With as many as 49 percent of all U.S. adults using smart phones, according to Nielsen reports, it’s time to get smart about school communications as well.
Today’s on-the-go parents, teachers, and principals require fast, easy access to news and information. In most cases, this requires access to stripped-down mobile websites or special applications (apps) designed for smaller screens and sometimes sketchy wireless internet connections.
Smart-phone use is nearly ubiquitous among young American adults. According to Pew Research, two-thirds (66 percent) of young adults ages 18 to 29 own smart phones. This jumps to 68 percent for adults of any age with household incomes of $75,000 or more. At 59 percent, adults ages 30 to 49 don’t lag far behind these top groups in terms of smart phone ownership.
Unlike other technologies, America’s smart-phone obsession cuts across gender lines as well as racial and ethnic groups. Women are about as likely as men to own smart phones (45 percent versus 46 percent, respectively), while smart-phone ownership rates among blacks (47 percent) and Hispanics (49 percent) surpasses those of whites (42 percent).
Driven perhaps by widespread wireless access as well as personal finances, urban residents (48 percent), college graduates (50 percent), and those with some college (50 percent) are more likely to own smart phones.
A small, qualitative research study we conducted last spring in my district confirms these results. In-depth interviews with a diverse group of parents whose children attend high-wealth, middle-income, and low-wealth schools showed similar patterns.
While we expected and did find technology gaps in terms of home computers and broadband internet access, smart-phone use was much more widespread among low-income families than anticipated.
For our low-income families, the smart phone served as their connection to the internet, making text messaging, social media networks, and mobile access to websites and online services even more important—factors we likely would have missed without the additional, local research.
At the other end of the spectrum, we learned that high-income families used their smart phones to stay connected via social networking sites they created and maintained to keep families informed, often without any principal awareness, input, or knowledge.
While all but one of these alternative sites were supportive of school administration and teachers, it’s sad that so many actively engaged parents felt their schools did not meet their communication needs.
In most cases, parents said, school leaders provided too little information, too late. While teachers fared slightly better in our study, parent expectations regarding classroom-home communications sometimes went unfulfilled.
Parents today seem to have an almost insatiable desire to stay connected to their children electronically, and as such, they greatly appreciate frequent updates about their children’s progress—as well as online access to homework assignments, grades, attendance, discipline reports, teacher notes, and student portfolios.
When parents perceive a communication void, they will work to fill it, by creating their own mobile apps, alternative social media sites, blogs, electronic newsletters, and distribution lists. The same is true for students.
Two students at Guilford County Schools’ Weaver Academy of Visual and Performing Arts created a mobile app last year to help promote the school and keep their peers, parents, and teachers in the loop about performances, events, and other news.
Originally designed to operate in a Microsoft Windows environment, the app has been adapted this fall for Android and Apple operating systems. The app includes a number of cool features, including:
- A locator button that provides directions to the school from the smart-phone user’s current (or any) location;
- The Buzz, a weekly newsletter with dates of important events and information;
- The names of Weaver staff members, along with contact information, so eMails can be sent from the phone to each person.
- A list of the courses offered at Weaver, which also serves as GCS’s countywide career and technical education center;
- An art gallery that allows art students to upload pictures of their creations; and
- A link for the phone number to the front office that dials it directly from the phone.
Excited by the initial response to their app, the students and Weaver administration already are planning to expand the content. Plans for future “buttons,” or links to high-interest student and parent content, include:
- A “Bully” button for students to report incidents;
- An audio button to upload and showcase music performed or created by students and student groups;
- An ACT/PLAN button that links to important information about college admission assessments, including deadlines, schedules, sample questions, test strategies, etc.;
- Help link with numbers to assist teens in crisis;
- A “Phrase of the Week” button—this phrase could be used for teaching tolerance, anti-bullying, etc.;
- A detailed map of the campus;
- A “Video” button to allow for sample performances from our visual and performing arts students and/or demonstrations from career and technical education students;
- A service learning button that includes information about upcoming service learning opportunities, with a link to the district’s online tracking system;
- A “Scholarship” button to include resources for students and parents; and
- Buttons for individual teacher sites and parent resources.
While GCS was able to use its content management system to create a mobile version of its entire website, the district is exploring creating more streamlined apps for specific purposes, such as marketing Guilford Parent Academy events, recruiting teachers, promoting schools, and announcing weather-related cancellations.
As it explores using more targeted apps for communications, GCS hopes to gain insight from Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), which launched its first mobile app this fall to improve parent outreach.
Created in English and Spanish, the mobile site features pared-down information of high interest to parents, including a GPS-fueled school locator, search functions, and an enrollment app that make school shopping and contacting staff easier.
The site also features content about academics, the arts, special education, athletics, calendars, bell schedules, bus stops, clubs, field trips, and school events. MPS parents can sign up for news feeds or check out blogs by the superintendent.
When communicating in a mobile environment, it’s more important to focus on content than graphics, photos, icons, color, and other design elements, according to Amy Kant, MPS web specialist.
Parents appreciate sites that load quickly and don’t eat up their data plans, according to Kant, so smart communicators edit their content carefully and resize and minimize photos, charts, graphs, and other memory hogs.
As more schools and districts are discovering, smart communications using smart phones can help keep families connected to schools and their personnel in productive and convenient ways, while offering new avenues for parent and student engagement.
Backing these new apps with sophisticated databases and other programs that make upkeep easier can go a long way in helping time-stressed school personnel manage communications more effectively and efficiently.
MPS, for example, spent time and money creating a central database of key school data. When changes need to be made as a result of employee resignations and appointments, programmatic shifts, the opening of new schools, or other issues, the changes are made in the database by designated staff.
Once the database is updated, the revised information populates the mobile website automatically, eliminating the need to make changes by hand in HTML coding on each individual webpage, a painstaking and time-consuming process.
For MPS, resisting the temptation to jump into mobile communications too quickly has paid dividends. By thinking through long-term needs for sustainability, and working across traditional central-office silos and schools, MPS already has gained greater employee collaboration and cooperation.
While it’s too early to know whether the new mobile app and interactive features will improve parent engagement, so far, it looks like a model worth replicating.
Award-winning eSchool News columnist Nora Carr is the chief of staff for North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools.