Navigating Online Resources During COVID-19

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 27 │Navigating Online Resources During COVID-19

Wednesday, September 23, 2020



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Merve Lapus

Are you overwhelmed by all of the online resources available to your child but not sure where to start? During this unusual school year, we need to help our children find online resources that meet their needs. We turned to Merve Lapus of Common Sense Media who shared how families can set students up for success this school year. Listen to discover helpful learning resources and tips for establishing healthy online habits.


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LaWanda: Welcome to today's episode of Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm LaWanda Toney. 

Helen: And I'm Helen Westmoreland, and we are your co-hosts. During the pandemic, as many kids are stuck at home learning and socializing remotely, those who have access to computers or other devices are using them a lot, but what exactly are they doing on those devices and how can you as a parent help them choose educational materials that are right for your kids.

LaWanda: Since COVID-19 has started school districts and nonprofits, including PTA have released list of resources, but many parents look at them and don't know where to start. Today, we're going to talk about navigating the endless educational resources available online and how we can teach our kids good habits when it comes to using the internet. This topic hits close to home as my son's school’s district is a virtual until February. So, I'm certainly on the lookout for high quality resources that my son will enjoy. I'm looking forward to hearing what today's expert has to say about all of this.

Helen: That's right, LaWanda. That's why we are so excited to welcome to the show Merve Lapus, Vice President of Outreach and National Partnerships at Common Sense Education. Merve has more than 17 years of experience driving educational technology across learning systems, including in schools, higher education and afterschool programs. He is committed to fostering a whole community approach to digital well-being and establishing supportive learning spaces for all children and families. Merve sits on a number of steering committees addressing school climate, and state policy. He is also a husband and a father to two daughters, seven and nine years old. Welcome Merve, thank you again for joining us today. 

Merve Lapus: Hi, pleasure to be here. 

Helen: Okay, so we're gonna start with you telling us about some of those many, many years of experience. Most importantly, we want to know, like, why did you get interested in educational technology and digital citizenship? 

Merve Lapus: Sure. So, as far as I can know, I mean, I came in as an immigrant to this country, with nothing really. And my parents, and I really had to hustle through just to kind of get through life. And, there's a story that I'd like to share. You know, when I first came to the country and immigrated through one of the first things I was doing was helping my parents, right after school, finished my homework and then we'd go straight to these office buildings where we were actually like cleaning the office buildings.

And some of them were these like early on office buildings where like, tech was like the new thing I saw computers for the first time. I was like, wow, a projector. That's amazing. And so, cleaning these boardrooms, seeing all this tech, I'm like, man, this would be so fun to learn how to use these things.

And fast forward 25 to 30 years later, there was a moment and I can't think of the exact date, but I remember showing up at a building entering a boardroom recognizing, man, I used to clean this boardroom when I was a kid and now I'm keynoting to their board members. And so, I always had this fascination for tech and loved playing with tech  and then you bring that, in addition to then my, love for education and the work that I've been doing, working either at a school or with different programs in schools. 

LaWanda: Wow, that is so great. So, you know, the internet is at our fingertips, everything is there to help educate our child. But how do we start? Like, or where do we start, is the better question? 

Merve Lapus: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the first things is to really understand as a parent why do you use it? I think, it's so interesting because oftentimes it's very easy for parents to look at what their kids are doing and say, Oh man, they're spending way too much time there. Or we want to give them a certain amount of time on certain devices and then that's it. And, there's a lot of, research that's been put out there and even guidance from the, from the AAP, just recommending that kids under certain ages shouldn't have any exposure, you know, and then you look at it as a parent and your like, I need to make dinner.

I need to, now in this time of COVID, I need to work. I need to make sure that you're learning and I need to make dinner. So, those screen time rules have really gone out the door. And so, I think it's recognizing that one, what are you doing and how are you doing it and why do you do it? So that's understanding how you, how you view technology personally. And then the second is, just recognizing that not all screen time is created equal and that there's passive viewing versus active learning viewing. How do you then play a role in helping your kids, to be participatory in the way that they view you or use tech, or how do you even build it agency in your kids to understand where they self-regulate, how they watch, how they play, what they play and what they get out of it?

So there are opportunities there, but we have to be mindful as parents around how we can leverage those opportunities and build that agency in our young kids. But especially in our older ones to understand the purpose, intent and why, and that's complex on its own, because I'll tell you, it's not just to play a game. It's not just to search for something. Even before the pandemic, we were already limiting the amounts of interaction in person that we were allowing our kids to do. I know when I grew up, I was out on the street until the lights turned on and I was like, Ooh, I gotta go, peace. I gotta be home, cause the lights turned on. 

That is my curfew, right? I was venturing, I was venturing off for blocks, if not miles and then coming home. But now there's many like no fraternization rules in communities. If a kid was out of the playground across the street, now, a parent can get called by child protective services for that. And so, there's a lot of, you know, fear and so we're insulating our kids from being with our friends, where developmentally, they're supposed to be with their friends. So, where are they going to go? They're going to go where their friends are at. It's going to be online. So we have to think about as parents, how do we straddle those two realities? 

Helen: I want to pick up on something you said Merve around, like there's a difference between active viewing and active learning. And I think one of the challenges we've heard from so many families is that, they're looking for learning resources online, but they don't know like what's the criteria? What makes a good online learning resource versus a bad online learning resource, right? 

Merve Lapus: That was even before COVID, but now with COVID it's even more, right? Like, our kids are at home we're having to navigate learning opportunities for them and not just be stuck watching, you know, Netflix or TV all day. I think the things to really think about, there's two parts to this one is finding high quality content that you can feel confident your kids are learning something from, but even that, too much of that can be bad. 

[00:09:55] So meaning that, Oh, now sesame street has great learning value. So, now I'm just gonna let them watch that for five hours straight. That's not good. Right? And then there's other content where it's like, oh, they're just watching this for fun. We'll regulate that in terms of time and then we'll, we'll move them onto something else. So, the things that you want to think about is what is first, you know, how do you find good content? That's one of the things that Common Sense as an organization started with actually is, was rating, content, especially media content, you know, for quality, for each child, what's developmentally appropriate for them.

And then also, what actually has some learning opportunities there. You know, we do that for parents to consider, we also do that for the classroom to consider when you think about like pedagogical needs. But for parents something could look really pretty. It'd be really flashy and very well designed and well made, but not really have any real learning part of it. 

So, one of the things that we've done as we look at the rubric for how we vet and make recommendations for families for learning is really looking at the different kinds of learning needs that we're thinking about from understanding types of characters that are going to be positioned, not just in a book, but in a movie, a game or TV show to then kind of the types of content that they'll be exposed to. Is it going to be violent? Is it prone to bad language? But, is that bad language, you know, a small piece of a bigger like learning aspect? Then that's something you might want to consider, that they'll learn a lot more from being exposed to this. Than the few pieces of that language that you can try and mitigate and then discussion around when it's appropriate or not appropriate to use that word, because what you've learned about the entire story is a far bigger takeaway. 

But, when you do find that content, just putting your child onto it is not going to be good enough. How do you take what they've watched or engaged with and bringing it into a real world application? So if you're watching Sesame Street or a Paw Patrol, and you know that there's a particular subject matter that was covered, how do you bring that back into a real world scenario?

Do you know anyone that reminds you of that character and what they brought to the story? You had to do this in that game or in the tv show, can you do that with me? Let's do that as an activity together. Let's take your Legos or whatever building materials we have and let's design our own right now here together. So, taking that experience that was digital and making it a physical, will help connect the in person versus online experience, and that'll help now, but also help long term, as kids need to build that remote function, that own agency of decision and also connecting experiences online versus offline.

Helen: Yeah, thank you that's really helpful. I feel like you gave a million tips in that answer. So one I heard which I know a lot of families use, including I've used with my two year old is, checking out commonsense. org, where you can actually see the ratings of some different types of media or apps or programs.

I think I also heard you say too, Merve, that, like, just because something says it's learning and free on the internet, doesn't, doesn't actually mean that it's very high quality or deep. So, parents can go check out some of the quality on Common Sense, but also be interacting with their children more, around the content at the end of the day. Do you have any resources that you'd suggest for parents who do want to do some of that questioning or deeper, exploration with their kids? 

Merve Lapus: Yeah. So, because of this current situation, and just the reality that more and more parents are recognizing, oh, how can I be more active in helping to really, engage this kind of learning for my child? We created Wide Open School, which is a new portal by Common Sense, but it's a single place. So, you can just go to And, in that one place, you'll be able to find trusted, vetted content that we've already looked through in terms of partnerships from like PBS, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Time for Kids. And, we've got over 75 partners that are providing content and or distribution into these different communities that they support, because not everyone can go to our website. So, sometimes it's about getting our website and our content into the communities, because access can be an issue. 

And, we can talk about that a little later, too. It's just accessibility to the technology that you might need to access materials. But Wide Open School essentially, is a single place that a parent, and even educators can go, to help support parents with ongoing learning needs. And so, there is some academic core support materials that are available there. But, as we think about the needs of children, it's not just about math and reading, which are, again, core and important, which there are resources, there for, but it's understanding the social, emotional health and wellbeing of your child. Maybe you have an ELL child, or you have a child with special needs, or you yourself are just trying to figure out how do I set up a learning space that's conducive, to my child at home? What are some quick tips and guides that can help me do it? 

Everything is on wide open school. there's even a daily schedule And, on that daily schedule, it'll have core materials of reading, math and then social, emotional wellbeing, and then, other assets around what are activities you can do that are offline. And then, what are some things around social studies, sciences and the arts, more creativity that you can do for this day, and then tomorrow there's a whole new schedule. 

LaWanda: That's so great. I've actually been using Wide Open School with my seven year old, this summer, because I needed some structure. I need a daily reminder. I need some prompts to think about how we can work on certain things and what things can he do on his own and it's been super helpful. We also link to Wide Open School on our COVID resource page, for PTA. So, I think it's been a great asset for families and I'm so happy that it's continuing for the fall.

Merve Lapus: Awesome. Yeah, that's great to hear. Yeah, I use it myself every morning. 

LaWanda: Great. Great. I do have a question though, as far as parent involvement. You know, as the kids are going back to school and they're doing distance learning and remote learning, typically when they're in a traditional classroom, we aren't there. They're with their other classmates and they're with their teacher, but now we kind of get to peek in, should we be peeking in and how active should we be involved now that we kind of have this window into their school day. I want to make sure that I give Caleb enough room to be a student, but at the same time, do I need to be more active since he's here?

Merve Lapus: Yeah. Yeah. So that's a great question. It's so funny because it's almost a double edged sword, right? Where, you're like, oh, I want to be more active and then you feel like, well, I feel like I'm doing way too much, that should be the teacher's job. I was like, well, you inserted yourself. But there is, there is a partnership that needs to happen in order for our kids to get through this situation, effectively. For most kids this is going to be very new for them. And so, I think establishing a workspace is a very important thing. Whether it's a corner in a room or a section of the table that, you know, that that is your place to do work. And, that is a place, just like you would need for, to get yourself out of bed, and in some cases, at least wear, you know, a nice top with pajama bottoms for meetings. You know, what are you doing for school? Like what, what is, what is some normalcy that you can just establish? So, you know, you're getting yourself kind of prepared to go to school and then where do I go to do my work? 

I think then, having a conversation or at least, really understanding what the teachers might be sending you in terms of their instructional plan for distance learning. So, are they going to be teaching X amount of hours live? What does it look like if we're in a blended situation? What role do I play then, if my kid's learning from home two days out of the week and then going to school two days out of the week? Really understanding that plan is going to be important. 

And, even how you're asking them to do work, it's going to be far more project based. It's going to be a lot more maybe research or reflection heavy, than just kind of the sit and get in the classroom. So, parents need to know when those types of things are happening because you want to be able to help provide an opportunity for your child, to follow the class in the way that it's been designed to follow. Right? If it's about them doing silent work on their own, but you're interjecting, so what are you guys doing now? What are you doing now? You've now become the reason why your kid can’t focus. 

So, really trying to understand that that challenge that'll exist with your child is going to be really important.

Helen: That's really good advice. Thank you, Merve. It also makes me think that, part of what you bring up is really around, like what is normal, in this new world? Right? And, we do know that there are some kids already going back to school, right? And that there are some schools that are open and, full in class learning. Could you tell us a little bit about, taking a step back of broader online learning and online habits? What have you guys found at Common Sense Media that is a good bar for parents as they're navigating the internet and online resources with their kids? 

Merve Lapus: Sure. So before all of this happened, we already knew that kids from 13 to 18 were spending up to nine hours a day on media and technology and kids from eight to 12, we're spending up to six hours a day. That was before COVID. Right. But that also factors in what they call multitasking, you've all, we've all heard the term - I’m just multitasking. Right? They've got their headphones in. They're watching TV in the background while they're doing their homework. That's just really quick switching between things. If anything, you know, there's no such thing as multitasking. It means that you're actually switching between tasks really fast and that makes it harder for you to focus, to be honest.

That, and spending anywhere from six to nine hours a day using media and tech. Now, we know that they're spending much more, so our screen time hours have gone out the door. So, really then thinking about what kind of time are they spending now with the classroom periods or with the education pieces of it we're thinking of it as parents, for two reasons. One, we don't want our kids to slip back, fall back, and we want them to be able to continue to learn and be competitive and really be able to give them a future. We are also thinking about, well I'm working from home and I need my space for my meetings.

I'm right now locked up in my daughter's room because she, they're learning, they're finishing their Wide Open School things right now in our room, and my wife's downstairs on zoom calls. So, I'm up here next to all their plushies and bunk beds...

Merve Lapus: So I'm thinking about, you know, how do I keep them busy?

Busy learning, hopefully so I can do the things I need to do. So this brings us back to you really need to also check yourself, how are you role modeling the importance of you being connected with what you're doing? Right now it's all work, but I know after this, I might be on my own social feed. How much time am I spending on my social feed and just allowing my kids to do what they need, because now I'm decompressing. So go ahead and continue watching something. 

I think one of the hardest part for, for families and for parents, especially, it's easy to say, okay, turn that off. It's hard to say, okay, turn that off, let's go and do this now, together. How do you transition from the disconnection into another type of activity? Because, if you just disconnect and then provide nothing, you're going to get the bigger tantrum. You're going to get the bigger pushback, because you're essentially asking them to, to log off from something that's been so engaging, to do nothing and sit quietly, right? 

LaWanda: Yeah. I think a lot of parents can understand exactly what you're saying and guilty as charged, on a lot of the things that you mentioned for sure.

One question that I do have about that though is, as we're listening and we are seeing like, patterns and things that we want to change, is it too late? Can there be a family reset? And if so, how do we start? 

Merve Lapus: Yeah, it is never too late to do a family reset. I mean, I think what's, what's most important is that you don't, you don't have these conversations only when things are bad. Right, I think that's the tendency is to react when things have gone South or something was done wrong. And then that makes it, so whenever you have a conversation around appropriate use of the, of the tech or the social media they're on. Or, needing them to find balance in their lives by disconnecting, so they can be better connected to you. if it's always feeling punitive, then it'll always be a punitive discussion. But if it's something that's a part of the way you communicate all the time, because technology is a part of our lives all the time now, in some shape or form, then it allows for you to have more open opportunities of conversation and discussion  and even rule setting. 

So, that's one thing you can change right now immediately, is don't make it moments of conversations. You make them part of your daily conversation. When we hear Alexa start talking to us and we didn't even say her name. Talking a little bit about voice recognition and AI. What do you think about that? Is that a little creepy? It's like, oh, but she gets me the laundry detergent when I need it, you know? 

Helen: I joke I'm like my daughter is going to learn like how to talk to people just by ordering Alexa around. 

Merve Lapus: Well, I mean that is a big thing. It's like, if you can set precedents to say, please, if you want her to be consistent with the way she talks with people. You can't just order and say, Alexa, turn it to channel four. You're now essentially she's getting comfortable with making demands. But if you say, Alexa, can you please turn it to channel four? She'll do it either way, but you do it under your terms, right? So the technology, the AI allows you to do things, but as a parent, you can still build that morality, the integrity, the rules of how you communicate appropriately.

Then another thing that you can do is we also, we do these family media agreements that you can get on our website. We have them broken down by age level, and it's an opportunity to sit down and say, okay, we need to reset. We're going to set some norms. We're going to set some rules. I think what's the most though as, as a parent, these rules that you set, you make sure that you're setting them, with your kids and that you are also abiding by them yourself. 

Kids are so especially when they're older, but even younger, trust me, my little ones will call me out. They know when you're being a hypocrite. So you, if you're going to do something like that, you need to be prepared to stand by them.

Helen: Yeah. 

LaWanda: Yeah. Yeah. I totally agree. 

Merve Lapus: 

Another nugget, that I love to share with parents, because I mentioned earlier, technology is such a big part of our world.. So, it's hard to say we are going to be mindful of the time we spend on technology. It's much harder to say that because it's a part of everything we do in many ways. But, if you can identify the sacred times where technology doesn't play a role that is more doable.

How do you establish certain times that are disconnected times and find value in being present with each other? So, it's a lot easier to find times that we structure as disconnected time versus trying to say, okay, we're only going to try to find we're only going to be online or connected for like four hours today 

Helen: Yeah. You know, Merve, I really appreciate a lot of what you're sharing. One thing we haven't talked about, this sort of the elephant in the room, is not all families necessarily have the luxury, right, of all the devices and the internet. And, and all of the things to be able to sort of be worried more about quality, than necessarily access. I know a number of PTAs have been involved in trying to help close the digital divide, By, supplementing what's going on in school districts.

Could you tell our listeners, I think many of whom are, thinking about not just how they support their own child's education, but how they can support all children's education in their community? Could you tell us, what is the digital divide? 

Merve Lapus: Sure, yeah, thank you for bringing it up. I mean, it truly is a really important conversation to recognize, because it is affecting a lot of our kids and a lot of our families. Right now, we're we we've released a, a report that we put out a month or so ago called closing the K-12 digital divide, in the age of distance learning. And in that report, that research, we found that anywhere between 15 to 16 million, about 30% of students actually lacked adequate internet or device to sustain effective distance learning at home.

Helen: Thats a lot, 30%?

Merve Lapus: Oh yeah. And 9 million don't have anything. They don't have the adequate internet or the device. So, it's one of the reasons you've been seeing a huge push in schools to try and purchase devices and hotspots to get to families. Because, if they're going distance learning, they have to get resources into the hands of families that don't have that access. And, the reality is too, when you have family self-reporting that they have access. Oftentimes that access is a single mobile smartphone shared between three kids. Now, if you think about those three kids being different ages, and you think about the type of content that a third grader versus a sixth grader versus an 11th grader has to address, off of a single smartphone? And they have all got Zoom calls that they have to take? And that's the parent's personal smartphone? That's actually not equitable. So, there's a lot that needs to happen still, in terms of getting real access to our kids and families. And it's incredibly inspiring to see what some of these families are doing to mitigate those challenges.

Like, they don't have the privilege, or the opportunity to be able to have the same types of access that many of our families do. But they find ways around it and it does it, they make things work. They shouldn't have to work that hard, but they are, you know? So, I want people to be mindful that, you don't know the situation that a lot of these families are going through and they're working hard just to get a high quality education for their kids. And if anything, they're working harder 10 times hard to get 50% of the way. Right. And, if we can understand that a little bit more, maybe it'll allow us to see what we can be doing to better support those other families and those kids. 

Helen: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. 

LaWanda: This has been such a helpful conversation and we so appreciate the advice. 

LaWanda: One last question for you, because I know people will love to get more information. What are your social media handles and where can listeners go to learn more about you and your work? 

Merve Lapus: So on Twitter, it's just Mo, @MoLapus. So, M O L A P U S. That's more of the kind of professional side of the work and then the professional pseudo-I'm also a real person on my Instagram is also just @MoLapus 

LaWanda: Awesome. Thank you. 

Helen: Well, thank you again for joining us Merve.

Merve Lapus: Oh you’re very welcome, thank you for the conversation and the opportunity. 

Helen: Thank you. 

And, to our audience listening, thank you for joining us for more resources related to today's episode. Please check out and if you're looking for more COVID or pandemic related resources to help you with your child's virtual learning, be sure to check out our COVID webpage for parents, students and educators. Where, Wide Open School and some other great resources from Common Sense Education are available for you at, Thanks for listening.


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.