How Does Your School Use Technology to Connect Families?

Educators are changing how they collaborate with parents.

Posted Aug 06, 2019

Source: monkeybusiness/DepositPhotos

Building family-school partnerships is an essential part of supporting learning. For the past several decades, the research on family engagement has shown that students do better in school and life when schools work in partnership with parents.

While back-to-school nights remain an important opportunity for parents to meet teachers and gain information about their child’s classroom experiences, more schools are expanding their digital footprints to connect with parents in other ways.

The potential benefits of technology are huge for parents and students. In schools where many languages are spoken, and large numbers of children are from low-income backgrounds, modern technology can help involve parents like never before by reaching them where they are. These connections can further developmental equity, the right that all children have to the relationships and experiences that help them thrive in school and life.

“Technology is not a replacement for personal relationships,” emphasizes Joe Mazza, principal at Seven Bridges Middle School in Chappaqua, NY. “But it allows us to enhance those relationships in ways never before possible.”

Mazza has championed the role of technology to enhance parent-school partnerships for the past decade. He uses Twitter to connect to other principals and educators, share best practices, and collaborate about educational innovation.  

Most school principals have been slow to adopt attitudes and behaviors that transcend a system originally designed to keep parents outside of the learning and policy-making process.

But principals like Mazza and others are using the digital age to force schools to change—to break down barriers between home and school. While social media and other forms of digital communications can stretch the comfort zones of teachers and administrators accustomed to more rigid boundaries, researchers firmly believe that improved collaboration with parents has long-term benefits for student learning and development.

The Power of Face-to-Face Relationships

Psychologists understand that personal relationships are at the core of how humans evolve. To think that technology will replace face-to-face relationships is risky and irresponsible. Rather, the future of family-school partnerships rests in how technology supports and amplifies human engagement.

At the 2019 Principals Conference in Boston, Mazza introduced ParentCamp, a nonprofit organization with services designed to bring families and educators together in a face-to-face environment to discuss what is best for kids.

ParentCamp leaders, Julia Pile and Laura Gilchrist, know parenting and education firsthand. Julia, a working mom, became involved in her daughter’s school when she was in Kindergarten. In her first years of experience with PTA, Julia said she felt like an outsider and was sure other parents felt the same. She wanted to make a difference, helping all families feel welcomed.

Laura Gilchrist, an award-winning teacher of more than 25 years, champions ParentCamps, because “they fill the relationship gap between parents, teachers, and communities through a process that gives the adults choice, voice and autonomy and slaps the name tag ‘learner and leader’ onto everyone the minute they walk in the door.”

ParentCamp events are powerful, face-to-face opportunities for parents to connect. Technology plays a big role in marketing events, virtual training of facilitators, distribution of pre- and post-participant surveys, registration, virtual de-briefing, and much more. On Twitter, ParentCamp holds a weekly #ParentCampChat that engages parents and teachers in conversations that further the dialogue on family-school partnerships.

A decade ago, similar face-to-face discussions between parents and schools were more tedious to organize and run because of a lack of technological resources. Long hours would be spent training facilitators and organizing meeting logistics. With the advent of new technology, organizations like ParentCamp can make a broader impact in schools.

How Virtual Connections Play a Role in Family Engagement

Technology makes new kinds of family engagement possible.

Communication apps, like ClassDogo, Remind, Bloomz, and Seesaw, give teachers the ability to send text messages, video summaries, photos from field trips, class notes, and other information directly to parents.

Video conferencing, like Zoom and Skype, makes it possible for parents to participate in discussions and class activities from remote locations.

Private Facebook Groups help parents stay informed and volunteer for school-sponsored activities.

Digital portfolios that store student’s work in the cloud allow parents to better understand, appreciate, and encourage their child’s core abilities.  

Technology like MealTrain, Lotsa Helping Hands, and other apps helps neighbors and school communities care for each other during challenging times. They help build positive, caring relationships that are at the heart of every school.

Please feel free to share apps and other online resources that your school uses to build positive family-school relationships in the comments section of this article. The list is endless.

Can Virtual Engagement Enhance Student Learning?  

Most researchers would say it is too soon to tell, that we need more data. But when we look at this type of engagement through the lens of systems-thinking—the view that interconnected and complex relationships improve learning and innovation—there is considerable research to suggest positive outcomes for children, families, educators, and society.

For example, parents, grandparents, and other adults who remotely follow a field trip or school activity are likely to engage children in deeper conversations about their experiences. Beyond a simple, “How was your day?” an adult might say, “I heard about your simulated earthquake experience! Tell me more about it!” Stories would likely be exchanged, extending learning from school to the broader world.

How can schools use technology and social media to engage families in conversations rather than simply pushing out information?

This question is vital because relationship-building is the most important aspect of any family-school partnership. Relationships are also at the heart of how children and teens grow and develop into successful adults.

As digital media becomes more integrated into the lives of schools and families, it has the potential to create collaborative learning communities that better meet the social, emotional, and intellectual needs of students. But if schools use technology only as a way to inform rather than engage parents, valued two-way communication is diminished.

The timely and interactive aspect of technology is what shows tremendous promise for building partnerships between home and school. Not only can it improve children’s learning, but it also has the potential to develop collaborative educational policies that foster innovation and social change.

Ready or not, ground-breaking technology is being developed at lightning speeds. New opportunities exist to build collaborative partnerships between families and schools that help kids thrive in school and life.

What is your school's digital action plan? How will you use technology to support and amplify family engagement?