November 22, 2009

Technology can help parents connect better with school

Parent-Teacher Letter
Becta, the UK education technology agency, has been looking into how schools communicate with parents and vice versa. Their initial research has discovered some home truths that, unfortunately, are all too recognisable:

  • ‘Invisible’ parents: Of the parents who admitted they rarely made contact with their child’s teacher, nearly a quarter (22%) said they did not see the benefit for their child. The majority (67%) of school staff said that these parents simply do not realise how important their support is in their child’s development. And 60% said that these parents often feel their job stops at the school gates.
  • Confidence issues: 42% of teachers said the reason so-called ‘invisible’ parents have so little contact with the school is that they lack the confidence to discuss their child with teachers - 43% of school staff admit parents might find them ’difficult to approach sometimes.’ One in five (19%) parents are worried about bothering teachers and more than a fifth (22%) say they don’t want to add to the teacher’s workload, resulting in many taking a back seat in their child’s education.

  • Lack of information: More than one in ten (11%) of the parents who do initiate communication said they felt dismissed by teachers as an ‘overly demanding’ parent and a further 11% commented they often feel they are imposing on the teacher’s time. More than a third (36%) of school staff encounter parents who want ‘constant reassurance’ and others (19%) who try to ‘influence everything that goes on in the classroom.’

  • Lack of effective communication channels: 89% of parents say technology could help them become better informed about their child’s education so that they can then have more focused face-to-face discussions with teachers. However, despite all schools having electronic communication tools, 46% of parents say their schools don’t communicate with them in this way.
Read the full research report on the Becta site.

So in the red corner we have some parents who can't get enough information and conversation about their children's learning, with teachers who resent having parents crossing some imaginary line of learning and teaching competence. In the blue corner we have other parents who the schools want to see more of and teachers who think that, actually, coming in to see a teacher must be too threatening for at least a quarter of parents.

If only more schools took a leaf out of the book that we know works. When Dave Gilmour and I set up eduBuzz.org over three years ago we had one simple aim: get people sharing what goes on inside classrooms and the learning will improve. We set up a simple-to-use blogging platform on the nascent WPMU and worked with clusters of enthusiastic teachers to get them sharing regularly - twice a week at least - on what was going on in their classrooms. We got them to get their students to take over that role. Parents loved it, with web traffic peaking just before parents left their offices to come home and then late at night when the kids were in bed (the red wine surfers, as I imagined them). I described how we did it in more detail back in 2007.

We ended up with 3m page views a month as the nodes of conversation between parents, teachers, students and managers lit up. Above all, I heard first hand how parents enjoyed being able to see in a light touch manner what their children were up to and, indeed, when they did meet the teacher face-to-face the interactions were deeper and more friendly.

In 2006, what we had achieved is effectively what users of Twitter enjoy so much - ambient intimacy. Stephen Heppell has often referred to the "nearly now" of our technologies, and I think it's the same thing.

By allowing parents to take out of their school what they want, on their own terms, at their own pace, we are almost certain to encourage more interaction from our least engaged parents. Those whom the research calls "overly demanding" will find a new quality to their face-to-face interactions; gone are the questions about what their son is having for lunch, what the next classroom project will be, and what the plans are for Red Nose Day. Instead, those "overly demanding" parents will start to engage in the whys and hows of learning, being demanding in a much more positive sense.

Is this utopic? I'd say not, because we did it. But we did it with some degree of top-down support that is not always visible in other organisations, and I'm not convinced bottom-up initiatives alone can achieve the impact required quickly enough to gain acceptance in the long-term.

Pic: Creative Commons from Sean Dreilinger

Comments

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Schools are mostly not geared up to speak with parents. Parents evenings are a good example of this with very short one size fits all meetings. There is a lack of imagination in how parents and educational professionals communicate.
The reality is I'm afraid that many HTs are still too often suspicious of technology, change or parental input. Teachers would like to say more and do more but their time is managed for them; but technology can help here. LAs really do need to do more to involve parents and make more of parental expertise. Educational managers unfortunately appear disconnected and in a number of ways but increasingly they really must connect with parents and find new ways to tap into a wealth of local knowledge.

Thanks Ewan. AS time goes on Edubuzz.org is proving a catalyst for a changing relationship between staff and parents. As the school sites become established, parents are increasingly becoming authors, not just commenting on school posts. In those few schools where parents originally preferred to create their own Edubuzz blogs, we're seeing requests to merge them. And there's something about working together on a shared site which changes the relationship between staff and parents in new ways.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is a teacher, speaker and investor, regarded as one of Europe’s foremost experts in digital media for public services.

His company, NoTosh Limited, invests in tech startups and film on behalf of public and private investors, works with those companies to build their creative businesses, and takes the lessons learnt from the way these people work back into schools and universities across the world.

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