March 10, 2021

If you’re a program developer, you’ve probably wondered how best to use technology for remote learning. And if you work with parents who have multiple jobs, low incomes, or low literacy levels you know they need efficient tools to participate. In this post, we talk about using culturally relevant technology tools—those that are already part of families’ lives—to meet them where they are.

Recently, we researched a Sesame Workshop program (English) that was to be distributed to preschool classrooms in Mexico City through the country’s largest social assistance program. But because schools were closing, the developers decided to push the program directly to teachers and families using WhatsApp. While we can’t overlook the role that Sesame’s high-quality content played in promoting involvement, our interviews with working mothers found that WhatsApp helped “bring the program to life.” Here’s why.

First, families were already comfortable with WhatsApp and used it to engage with program materials in a way that felt natural. Instead of having to learn a new tool, families incorporated the materials into their daily lives, blurring the distinction between learning time and life. In fact, some mothers noted that tools pushed by schools, such as Zoom and online learning platforms, gave them more technical problems than WhatsApp.

Second, families used WhatsApp to exchange and not just receive content. The flexibility of WhatsApp’s content tools meant that busy mothers and even preschool children used graphics, audio messages, texts, photos, and videos to communicate with peers and teachers. Struggling readers relied on video instructions; busy adults used voice notes; and children shared photos of hand-made assignments with teachers and peers.

Which brings us to our third point—in using WhatsApp, parents and children became active participants in fun and interactive learning, enriching and shaping their experiences and those of others.

Was the tool perfect? Maybe not. Asking families to share private information in a group setting can be unsettling, and receiving large media files is difficult for families with weak Internet connections or low data storage plans. But designing an intervention that works within the limits of tools and technologies that are already part of families’ lives goes a long way toward keeping parents and children focused on learning new skills rather than troubleshooting technology.

So can information and communication technologies like WhatsApp support program delivery? Our experience suggests they can. We encourage developers to leverage culturally relevant technology tools to facilitate family engagement in educational programs and reduce stress for families.

Alexia Raynal is a researcher at CCT. Her work focuses on technology-enabled programs designed to support informal learning, especially for Latinx families and multilingual learners.
Daniel Light is a research scientist at CCT. His work focuses on the social issues of school reform and technology integration across school systems, both in the United States and internationally.
Early Childhood Development and Learning

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