Communication is Key (And We Can Do It Better)

Speak about mobile technologies in most any school setting and you’re likely to find frenetic conversation about the role of these technologies in facilitating learning. You’ll find educators trading app recommendations, discussing the productivity possible through mobile phones, tablets, and the like. They discuss notetaking, the dissemination of class resources, and the opportunities of all kinds of assessment.

Indeed, this makes much sense. A 2013 Pew Internet & American Life report found that 78 percent of 12-17 year olds have cell phones. Increasingly, those are smartphones. While access to these technologies are not universal across geographies and economic statuses, the trend is clear. More and more, students are walking around with computers in their pockets.

Strangely, and largely absent from that conversation is one key capability of these machines – communication. Not communication of what they’ve created to new audiences, but simple person-to-person communication of messages.

The schools we need must carefully consider communication ecosystems and how they can be leveraged.

The most common form of school communication to leverage possibilities is no doubt the school website. In a study published in 2008, Reenay Rogers and Vivian Wright reported that parents in their study “indicated using the computer to check the school website for homework information (50.0%) and important school dates (55.6%).” As websites were the prime tools to develop from the Internet, it’s not surprising these are the tools most utilized by parents.

If a school is going to do one thing to communicate with parents via technology, websites are certainly the most useful tool of the moment.

Considering communication between school, students, and parents from an ecosystem perspective, though, means taking account and advantage of all tools.

To begin this, we must think about the messages we send and the medium best suited for those messages. Websites allow for the posting of grades, events, and news stories. Phone calls, allow for longer synchronous conversations and are, unfortunately, most frequently deployed in reference to disciplinary action. Email, which 35.8 percent of Rogers and Wright’s parents reported taking advantage of, allows for asynchronous communication. Like phone calls, emails are often reserved for more lengthy and content-dense conversations. Also like phone calls, they are frequently dispatched when disciplinary issues have reached a critical mass.

The result, most parents are likely to come to view teacher-initiated communications specific to their children as harbingers of bad news.

While these are legitimate uses of these resources, they can be supplemented easily with other available tools to create thick relationships between schools, the students in their charge and students’ parents.

Text messages are a strong point of entry. A 2011 comScore report found a 59 percent drop in web email usage among 12-17 year olds. On the other hand, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported 75 persent of teens in the same age group reported using texting to communicate in 2011. If schools and teachers want eyes on their messages, they must send them to the correct locations.

Texting allows faster access to students and parents, it is also an immediate tool for reporting the positive news that rarely makes it into emails. Imagine the impact on a student who’s just arrived home at the end of the day to find a text message that says, “I was impressed by your level of participation in history class today as well as the depth of your answers. Keep up the good work.” Now, imagine if a similar version of that message is texted to that student’s parent or guardian at the end of the work day.

Such a leveraging of communication tools would surely improve home/school relationships.

This is only one example of how schools and teachers can take on an ecosystems approach to communications, and it is based on the tools of the moment. As those tools shift, approaches must adapt as well. Rather than focusing on tools, here are some questions to consider when thinking about these ecosystems:

  • What do we want to communicate with students and parents – the positive, the negative, or as complete a picture as possible?
  • What beliefs or norms will such an approach challenge, and how can we plan for resistance to these challenges?
  • What tools are our students and parents predominantly using for communication, how can we shift into utilizing those tools?
  • Given the speed with which these patterns and tools change, how can we plan to review our approach so that our communications are adapting as nimbly as preferences are changing?

These are likely to be difficult conversations. Changing the way we do things is often difficult. Embarking on this process, it may be helpful to remember the importance of improving communication. In a 2002 synthesis of the impact of school community communications, Anne Henderson and Karen Mapp found, “Family involvement that is linked to student learning has a greater effect on achievement than more general forms of involvement.”

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