Effective communication is likely one of the most important, yet challenging aspects of education at the K-12 level (Knutson, 2016). Learner autonomy is developed when students know exactly what is expected of them and when. Trust between parents and the school is bolstered by a solid communication plan. Naturally, face to face conversations between parents and teachers are the ideal, however they are not always possible. Fortunately, technology offers solutions that can accommodate a variety of communication needs (Pescatore, 2014).
Recently, our school went off in search of communication tools that would better engage our parent population and take some of the pressure off our teachers. The selection process for these types of tools is never simple. There are a variety of interests to consider before choosing to adopt a program. In this case, the administration wanted a comprehensive solution that incorporated real-time notifications and routine communications. The Remind texting service has served the school well in the past, but only offers outgoing messages. Because the system is passive for the recipient, there has been some concern that its repeated use to remind families of tests and assignment due dates may actually discourage autonomy (Commonsense.org, 2016).
Primary among the attributes considered during the selection process were price and ease of use. Parents should have the ability to proactively access student performance data and reach out to teachers and staff when desired. A tool with a portal is ideal for this purpose. Additional considerations are detailed on the comparison chart, available here.
The four tools that made it to final analysis are all free and suitable for use by parents of students of all ages. After much consideration, my recommendation is to rely on ClassDojo Messenger and use Facebook Groups as a supplemental engagement tool. One of the biggest complaints about ClassDojo Messenger is that it takes time to set up and learn to use (Commonsense.org, 2014). However, ClassDojo is already in use in the classrooms, so parents and students have set up and are familiar with the portal and will have an easy time learning to use the messenger. The app available on iOS, Android, and via the web, so technology access will not be an issue.
A chief concern about Celly and Google Hangouts was that they would contribute to more digital clutter for teachers who would have to monitor individual conversations. ClassDojo Messenger allows for private communication between teacher and student or teacher and family in a controlled environment. Since teachers are already using ClassDojo, there should be less pressure generated by communication through this medium.
My suggestion to incorporate Facebook Groups as an engagement piece comes from the ability to create an unlimited number of private or secret groups. There can be a group per classroom, groups for extracurricular activities, and groups that deal primarily with school events or administrative messaging.
Setting up a new Facebook Group does not take a long time but is slightly more involved than using ClassDojo. You should give some thought to what sort of privacy you want to have. If a group is public, anyone can see who is in it and read posts, even if they are not members. You probably do not want to make a public group for a classroom. Private groups will allow non-members to view member names and profile pictures. They cannot read posts until they join. You can distribute the group’s link to your parents and they can request to join. Making a group secret means no one can see it or its members. The only way to join a secret group is to be added by a current member. You cannot add members unless you are connected to them on Facebook. So, unless you’re committed to being Facebook friends with every parent in your class, private groups are the way to go.
Once the group is created, you can fine tune the settings. I highly recommend you require an administrator or moderator to approve membership requests.That way you can be sure you are only adding real parents or staff. For the most control you can require that all posts be approved. Usually, this won’t be necessary, but the option is nice to have. If you want an announcement only group, change the settings so that only administrators can post.
While I would not recommend relying on the groups as a means of real-time notification, it is ideal for more prolonged discussions. It can also be a good way to track school closings and calendar events. School activities and meetings can be livestreamed so parents who are unable to attend can still participate in some way. The videos are saved and accessible at a later date for those who missed the live activity. Tone and content of the postings can be managed by parent or staff volunteers on a per group basis, since Facebook allows the assignment of group moderators now (Facebook, n.d.).
If none of these choices strike your fancy, head on over to Common Sense Media for reviews of more tools. There are few great articles in the references section that will give you more ideas, too. Whatever you do, don’t forget about the best resources ever – your peers and colleagues. Ask around about what other classes and schools are using; you’ll hear about new things and tried-and-true solutions that you might have overlooked.
Do you have a communication tool you love? Or despise? Tell me all about it in the comments.
Until next time…