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How Technology Is Forging Connections Between Families and Schools

For most school communities, technology has played an important role in family-school communications for many years. But that technology is evolving, and it’s essential to keep up.

“Now, in addition to emails and phone calls, there are web portals, apps, and texting services that help families stay connected to their child’s education,” said Helen Westmoreland, director of Family Engagement for National PTA. “The challenge facing us is how we make the most of these new technologies and, increasingly, how we decide which ones will work best for each community and family’s unique context.”

While there’s no substitute for the personal connection, Westmoreland says technology offers the promise of more efficient and accessible ways for parents to be involved in their children’s education. 

“For many families, taking off work to attend a parent-teacher conference is difficult, but getting a text message that tells them what their child learned that day with an activity idea or question for home is an easy and impactful tool to support their student’s learning,” she said. “Embracing technology can help families and educators work together in support of student success.”

Obtaining feedback

PTA’s Center for Family Engagement recently spearheaded the research project Essential Tech for Better Family-School Communication.

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“This involved focus groups with diverse stakeholders (families, teachers, superintendents, and district instructional technology staff), a research review, live demos, and follow-up surveys with over 20 technology providers,” Westmoreland said. “In our focus groups with families, one thing that stood out was their frustration with trying to manage multiple technologies to stay connected. They struggle with remembering which platform to go to for what information, with different logins and sometimes different systems for multiple children even in the same school. 

“We also heard about the importance of two-way communication from families. They don’t want to just get information; they want to be able to interact with the person on the other side of the technology, to ask questions and share their own observations about their children.”

Bridging traditional communication gaps 

The PTA offers a toolkit that includes a collaboration guide explaining its research, a comparison tool that gives a landscape of technologies and features based on the areas of consideration in its codebook, a guide for engaging families and educators in conversations on the topic, and a mapping tool for schools to outline and share how the community can access key information.

“The most meaningful improvements we’ve seen have been features that remove barriers to engagement and increase equity,” Westmoreland said. “One of the most powerful features is the ability for platforms to translate messages into nearly any language in real time. The feature enables families who don’t speak English to have easy access to their child’s teacher without a translator. 

“In addition, while teachers used to rely on email primarily, more and more educators are turning to texting and other instant messaging features, which are easier for many families to access.”

Addressing accessibility

Westmorelnd says many families and students lack reliable internet and/or devices. One of the recommendations from the project is investing in texting services or add-ons to web-based platforms.

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 “If families have to go to a website, remember a log-in, and navigate a complex menu to find out whether their child missed an assignment, your school is not going to reach all your families,” Westmoreland said. “Second, we need greater research and transparency to make good decisions about how we choose and implement these communication systems. It was challenging for us to find evaluation and impact information, as well as cost information, from many of the technology providers we included in the landscape.”

Adds Westmoreland, “Families and educators deserve to have their voices heard when it comes to what’s working and what isn’t working around these systems. We can go a long way to improve family-school communication technologies by listening to them and working with technology providers to help them connect with one another.”

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