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Volume 29, Number 4
July/August 2013

Using Technology to Engage Families

Digital tools help schools reach parents “where they are”


When the Home and School Association at Knapp Elementary School in Lansdale, Pa., holds its monthly meeting, it provides live streaming through so that busy parents can watch and send comments from home. Since starting the live streaming, the association has seen average meeting attendance go from 14 to 43, and parents who weren’t typically involved have become regular attendees. 

When Shawn Storm’s sixth-grade class at Strayer Middle School in Quakertown, Pa., used Google Hangout to debate students in another state, parents could watch the debate live through YouTube or read the highlights students posted on the class website via Twitter. That night, parents were able to ask their children detailed questions about what they had done in school during the day, rather than making do with the common middle-schooler shrugs.

And in 2012 after a Chicago resident inquired via Twitter how to find out if there were openings on local school councils, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) communications staff had a smartphone app designed in just three days that mapped the openings and names of candidates. A local blogger for the Chicago parent group PURE called the app “awesome,” writing, “I think that’s probably the FIRST TIME I have used the words ‘CPS’ and ‘awesome’ in the same sentence.”

It wasn’t long ago that there were few easy options for keeping parents in the loop about their children’s learning and school events beyond robocalls and notices that often got lost in backpacks. But that has started to change in the past few years with the rise of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, videoconferencing tools like Skype, texting, smartphone apps, and online portals that allow parents to view their children’s assignments and grades. With these digital media at their fingertips, principals and teachers are now awash in options for engaging parents. Early adopters are trying out these options, aiming to figure out which ones will help them engage the largest and most diverse group of parents possible.

Reaching Parents Where They Are
Decades of research show that students do better in school when their parents are involved in ways that support learning, like communicating regularly with teachers, making sure students finish homework, and discussing plans for postsecondary education. But teachers often express frustration about reaching parents.

Nancy Hill, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies family-school relationships, explains that parents face many barriers to communicating with school staff. Some are logistical (like work schedule conflicts and language barriers), but others are highly personal, like a history of mistrust between families and schools, misinterpretations due to cultural differences, and even discrimination, she says. These barriers can be particularly entrenched for families of color and low-income families, according to research. To overcome the barriers, Hill and other parent involvement experts have long counseled schools to stop expecting families to come to them and instead reach parents where they are.

Increasingly, of course, where families are is online and on mobile devices. Digital media have become an integral part of daily life for families from a broad range of backgrounds, due in part to a documented rise in smartphone usage across socioeconomic and ethnic groups.

“Because many of our students’ parents are young, social media is how they communicate,” says Alex Soble, CPS’s first digital director. Soble pitched his job to the CPS communications director after noticing that the district wasn’t using social media to communicate with its stakeholders. He is responsible for maintaining CPS’s web and social media presence (CPS has more than 15,000 followers on Facebook and more than 8,000 on Twitter), helping school staff use those tools at the school level, and helping the district respond to parent questions and feedback on social media.

“Major Impact”
Educators who use them regularly say that digital media are making parent outreach easier and more efficient. According to a recent report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 67 percent of teachers surveyed said that the Internet has had a “major impact” on their ability to communicate with parents. Teachers like Dana Sirotiak use multiple digital tools. Sirotiak, a sixth-grade teacher in Jersey City, N.J., uses a class website, Portfoliyo (a text and communication service), Remind101 (a text and e-mail notification service), and Twitter to communicate with parents in her urban community. “My classroom is so transparent that it alleviates questions and confusion that parents might have,” she says.

School leaders and policy makers also see the value. Digital media allow educators to reach a large number of parents quickly, so many districts use Twitter or a text messaging service as their first line of communication for emergencies and closings. Some districts now require teachers to maintain a class website and an online grade book through services like Blackboard, Schoology, or PowerSchool. Next year, every public school in the state of North Carolina will use a common system that will allow parents and students to access grades and other data from a smartphone app or web browser.

Surveys show that parents want to engage with schools digitally as well. In a 2012 survey sponsored by a federal technology commission, 78 percent of parents agreed that technology is “very valuable” for keeping them informed. “Parents today want to be in the know about what’s going on with their children at school,” says Monica Isabel Martinez, director of professional development for TCEA, an organization that provides educational technology training for preK–12 professionals.
Helping Parents Support Learning
Digital media help parents access information they need to support learning, Martinez and others say. If parents can read what their children are studying in class through social media or classroom blogs, they can reinforce it by having discussions at home or finding relevant library books. Digital media can also be used to alert parents when their children are struggling. Through the CPS parent portal—a tool so popular that it’s the number-one search on the CPS web­site—parents can request an automatic text or e-mail notification if their child’s grade drops below a certain point determined by the parents. When a parent logs into the parent portal in Leander, Texas, and sees a failing grade, a new e-mail draft automatically pops up to make it easy for the parent to e-mail the teacher.

TCEA’s Martinez points out that digital media have to provide opportunities for parents to initiate and react to communication—not just receive it—if schools want to deepen parent engagement with their children’s learning. E-mail, two-way texting, and some parent portals allow for this kind of back and forth, as do some Facebook pages.

Bridging the Digital Divide
Of course, digital media can’t help engage parents in their children’s learning if families can’t access the Internet through smartphones or a computer. The Pew Internet & American Life Project recently reported that “digital divides” in Internet access are closing, due in large part to the widespread use of smartphones, but gaps persist between lower- and higher-income families: 62 percent of adults in households earning less than $30,000 per year have access to and use the Internet, compared with 90 percent of those making over $50,000.

Some schools are aiming to close this gap. Deb Socia is the executive director of a Boston program called Tech Goes Home, a partnership between the public schools and the city to provide parents with training as well as Internet access and low-cost computers. “My solution to the digital divide,” she says, “is not to do less with technology but to do more to get families online.”

At Tech Goes Home, participating parents—more than 9,000 so far—receive 15 hours of training, provided by their children’s teachers, in how to use the Internet to support their children’s learning and to build their own skills (for example, in finding employment). The fact that children’s teachers are the trainers makes parents comfortable while at the same time builds a strong home-school partnership, Socia says. Using a pre- and postsurvey, an evaluation of the program found that the majority of parents had never been involved in school before but planned to stay involved. A year later, 66 percent of these parents were still in touch with the trainer, and 55 percent were involved in school events.

Making the Most of Digital Media
Educators and professional development providers offer the following recommendations for making the most of digital media with parents.

Know your audience. Many districts ask parents about their communication preferences through surveys or school registration forms. Most use this information to drive districtwide plans, but some are able to customize outreach so that a parent who doesn’t have a private place for phone calls at work can opt to receive texts, for example. Martinez cautions that parents’ preferences will evolve as technology does. Indeed, the annual Speak Up survey, conducted by the educational nonprofit Project Tomorrow, shows that 37 percent of parents surveyed in 2012 wanted to receive text messages from their children’s schools, up from just 5 percent in 2010.

Provide a menu of options. Tom Murray, director of technology and cyber education for the Quakertown Community School District, says that his district treats school websites, social media, and other tools “not as an either/or but as an and/and.” He and others say that it’s important to provide families with plenty of options and to convey the same information in multiple formats, including phone calls and letters, especially when problems arise. They also stress that schools need to notify parents about the tools and provide training. Knapp Elementary School, for example, hosts “Parent Camp,” a full day of free workshops for parents on many topics, including using digital media to connect with teachers. Similarly, the school district in Peoria, Ill., offers training through its “Parent University” program and on its website.

Provide training for staff. District technology directors believe that training is key to overcoming some teachers’ resistance and ensuring effective use. Some districts run their own train-the-trainer sessions for schools, while others partner with professional development organizations that specialize in technology. An increasing number of educators are turning to Twitter to learn from peers, for example, through #ptchat, an open weekly discussion about parent involvement.

Manage risks. Facebook and Twitter have raised some concerns about students’ and parents’ privacy and about the potential for inappropriate comments, even from parents. This has led many schools to develop social media guidelines and acceptable-use policies. But many other schools block social networking sites altogether, an action experts see as fear-driven and unrealistic. Some experts recommend that schools allow social networking but either approve comments before they are live or continuously moderate comments for appropriateness. (This may require multiple staff members.) As an alternative, some suggest creating classroom- or activity-based Facebook pages that are open to everyone and that can easily be moderated by teachers, but restricting who can post on school and district pages.

If current trends are any indication, digital media will become the rule rather than the exception in parent-school relationships, giving parents ever more information about their children’s schooling.

When used in collaborative ways, parents and educators say that digital media strengthen home-school partnerships and increase all kinds of parent involvement. Joe Mazza, Knapp Elementary School’s principal and a leader in using digital media to communicate with parents, stresses that digital media should facilitate and complement face-to-face interactions, not replace them. “It’s not about the tool; it’s about the relationship,” he says.

Suzanne Bouffard is a developmental psychologist, researcher, and writer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the co-author of Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success (Harvard Education Press, 2012).

For Further Information

For Further Information

S. Anderson. “How to Create Social Media Guidelines for Your School.” Edutopia.  

Harvard Family Research Project. “Using Student Data to Engage Families.” Family Involvement Network of Educators 2, no. 3 (2010).

N.E. Hill and R. Chao, eds. Families, Schools, and the Adolescent. New York: Teachers College Press, 2009.

J. Mazza. “Putting a FACE on a School.” Principal 92, no. 4 (2013): 34–37.

Pew Internet & American Life Project

#ptchat Twitter chat