either did not provide their children with extra homework help (33%), or the kind of help they gave did not change with the move to an online format (33%). Many parents continued to help their children understand the homework assignments, the content of the assignments, or how to explore the research topics. A small number of parents (13%) needed to help their children with the technology—how to search the Internet to find information. A few parents noted that the only help they provided was paying for the Internet service, increasing the amount of time a child was allowed to use the computer, or freeing up a computer for the child to use.
Influence of online homework on children’s motivation and learning
Participating parents identified three areas in which they felt the online homework had either benefitted their children or, in a few cases, had made their children’s learning more challenging: improved academic learning, enhanced motivation, and enhanced collaborative skills.
Improved academic learning. Eighty-three percent of participating parents felt the online medium had helped improve their children’s learning. One parent noted that his or her child “has improved by studying harder,” and another wrote, “My [child] has spent more time reading and writing, and it shows how comfortable the PC has become. All in all, I am quite happy with this technology.” Other parents thought learning improved in many different academic subjects, specifying reading, writing, and social studies. A few parents observed improvements in their children’s research skills, as exemplified in this comment: “Improved research skills resulted from the wiki and its inherent search and links functions compared to the ‘old’ library research process.” Thirty-two percent of parents felt the online homework approach enabled their children to become more technologically competent. As one parent phrased it: “This method of learning will benefit the students from here to university. They will obtain knowledge that [will] last a lifetime.”
Increased motivation. Many parents (58%) noticed changes in their children’s attitudes toward homework, and 63% noticed that their children were more willing to complete homework since the introduction of the blog format. One parent noted that her child “views the computer as non-threatening, compared to text,” and another found that “research topics [have] become more interesting” to his child. Another parent remarked, “My child seems to voluntarily do assigned homework without being asked.” These observations were echoed in many other parent responses.
As motivated as most students were to participate in the homework online, one parent observed that this motivation was more about getting online than engaging in homework. This parent observed that his child “tend[ed] to use the medium for gaming and socializing.” Other parents were concerned about their children being distracted from their homework when they were working online, and 31% of the parents found it difficult to determine whether their children were working on homework or playing and socializing when they were online. A serious concern was raised by a parent whose child began posting videos without parental permission.
Improved collaborative skills. Many parents indicated that the wiki improved their children’s group work and communication skills. Many of their children enjoyed posting comments, communicating with group members, and receiving feedback from their peers. As one parent noted: “The students no longer feel isolated.” Some parents agreed that a benefit of online homework is that it “facilitates and enables group work,” and students could work on group projects in class and continue when they came home. One parent appreciated that students were not expected to prepare large presentations or projects at home; rather, the research and information gathering for the large projects took place partially at home and online, and then the project presentations were worked on collaboratively in class.
One parent was concerned, however, that “while collaboration is enhanced [by the online homework] … typing and computer skills are not sufficiently developed.”
Parents’ homework preferences
Although this was the first year the students had used a blog at school or at home, 58% of the parents surveyed now preferred this method for tracking homework. One parent very enthusiastically endorsed using the blog and wiki “by a substantial margin.” She wrote, “Homework this year has been much less stressful than last year.” Twenty-six percent of parents still identified agendas as a preferred tracking method, although 11% did not prefer one method to the other. Two parents specified that they preferred to speak directly to their children about their homework.
Many parents (47%) found the online environment enhanced the homework process, explaining that it was easier for parents to check their children’s work, that homework (i.e., writing) was less frustrating for their children, and that the feedback on their children’s homework was more helpful and more frequent. One parent wrote: “All information [is] in one place—never forget, lose, or misunderstand assignments—can always read instructions online.” This last benefit ties in with another parent’s comment that the blog saves on the amount of paper traditionally used for homework.
The transition from “traditional” homework and agenda tracking to an online approach was smooth. Most parents (84%) did not find that their children were confused by the move to the online homework format. Two parents commented on some technical difficulties at first; but, overall, parents and children did not find the blog confusing. Only one parent identified the blog as being difficult to understand. A number of parents did suggest that more instruction about the use of the blog would have been beneficial.
One parent observed that the new online format had changed the family dynamics in relation to homework. Previously, the family tended to discuss school and homework at the dinner table. This family pattern changed to involve discussions at the computer desk. A few parents (23%) were concerned about the new homework dynamics, which included figuring out how to manage the use of the technology and the need for the child to relocate to where the computer was located when doing homework.
Parents felt that homework should not be done exclusively online. One parent explained: “Traditional methods seem best, with the computer used as a support or research tool—not as a primary or replacement method.” In agreement, another parent suggested, “The ability to learn and complete assignments need to extend to both the online and paper worlds.” Four other parents supported the idea of combining traditional homework methods with new technology.
Parents’ suggestions for improving online homework
Many parents encouraged the teachers to “keep up the good work” and offered suggestions to help a good practice become even better. Parent recommendations addressed two key areas: (1) training that would help parents adapt to this new online approach and (2) the equity and manageability of the homework expectations.
Recommendations included providing parents with information before the blog or wiki work is introduced and periodic reviews or updates about the blog and wiki use. Because they could not see the physical homework or the completed product, a few parents (23%) were concerned that they were unable to monitor their child’s homework properly or to see the teacher’s input about the homework. They were not sure about how to navigate the wiki and blog to find the information they needed about their children’s participation and the teacher’s feedback. These parents requested opportunities to meet with teachers to discuss ways in which they could monitor and even participate in their children’s online activities. They were particularly interested in teachers’ advice addressing their concerns about children posting information and setting up accounts or following non-homework related (i.e., distracting) links while working on homework.
Thirty-one percent of parents were concerned about ways to keep their children safe when online and wanted ways to ensure the posted information was kept confidential and private. As one parent noted, “Children don’t understand privacy issues and can be exposed to additional dangers they are not ready for.” Parents needed reassurance about the safety features the teachers had implemented to ensure student postings and identities remained confidential.
Parents appreciated the ongoing communication between school and home that was made possible by the blog. According to one parent, “Not only does it show me what assignments are due, but I can see what they [students] are talking about.” Some parents, however, wished to know more about the lessons that preceded the homework assignments. One parent recommended that in-class lessons be uploaded and attached to the homework blog so that parents could better understand the particular expectations for each assignment. One parent noted that the online environment already “provides a continuous connection between school [work] and homework,” so attached lessons would serve to strengthen this connection.
A few parents recommended that the amount of homework be kept manageable, in terms of both time and quantity. Some parents explained that homework could become unmanageable when some students posted less often than other group members or when some students posted too often. One parent even suggested cutting the online activity in half. A further suggestion was for the teachers to clearly distinguish (or make clear how they distinguish) between group work and individual contributions. Parents wanted to ensure that a few students were not bearing most of the work and that students were graded on their participation and individual contributions.
Discussion and implications
Parents indicated enthusiastic support for the online homework, providing numerous examples of how their children’s academic learning, collaboration and communication skills, and motivation had been enhanced. Although the generalizability of results from this small sample is limited, the results are consistent with previous research showing the value of homework (Gill & Schlossman, 2003; Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2001). The wiki enabled parents to model behaviors and attitudes associated with higher achievement as they worked with their children by seeking out information together online. Parents also read through assignments with their children and discussed what was useful for the homework assignment. The homework blog provided parents with information about what was being taught and gave them an opportunity to participate in their children’s education in meaningful ways, enhancing accountability to parents (Gill & Schlossman, 2003).
The new online homework format reinforced the positive aspects of parental involvement in children’s homework, as found in previous research (Baker, 2003; Margolis, 2005); although, Internet security was an added concern in our study. Because online homework was new to both parents and students, parents suggested that the teachers provide more information. Parents wanted to know more about expectations for group and independent work on the wiki and blog, about Internet security for the children, and about how parents could access and monitor the homework contributions and teacher feedback.
When introducing online tools and technology into classroom practices, teachers need to inform parents about what they are doing in the classroom while considering the range of experience and skills parents have with online tools. For many parents, the online format is an unfamiliar education environment. We want to let them know that these tools can be very useful to children and their studies and can help prepare them for their future (recognizing, of course, we cannot be certain about what the future will involve). What is emerging as a whole new teaching and learning tool is very much part of the students’ lives already; we are bringing many online tools from their social and home lives into the classroom (Media Awareness Network, 2005). However, we suggest that teachers ask the children to use the technology for homework after they have learned and experienced how to use new online tools for curricular expectations. In school, the children can be taught to use the technology more safely, critically, and purposefully so that these skills may transfer when they are online outside of school.
Teachers may want to bring parents on board early in the school year. A couple of weeks into the school year, many schools offer a curriculum night for teachers and parents to talk about classroom programming, subject areas, units of study, and expectations. In response to the parent survey, the teachers included the technology and Web 2.0 aspects as part of their curriculum night. They offered a fifth and sixth grade parent meeting at the start of curriculum night to demonstrate the blog and wiki and facilitate discussion. Later in the year, the teachers plan to meet with parents again to provide an opportunity to share their suggestions for managing this new homework format and use of the family computer(s). Teachers have to find a way to inform parents about classroom online and technology practices, keeping in mind that parents vary in their knowledge of and experience with technology.
The survey responses indicated that some parents thought the students had more homework with the wiki and blog. However, the teachers did not assign any more homework after they introduced the wiki and blog; so we think that some children may have become immersed in the online tasks. The teachers found that some students wanted to go online every night, and this may have led a few parents to think it was at the teachers’ insistence. However, on the blog, the teachers posted expectations about assignments and their expected amount of online participation so that parents would have easy access to this information. It is possible that some of the parents who did not return the survey were uncomfortable or inexperienced with online technology and, thus, did not share in the positive experience of the wiki and blog use.
Some of the parents surveyed commented on paying for the use of the Internet for homework. However, paying for the Internet connection was not a cost specifically associated with homework because the parents were using online tools on a daily basis. However, a concern arose when parents did not have the means to access the Internet from home. Teachers do not want to add to the pressures already facing a student’s family. To access online homework, some students will need to either complete homework at school, after school, or travel to a public library or youth center. To address this concern, the teachers in this study allowed students to work on their homework after school in the classroom several days each week. This was, of course, only one possible solution, and it was contingent on a teacher remaining in the classroom after school hours. This option is not always possible with teachers frequently attending meetings, conducting enrichment or extracurricular activities, or planning and grading in other locations.
The use of a wiki and blog for homework not only facilitated student collaboration but also served to make apparent the collaborative nature of some of the classroom assignments. This finding is consistent with research showing that students’ writing is more collaborative and social and that students are more highly motivated to write when using Web 2.0 technology to write, as compared to using a paper and pencil (Goldberg, Russell, & Cook, 2003; Hsu & Wang, 2011). What is less apparent is the extent of individual contributions. Although wikis and blogs allow for individual tracking, which the teachers in this study used for their own assessments, parents may not know how to navigate the site to see the frequency and quality of the contributions their child is making.
We suggest that teachers make clear the distinctions among the learning process, formative assessment, and final evaluations (Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall, & Wiliam, 2003). For example, during the science unit on the Conservation of Energy and Resources, the teacher assigned each student to an energy form and resource research group, such as wind energy. Within this group, they read print and online texts, gathered information both individually and collaboratively, and posted it to the group wiki (learning process). The teachers met with each group to monitor their progress and discuss the quality of their contributions (formative assessment). Students collaboratively composed paragraphs about their energy form and were then assigned to a new group comprised of one student from each of the other energy groups (e.g., one student each from solar, wind, water, coal, and natural gas). In this new group, a student shared his or her own understandings from the collaborative work with other members of the group who, in turn, shared their expertise. In this way, the students practiced what they knew and learned from each other (formative assessment and learning process). Their new understandings were then applied to an individual technological problem-solving task, which involved both writing and construction (evaluation). The teachers in this study were clear about the relationships among collaborative participation, student learning, and assessments, but they realized that, with the online homework, parents may be seeing only the collaborative nature of the students’ work.
Overall, the survey results indicated positive feelings from parents about the wiki and blog homework that was incorporated into the classroom teaching practices. We believe Web 2.0 technologies can be integrated successfully and beneficially into classrooms. These tools provide the means for students to work collaboratively both in the classroom and from home, and they allow for students’ learning at school to extend into the home in meaningful ways.
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Previously published in Middle School Journal, May 2013