Service offers new way to connect with parents

The service is all being paid for out of pocket by the teachers, who hope to broaden their reach this year to more teachers and more organizations.

A handful of teachers in Hawaii are using a new service that allows them to blast a text message to parents, who can then text back.

Mark McDonald, 23, debuted the program in his Aiea High classroom at the start of this school year, sending parents reminders about everything from upcoming assignments to grades. Almost immediately, McDonald said, parents were making the communication two-way, texting him back with questions on how their child could do better or if missed work could be made up.

When McDonald began teaching English at Aiea in 2010, he struggled with how to involve parents. Parent engagement was next to nonexistent, despite his best attempts, so he had no way of knowing whether parents were getting his letters home, seeing their children’s grades or reviewing progress reports.

To address the problem, McDonald teamed up with a fellow teacher, Max Sack, and employed the help of a friend who is a computer programmer to start an online service that allows teachers to send text-message blasts to parents — and receive responses from them through a proxy telephone number.

Cellphones, McDonald and Sack reasoned, are more ubiquitous than computers and internet connections — which not all parents have access to — and more practical than printed notes sent home.

Since quietly went live late last year, about 20 teachers (most in Hawaii), along with a handful of churches and other organizations, have signed up for the service, which education technology experts are calling a novel way to improve communication between parents and teachers and get students more connected to what’s going on in the classroom.

McDonald’s 11th- and 12th-graders signed up to get reminders about assignments or texts on whether the class was meeting in the library or computer lab. Like their parents, students started texting back, using the service to get real-time homework help or clarifications on assignments.

But the experts also caution that the program should be brought into classrooms with care, given several high-profile incidents nationally involving teachers who crossed the line with students, sending out explicit texts or online messages. Equally important, they said, is ensuring student privacy – and that the parent being sent text messages is entitled to the information.

“The teachers really have to be aware of who they’re reaching,” said Curtis Ho, a University of Hawaii professor of education technology. “Sometimes there are issues where you have broken families. You have two sets of parents. They (teachers) need to understand who the parents are.”

Sitting in his classroom on a recent afternoon, McDonald said the service has made the difference between parent “engagement and nonengagement.”

“It’s just unimaginable, the contrast,” said McDonald, who was placed at Aiea High through Teach for America, the national program that recruits bright college graduates to teach in disadvantaged public schools.

Sack, 24, also a Teach for America participant, said that especially for teachers in middle and high school, parent engagement is key to student success — but hard to get and sustain.

The kind of conversations he’s having with parents through text messaging “don’t take place” otherwise, he said. “A lot of it is just keeping them in the loop. Bringing them in, that’s a big difference.”

Kikutext works like this: A teacher signs up online, receiving a free proxy phone number. Parents or students text a password to join the group, and their names appear on an online list that only the teacher can access. With an interface that looks a lot like email, the teacher can then decide to send a text to the whole group or just certain members.

The teacher’s texts are sent through the website, never on a physical cellphone, to ensure security. In turn, group members are able to reply on their phones to the teacher but can’t reply to the whole group.

“Everything is safe,” said McDonald. “I never see my students’ phone numbers, and they never see mine.”

The service comes as teachers and schools nationally are grappling with how — and whether — to bring text messaging or microblogging and other social media tools into the classroom.

The state Department of Education does not have a policy on text messaging or social media, leaving the issue to the discretion of school administrators. Some campuses prohibit cellphone use during the school day; others do not.

Grace Lin, assistant professor at UH’s Department of Educational Technology, said schools appear hesitant to adopt such technologies because of the potential problems, while teachers are more willing to try them because of the potential benefits for students and parents.

Teachers, she said, have turned to the social media website Twitter or created other online portals to engage modern learners. Using texts to communicate with students and parents is not as common, she said, because a teacher might be hesitant to share a personal cellphone number. (Kikutext addresses that concern by using the proxy phone number.)

Lin added that texting may be more effective than Twitter or other microblogging sites for parents and older students because of the wide availability of cellphones — and the popularity of text messaging among older teens. Not everyone might have a smartphone or a computer, she said, but just about everyone has a cellphone of some kind that can receive texts.

“Every time you talk about technology, you have to talk about the haves and the have-nots,” she said.

Lin noted that texting does severely limit how much a teacher can say in a message — and almost necessitates digital shorthand that might put off some grammarians. Participating in the service, she added, would also require an additional time commitment from teachers.

“They have to ask themselves, how … (much) are they willing to make themselves available,” she said.

Waianae Elementary fourth-grade teacher Natalie Nakai started using the service in October with parents, most of whom signed up to receive texts. She said it has helped her cut down on the amount of time she spends writing letters to send home that she isn’t sure are being read anyway.

“This is so simple,” she said. “And I don’t have to make copies.”

Nakai said the service has allowed her to share positive news with individual parents — like when their son or daughter did well on an assignment or participated in class — along with reminders to all parents about upcoming field trips or class projects. Parents, she added, seem to enjoy the messages and often reply back — sometimes with something as simple as an emoticon smile.

One such parent, Sommer Ho’ohuli-Lopez, said the text messaging is “instant gratification.”

Nakai sends Ho’ohuli-Lopez regular messages on her son, Thomas, including whether he’s falling behind or excelling in a subject.

Ho’ohuli-Lopez also sends Nakai texts, letting her know if Thomas isn’t feeling well or is struggling with a concept.

“It’s been an awesome way to communicate, without me having to worry whether it gets to her or not,” said Ho’ohuli-Lopez.

McDonald and Sack see the tool as not replacing conversations, but supplementing them — or starting them. Kiku means “to listen” in Japanese.

The service is all being paid for out of pocket by the teachers, who hope to broaden their reach this year to more teachers and more organizations, too, seeing the potential for Kikutext in advocacy groups, clubs or grass-roots campaigns. They’re also planning to kick off a new group for high school juniors and seniors, who will get reminders on deadlines for college entrance exams, applications and financial aid.

There are a handful of online texting services similar to Kikutext, some of which are geared for teachers or schools. But McDonald said he believes their program is different in that it allows parents or students to respond to texts, rather than just receive them.

Sack, who teaches seventh-grade math at Aiea Intermediate, said about half of his parents participate in the service. McDonald, an English teacher, has seen greater participation of about 80 percent, depending on the class.

Ho, the professor of education technology, called the service “novel,” especially since texting is so universal — and practically second nature for today’s students.

“The technology is there,” he said. “It’s really amazing how people find the uses for it.”

He noted, though, in addition to privacy concerns, there also could be concern from parents about texting fees.

Though the service is free, text messaging fees do apply on every text a parent or student receives from a teacher. For those who haven’t paid for unlimited text messages, those fees could add up.

When McDonald told his students about the service — and that it was OK to text him back — junior Guy Lum had one response: “I was psyched.”

Lum said the texts have helped him remember to complete assignments, especially during long breaks. And recently, when he ran into trouble on a homework assignment, he picked up his phone and reached out to his teacher — with a text message.

“It helped me out,” he said. “It’s easier than emailing. It’s easier than talking.”

(c)2012 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Visit The Honolulu Star-Advertiser at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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