Involving parents in their children’s progress in the classroom has long been shown to significantly increase student outcomes. With parent engagement top of mind in many school districts–partly because the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires it–teachers can benefit from these best practices from peers for using education technology to get, and keep, parents engaged.
1. Tools within the LMS can Help Teachers with Outreach
One big advantage of a good learning management system is the potential time savings it offers to teachers in reaching out to parents. That’s because an LMS can include a number of built-in tools that make it easier for teachers to perform common daily activities on a single platform. Taking time to train teachers on efficient use of the LMS platform can pay off in better outreach.
For example, if students can enter their work into a secure personal folder or drop box in the LMS, access to that folder can also be shared with the parent. That’s a suggestion from Jeff Allison, the e-learning and blended learning coach at Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board in Hamilton, Ontario. Content sharing helps ease teachers’ daily workflow, Allison said, giving them an automated way to show parents a student’s work and collect feedback. That sort of time saving should be one result of a pilot “parent portal” that Hamilton-Wentworth is planning to launch this fall, built in the district’s learning management system, Brightspace from D2L.
An additional benefit to using a secure parent portal for outreach, Allison pointed out, is that it removes relying on students presenting their work to parents–an unreliable method at best. Teachers, of course, must be aware that materials and comments sent back to the student via such a portal can also be seen by the parent.
“I would have loved having a parent portal. That’s something I could have used every day,” agreed Kassia Kukurudza, who taught eighth grade for two years with York Regional District School Board in Ontario and is now with D2L. Portals that allow parents to sign in, engage with teachers, and see their child’s work can be used for many things, Kukurudza said. “It makes it so much easier for tracking [engagement], for analytics on which parents are coming in for meetings and which parents are engaging.” With good tools to monitor parent engagement, she said, “I could have known which parents I needed to reach out to more because they just weren’t engaging.”
Allison stressed that the portal needs to be secure: “You can put information out there – but there are lots of privacy concerns.” Proper authentication can come from the LMS, including requiring passwords so that parents can easily access their child’s folder, but also can feel comfortable with what is being shared. In short, “you want to mimic the experience the parent would have coming into the classroom,” Allison said, adding that a good parent portal can offer “the same conversation, but using a virtual component.”
(Next page: 2 more technologies for parent communication)
2. Ask Parents What Technology They Prefer
An important aspect of parent engagement is choosing technologies that work for parents. “One of our biggest challenges is that everyone communicates differently,” according to Tisha Harris with The Classical Academy, a charter school based in Colorado Springs, CO. “We’ll get buy-in from parents on a new technology, but everyone doesn’t want to communicate that way.” The solution, she said, is to come up with a variety of ways to reach out to parents. The Academy uses its web site effectively in that regard – because it’s an accepted, universal way to disseminate information. Emails to parents are short and readable, pointing them to the web site for more information. In addition, Harris said, The Academy is looking at possibly using smartphone apps to send specific notifications to parents in some cases.
“Great parent engagement is a partnership,” Harris emphasized. “We listen to parents about what is needed and how can we engage them better.” To that end, The Academy conducts a parent survey once a year that asks how parents want to receive messages from the school–and where they currently get their information–then tailors its communications based on responses.
The parent-teacher relationship is a partnership, Kukurudza agreed. “It’s really about an opportunity to extend learning through the parent. You have to work together.” Good engagement, she said, encourages parents to extend learning outside the classroom. “Ideally, you need a safe and secure place for parent engagement,” one that both students and parents are comfortable with, she said. “You want to be able to say, ‘See the cool problem-solving or creative learning we’re doing!’” Kukurudza said. “It would have been really useful if parents could have gotten that window into my classroom.”
3. Video Conferencing Engages Busy Parents
With the advent of free, easy-to-use conferencing apps like Google Hangouts and Adobe Connect, it’s helpful to train and encourage teachers to use those tools to meet with busy parents. By using video as well as voice, they can help teachers establish relationships in ways that mere phone calls can’t. Allison was a classroom teacher for several years in grades 9 through 12 before moving to managing an e-learning program. He said that if he were in the classroom now, video conferencing technologies would be on his list of ways to reach out to parents in order to “break down barriers and build some familiarity with my students and parents,” especially e-learners.
“Video conferencing is a fantastic tool for teachers,” agreed Kukurudza, “especially for parent-teacher conferences.” She cited instances when parents are working multiple jobs and have difficulty finding time to come to the school for a teacher conference. “The majority of my parents would have preferred [a video conference call] rather than coming into the school, just because of their schedules.” Kukurudza often held phone conversations with parents about topics such as report cards, but “a video conferencing tool would have been much better.” If the app is built into the LMS software for ease of use, even better, Kukurudza said, stressing that any communication tool needs to be easy for parents to use, and mobile-enabled.
Clearly, education technology offers a variety of ways to encourage communication with parents. When districts set aside professional development time to train teachers on new tools, and then encourage their use, teachers can maximize parental outreach efforts–and save time. As interest in engaging parents continues to grow, technology tools can play a big part in helping families become more involved in their children’s education.