Every school district is naturally comprised of many small, distinct communities, including teachers, students, parents, administrators, and the community at large. In an ideal world, these communities would interact seamlessly to the benefit of everyone. Teachers would communicate freely with parents, students, and each other to improve learning. Students would better collaborate with their peer groups and assume more responsibility for academic performance. Parents would have a simple way to track their child’s progress and play an active coaching role that fits their busy lifestyles. And schools would be able to share information and insight with the community about how well their school system is preparing the next generation of citizens.

Yet the reality is, schools have traditionally tried to bridge these communities through manual processes, which are time-consuming, difficult to implement, and less than optimal.

However, the growing acceptance of technology in our schools has created an unprecedented opportunity to link these separate groups into one large “learning community” for the benefit of all involved. As the technology director of an 1,820-student school system in Fairview Park, Ohio, I see on an everyday basis the power of technology to facilitate enhanced communication and collaboration among our communities and engage the various constituencies in a way never before possible.

Putting tools at teachers’ fingertips to make them even better educators

The teaching profession is burdened with a high level of administrative requirements that can take the focus away from teaching. Even though teachers might see each other in the adjacent classroom or in the teachers’ lounge, they too often are the proverbial “ships that pass in the night.” Technology tools such as the ones we use from Aspire Learning Corp., a company that develops web-based teaching and communications tools for K-12 schools, have enabled Fairview teachers to streamline administrative functions, closely collaborate with each other to keep our students on track, and improve the quality of our education processes.

For instance, the eighth-grade teachers at Fairview’s Lewis F. Mayer Middle School are an especially tightly-knit group. They tap into the online messaging tools we have available to communicate about homework assignments, work out scheduling issues, plan for needed resources, and generally communicate about what’s going on in the lives of their students. If a student is doing poorly or has a sudden change in behavior, our teachers might message each other to see if another teacher has insight into what might be going on in that student’s life to affect his or her performance at school. This sort of immediate and ongoing communication throughout the faculty was next to impossible before the advent of technology and lets us pay a higher degree of attention to our students.

A significant portion of teachers’ time is spent helping students keep track of their homework assignments, copying lost student work, and creating make-up work packets. Our teachers can now assign notes, documents, projects, homework, and other student evaluations online as far ahead as they like, with the students taking more responsibility for keeping track of their own individual work schedules.

Teachers also enjoy the convenience of building their lesson plans online and being able to save their plans, assignments, and tests electronically for future use, or for access by substitute teachers to keep the curriculum on track. With technology, teachers can give students and parents a weekly update on what’s in store for the coming week or month, ensuring everyone remains on the same page.

Engaging parents with unprecedented access

All school systems seek better ways to involve parents as partners and coaches in the education process. I’ve seen technology tools have the power to involve parents on that level and enhance communication both with their children and with teachers.

Our teachers report that parents ask their children what they did in school that day–and the typical teenage response is “nothing” or “I don’t know.” Parents clearly want to be involved in their children’s school lives, but are often at a loss for how to get meaningful, ongoing updates without creating excessive paperwork or administrative burdens for teachers.

Thanks to online technology tools, our parents now have secure, 24-7 access to grades, homework assignments and completion information, teacher postings, and district announcements so they can stay current with their children’s lives and play an active role in encouraging their success. When parents do have a question for teachers or want to give teachers an update about their child–a vacation, an absence, or so on–they simply message the teacher whenever it’s most convenient in their schedule, eliminating the usual game of phone tag.

Technology tools also can enable geographically distant parents to remain a part of their children’s academic lives, important in this day when many parents are divorced or travel extensively for their professions.

Giving students instant feedback and greater accountability

It’s no secret that today’s generation of students naturally love, and are comfortable with, computers and the internet. In fact, we’ve found students gravitate toward online tools without even realizing they are doing a school exercise–they think it’s fun, and it holds their interest more than many traditional teaching methods.

One Fairview teacher uses the online discussion forum to enhance student collaboration on projects. When her ninth-grade English class was recently reading “Lord of the Flies”, she posted initial questions online and then opened up the discussion for students to add their comments or elaborate on their peers’ comments. Students could also post their own questions or thoughts for discussion, which more quickly engaged both the individual student and the entire class in the subject matter.

In another example, Fairview High School has initiated what we call the “Paperless Research Paper Project” in collaboration with our English, special education, and physical education departments. This assignment is designed to train students on how to conduct research via the internet, cite sources, and save documents online. Our goal is to help students be so facile with technology that the only copy of a document they print is the final copy. And because we conduct this project in collaboration among several departments, it enables our teachers in these departments to reinforce what’s being taught in other disciplines in a way never before possible.

What’s more, Fairview teachers believe technology tools have a significant impact on student performance, because they provide students with ongoing incentives and motivation to work hard and improve their academic record. One teacher tells us students like that they have immediate access to their grades (as a result of teachers inputting grades into an electronic gradebook) and instant feedback on their work. And the added factor that their parents can see academic progress in real time forces students to pay greater attention to turning in their work and keeping their grades up. Fairview has achieved a greater degree of student accountability with no room for “he said, she said” excuses.

Providing insight and information to the community at large

Many schools have a need to draw their local communities into the learning process, keep the community abreast of academic activities, and gather feedback on how the community feels about different issues affecting the school system. Technology tools can help schools open the door to their communities to share information on school activities and solicit community feedback for improvement.

We’ve leveraged online survey tools to query middle-school parents for a technology project that helped students learn about building and using spreadsheets. With this real survey data in hand, our students then built Excel spreadsheets, which enabled them to learn a key business competency for later in life. We also use the survey tools to give teachers an anonymous feedback mechanism for various topics of discussion within the school system, and food-service administrators have survey students about school lunches and their favorite foods (likes and dislikes).

Putting it all into practice

In my opinion, ease of use and ease of implementation were two essential keys to ensuring the technology we needed to bring our various school communities together was readily–and widely–adopted. Our selection of a technology partner was based heavily on these two factors, ensuring a short learning curve for teachers, administrators, students, and parents alike. We knew the easier the tools were to use, the better the chance these tools would be adopted. And without widespread adoption, we wouldn’t have been able to create these important bridges in our communities to achieve the kind of collaboration that is so critical to improving the learning process.

Fairview is now entering its third year of using online technology tools. We’ve learned a lot during that time and plan to continue pushing the boundaries of how technology can improve the education process and build community bridges for everyone involved.

Mark Kostur is the technology director for the Fairview Park School District in Fairview, Ohio. He can be reached at fpark_mk1@leeca.org.