During the COVID-19 shutdown, parents, teachers and education staff across the state and country had to adapt quickly to online technology options. One concern was students and parents would feel disconnected from their communities as the shutdown lengthened and that educators would struggle to keep up with the technology requirements.
Throughout Minnesota, school districts offer parents and young children (birth to five years) two-hour weekly sessions in which they learn with other dyads, then separate into classes of parents or children. Continuous enrollment in the Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) program during early childhood years offers a context that promotes group identity and community. A group of UMN researchers was interested in exploring the role technology can play in enhancing and prolonging the experience parents have with their weekly face-to-face contacts.
Originally launched in 2017, the Parentopia Project involves the design of a web-based application that complements parent learning and engagement through Minnesota’s ECFE program. As a closed platform, Parentopia.org can promote both class specific and site-wide discussion, private messaging, and general program information. In more recent years, the platform has expanded to additional school districts and enabled research with parents and staff to design technology as a hybrid for face-to-face interactions. Research has also identified the specific learning benefits to parents meeting in consistent groups and forming networks rich in social capital. Parentopia is a way for parents to continue those connections.
As a result of the need to move learning online during COVID-19, the Parentopia team provided support to school districts on using the platform as a basis for completely online engagement. Their existing relationships also gave them access to parents and staff as they transitioned to online learning. A survey in spring 2020 resulted in a qualitative database used to identify the challenges, barriers, supports and emotional connections in family educators’ ability to adapt and use technology. Parent surveys also identified the value of using Parentopia and other technologies as schools scrambled to continue early childhood education.
In 2020, the Parentopia Project reached approximately 1,800 parents and staff members. In September 2020, research on Parentopia and on technology attitudes and experiences was incorporated into an educator workshop done in collaboration with the Minnesota Association for Family and Early Education. Key topics for the workshop included becoming adaptive experts, addressing equity and access, and maintaining relationships. More than 125 participants attended. A website of resources was created and serves to model ways to engage learners before, during and after internet-based training.
Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) is a parenting education program that provides programming and services for families of small children. Parent and family engagement is crucial to a young learner’s development and provides a foundation for future school success and lifelong learning. The internet holds genuine possibilities for helping parents find new communities and forge connections with those who can provide support. Research has validated that strengthening parents’ social capital is constructive to their parenting and to their learning. Through the Parentopia Platform and other technology tools, UMN researchers are positively impacting ECFE program engagement, feelings of community connectivity, social support and social capital, and parenting and child outcomes and facets of platform design that complement face-to-face learning. In addition, the team’s extensive research into technology incorporation has been incorporated into valuable professional development trainings for early childhood educators across the state.