Using technology to improve parental engagement

In September’s issue of School Business Manager Magazine, I outlined the pros and cons of classroom-based technology and concluded that tech could be a highly effective tool, but that’s all it was – a tool. Technology has the potential to enhance learning and improve educational outcomes for pupils but if it’s used inappropriately or without suitable instruction and supervision, it can also be harmful and distract – and indeed detract – from learning.

In this issue I’d like to explore the use of educational technology outside of the classroom…

Technology outside the classroom

Arguably the best use of educational technology – that which leads to the greatest academic gains for pupils – is not in the classroom but rather in the school office and staffroom…

For example, technology can help teachers to cope with the demands of the job more effectively. With a heavy workload contributing to the retention crisis in teaching, automating some tasks – including burdensome form-filling – can help teachers concentrate on what they joined up to do – teach. From facilitating video feedback, lesson plans and marking online, to helping teachers share resources, technology can connect teachers with each other, as well as with pupils and parents.

Talking of parents…

Parental engagement

A MetLife survey in 2005 said that the biggest challenge faced by teachers was engaging with and involving parents. MetLife research from 2012, meanwhile, suggests that parental engagement continues to be an area of improvement for most schools.

Parental engagement is of great import in all sorts of ways. For example, according to Butler et el (2008), Haynes et al (1989), and Henderson (1987), it is associated with higher academic achievement. Butler et el (2008) and Haynes et al (1989) also claim that effective parental engagement leads to increased rates of pupil attendance whilst Becher (1984) and Henderson et al (1986) say it can have a positive effect on pupils’ attitudes to learning as well as on their behaviour.

Research has also shown that getting communication with parents right can lead to an increased level of interest in pupils’ work (see, for example, Rich [1988] and Tobolka [2006]), increased parent satisfaction with their child’s teachers (see Rich [1988]), and higher rates of teacher satisfaction (see MetLife [2012]).

The big question, then, is how can we improve parental engagement? There are, to my mind, four cornerstones of effect parental communication:

  1. Communication needs to start early and continue throughout a child’s schooling.
  2. Communication needs to be a two-way process: as well as the school staying in touch with parents, parents also need a means of keeping in contact with the school.
  3. Communication needs to be appropriately timed, relevant and useful to parents.
  4. Communication needs to take myriad forms.

And the best way to achieve all four of these aims is to embrace new and emerging technologies…

The use of technologies such as email, texting, websites, electronic portfolios and online assessment and reporting tools have – accordingly to Merkley, Schmidt, Dirksen and Fuhler (2006) – made communication between parents and teachers more timely, efficient, productive and satisfying.

Here are a few suggestions for how technology could be used to help you communicate with parents and, indeed, vice versa:

  • Parents could send teachers an email to let them know when the home learning environment may be (temporarily or otherwise) holding a pupil back.
  • Likewise, teachers could send parents an email to let them know when issues arise at school which may have a detrimental effect on the pupil, such as noticeable changes in behaviour or deficits in academic performance.
  • Teachers could text parents at the end of the day on which a pupil has done something particularly well or shown real progress or promise. Instant and personal feedback like this is really valuable and helps make a connection between the teacher and a child’s parents.
  • Teachers could send half-termly or monthly newsletters via email to parents to inform them about which topics they are covering in class in the coming weeks, what homework will be set and when, and how parents can help.
  • The school could use text, email and the school website to keep parents updated on forthcoming field trips, parent association meetings and other school activities.
  • Teachers could use email to send out regular tips to parents on how they might be able to support their child’s learning that week/month. For example, they could send a list of questions to ask their child about what pupils have been learning in class. They could also send hyperlinks to interactive quizzes or games.
  • The school could use the school website to gather more frequent and informal parent voice feedback about specific topics. For example, they might post a short survey after each open evening and parents’ evening.
  • The school could provide an online calendar via its website to allow parents to volunteer to help in class, say as reading mentors or helpers at special events.
  • An online calendar could also be used as a booking facility to enable parents to make their own meetings with school staff rather than having to phone the school, which many people find daunting.
  • The online calendar could prove useful for booking slots at parents’ evenings and other open evenings and events, enabling parents to be in control of the times at which they attend school rather than relying on a child and their teachers to agree suitable slots.

Other uses of technology

Educational technology can also be used by teachers and leaders outside the classroom to:

  • Allow pupils and parents to track their own progress – online data trackers and parents’ reports can provide ‘live’ updates on pupils’ attainment against target and highlight concerns – as they emerge – about potential underachievement
  • Allow teachers to communicate pastoral concerns to parents – for example, parents can be kept informed about the rewards and sanctions their child has received and, being ‘live’, it can enable parents to support the school with behaviour concerns or make the school aware of difficulties at home
  • Enable teachers to create and share resources and lesson planning both within and outside of a school, thus cutting a teacher’s workload and ensuring greater consistency in what is taught and when it is taught across a department
  • Support target-setting, assessment and reporting – technology can aid teachers in setting attainment and progress targets and in assessing pupils against these targets at key points of the year. Technology allows all the staff in a school to see this data and for school leaders to aggregate it so they can produce detailed analysis for year groups and key cohorts, comparing the ‘live’ progress of different types of pupil, ensuring attainment gaps are not perpetuated
  • Support school improvement planning, and monitoring and reviewing performance – technology can help all the staff in a school contribute to and engage with the school improvement plan and school evaluation form (SEF). What’s more, technology can ensure such documents are kept up-to-date to enable ongoing monitoring and review
  • Allow for efficient administration and reduce bureaucracy – technology in the school office can enable quick, efficient and cost-effective communication between staff – such as updating staff if a pupil is absent or if parents have requested information.

In conclusion, technology should be regarded as a vital tool not just for teachers in the classroom but for the admin team, for middle and senior leaders, and for parents and governors.

Technology shouldn’t be viewed simply as a learning resource but should be seen as a means of improving efficiency and reducing bureaucracy. It should also be seen as a means of tracking pupil progress, of tracking school improvement, and of extending the boundaries of learning beyond the school gates.

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