by Amanda Gray Copyright Amanda Gray 2010Ever found a mouldy newsletter containing "important messages" at the bottom of a school bag several months after it was "sent home"? Ever got a phone call asking about a permission slip that somehow got lost between school and home? Ever found that you are communicating with a school staff member via phone messages because you can't find a time that suits both of you to talk?
I dare say both teachers and families have experienced at least one of these communication hiccoughs at some point. It is just a fact of life. Children forget (or prefer their parents didn't know). Teachers are busy. Families are busy. And school/family schedules don't always match, especially for caregivers who work.
So here are my questions - How many schools are using the tools of modern technology to communicate with families? And does this make communication more efficient?
Ways of Using Technology
In trauling the internet, I haven't found any stats about how many schools are using technology to communicate with families. But I did come across Boult (2006) and Mitchelll, Foulger and Wetzel (2009) who discuss the following ways to use technology to communicate.
It is very rare to find a school who doesn't have a website. Even pre-school settings are beginning to set up sites.
On school websites, though the quality and complexity differ, you can usually find things such as policies, a bit of history, contact details and newsletters. This is true of both public and private schools.
While Child Care Centre websites also offer information about philosophies, history and contacts, in general these sites tend to be more geared towards providing information about their facilities to prospective customers rather than using the sites to keep current parents updated. This is likely because face-to-face contact is much more practical and frequent in pre-school settings than in schools, especially middle and high school settings.
Classroom blogs and websites:
These can be used to share photos, activities, homework, excursions, curriculum information and more. They can also be set up so parents and students can communicate via comments or discussionboards.
While I have experienced "virtual meetings" on discussionboards in tertiary education, I have never experienced this in secondary or primary schools. It would be interesting to know if this is something that is occurring, and what families/teachers think about virtual meetings...
Another thing that class websites can be used for are educational activities, like games. See this blog for example...
Email and texts:
Group emails and texts can be used to communicate with parents. Further, if schools have regularly monitored email addresses or mobile phone numbers, parents can use these to contact schools about a whole range of issues, from pastoral care concerns to enquiries about up-coming events. It can also be a way of getting emergency information to parents.
But it is important to recognise that while this can be good for positive news, policy and activity updates and emergency contact, texts and emails are not the best way to try and broach sensitive subjects (Learning and Taching Scotland, 2007). These are best raised in face to face meetings (see discussion on "remoteness" below).
Using Technology - the benefits and drawbacks
One of the positive features of electronic communication is that parents can access it in their own time, and from wherever they are (Lindner, 2004). If they travel for work, they can still stay updated with what is going on at school. If they are unable to visit or telephone teachers during school hours due to work commitments, they can still stay in contact without the risk of third party messages going astray.
As one parent said,
"I am very pleased, as a parent, that I now have access to the info certain teenagers in my house leave lying in the bottom of their bags." (Learning and Teaching Scotland, 2007)However, there may be a few issues with accessibility:
- Teachers being overwhelmed: It is possible that teachers may become overwhelmed with messages from families if there are no boundaries set for this form of contact.
- Messages going unchecked and unanswered: For some families and teachers, checking email messages may not be a regular part of their daily routine (Lindner, 2004). This may mean that messages are not answered in a timely manner. This is especially significant if text and/or email is being used for emergency notifications.
- Family skill and resources: While internet, email and mobile phone use is common, there are families who may not be proficient in using these technologies (Lindner, 2004). For some families, they may not have access to the internet at home or English may be their second language (Mitchell et al, 2009).
- Teacher skill and resources: Teachers also may need training and assistance in using communication technology. Further, maintaining websites and using email communication requires time and effort. This needs to be taken into consideration to ensure these technologies are used efficiently (Mitchell et al, 2009).
- Reliability of internet and mobile phone access: electronic communication services are not all equal. For example, while there has been some improvement, access to mobile and internet services in rural areas can be less reliable than access in urban areas. Further, without appropriate planning or services, mass email and text communications can overwhelm service providers and delay or prevent messages getting to families. However, there are some services that are being developed to help promote more effective and reliable electronic communication.
Privacy and protection of our children online is another great concern for the education community (Boult, 2006). It is perhaps true that individual teachers can be more comfortable with the use of blogs and websites than schools or education departments.
Read this post to get some feedback about what teachers are doing to help protect thier students when running a classroom blog. Having a policy and guidelines for use is very important.
This applies to the use of email and text messages as well. Click here for an example of a school policy on the use of electronic media. While not all schools will have policies this strict, it does provide some hints about how electronic communication can be mis-used.
Privacy issues become more important when we consider the permanency of electronic communication. However, permanency can be seen by parents as a positive feature of electronic communication (Lindner, 2004). Copies of emails, discussionboards and posts can be used as a record of communication to help track and guide future practice and problem-solving. It can also provide families the opportunity to think about an issue, clarify their thoughts and research their options rather than being put on the spot at a meeting.
However, permanency can also make educators and families more careful about what is said. Lindner (2004) found that parents felt any information provided to them in writing or online was likely to be less open and honest than informal communication. For example, she reports that one parent stated:
"You always find out the most interesting and informative stuff in informal conversation... because people are less guarded." p4
I discussed the issue of remoteness in my post about cyberbullying. Basically, it is about the fact that electronic communication eliminates all the tone of voice and body language which helps communication partners use theory of mind (empathy) to shape their interactions. Without any clues as to the emotion of our communication partner, words can seem harsh and invested in with a meaning not intended by the writer.
Also, the writer may cross the line between respectful complaint and harassment... such as a student's email to me on the subject of an assessment result. I am sure that if we had been facing each other in my office his "feedback" would have been more measured, especially if he was able to see from my body language that he had "crossed the line", so to speak.
Email or internet communication can never be a substitute for face to face contact when we are trying to get to know each other. However, it can be a great way to keep in contact and share information when the business of life gets in the way.
So it is important that schools and families communicate about communication (Lindner, 2004) .... what works for one family, may not work for another. Having parents complete survey about communication preferences and access to electronic facilities may be important (Ramirez, 2001). This way schools can record parent communication preferences in their contact databases.
Boult, B. (2006). 176 Ways to Involve Parents: Practical Strategies for Partnering with Families. Corwin Press: California.
Learning and Teaching Scotland (2007). Parents as Partners in Learning. Retrieved from http://www.ltscotland.org.uk/parentsaspartnersinlearning/toolkit/section4/goodcomms.asp
Lindner, K. (December, 2004). Parental Needs and Expectations of School-Home Communicaiton in a child's preparatory Year of School. Paper presented at the Australian Association of Research in Education, Melbourne 28 November to 2nd December, 2004. Retrieved from www.aare.edu.au/04pap/lin04457.pdf
Mitchell, S., Foulger, T.S., and Wetzel, K. (2009). Ten Tips for Involving Families through Internet-Based Communication. Young children, 64(5), p46
Ramirez, F. (2001). Technology and parental involvement. The Clearing House, 75(1), p 30
Does your school use technology? Do you think it works?