Thursday, July 23, 2009

Can Web 2.0 Break School-to-Home Barriers?

Many school and district administrators I speak with spend a significant amount of time figuring out how to connect with parents. The research clearly indicates that parental involvement is critical to student success. And so, educators create elaborate (and often time consuming) ways to increase parent interaction with the school.

Some of the most effective methods are creative in their approach(though decidedly low-tech): serving breakfast before school (parents invited, of course!), newsletters, evening and weekend school events, and parent workshops. Many schools encourage teachers to make a certain number of phone calls to parents each week. These methods, while effective, can be challenging given that they are time-consuming. Even the best school-to-home communication plans have to pick and choose methods because you can’t do it all.

Then consider this: how much true interaction do these forms of communication enable? Newsletters are a one-direction form of communication. Information posted to websites must be changed frequently; most school and district websites don't easily facilitate the exchange of thought but rather just the dissemination of information (this could be changed though!). Also websites require a parent to proactively visit and don't "push" the information out effectively. Email can be great -- no longer do we require the student to bring home a piece of paper -- but can be overdone. I admit that I stopped reading all the emails from my daughter's school when I began to receive 3 to 4 per day! These mediums are fairly static in nature. They don't build on some of the most powerful promises of technology which will enable better sharing and rich interactions.

And so we see an emergence of Web 2.0 technologies particularly in the area of communication. In a recent eSchool News article (click here) the most commonly used Web 2.0 technology is online communication tools for parents and students, as identified in a research study commissioned by Lightspeed Systems and Thinkronize Inc.

In thinking about this, I began to consider the different and interesting uses of technology that I've seen -- specific to the school-home communication area. Here are three of the most interesting and straightforward ideas that I have seen in this area listed from low-cost to high-cost:

1. Extending the website

Your school and your district already has a website. But are you utilizing it fully? This is a great and low-cost way to share information that you already have ready-to-serve!

Status quo: Many schools have static websites. Some post new content semi-frequently.

Best practice: Schools and districts have a constant flow of new information. This can be done easily with out-of-the-box software that will require no technical expertise to publish information. These information posts are supplemented with RSS Feeds that allow parents and students to subscribe to any and relevant feeds which are conveniently served up in their RSS Reader of choice.

Cost: Low. The content is usually already there and the tools to make this possible are readily available, free or low-cost, and easy to deploy.

2. Teacher Generated Content

With a bit more work and investment, schools and school districts can provide their teachers with the ability to easily publish to a class website, attach homework, provide a calendar of events, etc. When teachers have the ability to share this information, on their website, without relying on another person to update the webpage, we see an explosion in content.

Status quo: Teachers send home schedules, handouts, reminders. Sometimes these are sent via email as well. The information is not posted to a teacher-specific website.

Best practice: Teachers have publishing tools that enable them to post their information to a web page which is specific to their class. They can attached documents as well as post announcements and alter a calendar/schedule. RSS feeds and email subscriptions are available so parents can get updates automatically without visiting the web page directly.

Cost: Low to Medium - While you can opt to spend a lot on a sophisticated content management system, there are a number of low cost options that will require minimal set up to implement. Granted with a bit bigger budget you get better functionality but you can do a lot with very little in this category.

3. Parent Portals (w System Access)

Nirvana of home-school communication would include password protected parent access that allows for checking on personal information (grades, attendance) as well as class specific information (homework, test dates, field trip dates, etc.). Furthermore, a parents "calendar" would combine the schedules associated with the classes (and only the classes) specific to their students. And of course these would be enabled through "push" technologies such as RSS feeds and automatic email distribution of new content. There are some systems that allow for pieces of this -- particularly the password protected access to grade and attendance information. We have yet to see all the functionality we'd like.

Status Quo: Wait until progress report and report card times to communicate grades and attendance.

Best Practice: Proactive, automated, real-time access to information for parents at any hour. Provide parents with the ability to receive automated information in a number of ways. Facilitate discussion and networking via internet including teacher-parent and parent-parent.

Cost: High. Feel free to share the costs if you are a school or school district who as implemented a system. When I've asked the typical answer given indicates that it is a hefty sum!

Here are few companies that offer a publishing platform. This list should not be thought of as an endorsement on my part. I know district using each of them though so they are certainly in production. That said, if you have experience with any of these, please comment. Also if you know of other platforms that are effective (or ineffective) please share:

Principle Data Systems


Infinite Campus