Guest Post: Did the Tech fail or was there a failure to connect to the Tech?

I invited Myrdin Thompson to write a guest commentary on the article discussed in my last post, Tech May Have A Role, But Is Not Cure-All, For Parent Engagement.

Myrdin is Contributing Editor at MOMentumNation, Group Leader at RESULTSLouisville, Advocate for the UNF Shot@Life program, White House Champion of Change (Parents on Education), Regional Director at National Family Engagement Alliance, and public school parent of three students. She lives in Louisville, KY.

Our school district in Louisville, KY is similar in size and scope to the Dallas school district mentioned in a recent article about Parent Portal. We are a diverse, urban district, with a student population of just over 110,000, consisting of a large ESL (English as a second language) student population, and a robust magnet school program.

And we use parent portal. Not perfectly, but effectively, connecting middle and high school students and their families with teachers and the school community as a whole. Parent Portal can serve as a great home-school connection tool, offering parents (and families) access to student assignments and grades, as well as encouraging teacher to home correspondence. But it is only one tool that our school district provides in order to facilitate stronger partnerships with families which can hopefully lead to an increase in student success. Our district also has a monthly newsletter (which is both mailed and can be accessed electronically), a easily navigable website, and key staff (including our district superintendent) can be found using social media, such as Twitter. Our school board also works with district PTA and other community members and encourages parents, grandparents, and extended family members to serve on key communications committees as well as school site-based management boards. In addition, our district leadership has held a series of community meetings encouraging public participation and building better relationships.

But the technology is only effective if effectively communicated about. It sounds from the article that the Dallas school district staff, teachers, and principals have tried (through different methods of engagement) to encourage families to utilize this communication system…and have somehow failed.

Certainly part of the issue is a lack of dedicated technology in a student’s home. This can mean that while a family has a cell phone, they don’t necessarily have a smart phone or the ability to support the parent portal application. In addition, we often assume that student’s have computers, laptops, or tablets which support and enable their learning opportunities in their home environment. Far too often this is not true. As the economy has faltered, many families are giving up access to cable as well as broadband or wi-fi access as a way to save money. Furthermore, for many students, the only place they can access technology is either at school or by visiting a public library. For example, many students frequent the local library I live nearby immediately after school, but because there are a limited amount of computers and also a time limit attached to computer usage, this may actually prevent connection with the parent portal. And while the adults in their lives may also go to the library, it may be that they have a rather long laundry list of items to address on the computer as well, and visiting Parent Portal may not be the priority.

The perspective in the article given by parent Dawn McMullan who fears that Parent Portal usage may “enable parents to micromanage their children’s lives.” It has been my experience within my district that this is far from the reality. Knowing what assignments my High School freshman son has helps me keep him on schedule, as I only remind him, whether he does the assignment is actually his personal responsibility, not mine. In addition, knowing his grades as he turns in assignments helps all of us know what areas he may need to pay closer attention too and focus on. It seems that Ms. McMullan’s attitude about Parent Portal is echoed in her community as evidenced by the lack of users.

And that to me is the real failure of the technology. Not that is is flawed, far from it, but that it’s purpose and potential have been somehow ineffectively communicated to the community. There seem to have been some crucial conversations missed prior to the introduction of the Parent Portal. And it although it appears that the district has made some effort to help train parents (via the Parent Teacher Association or other parent groups) it has continually fallen short.

Parent Portal is but one tool, and effectively used can facilitate greater collaborations and partnerships between a school and home, empowering parents by giving them knowledge (grades, attendance, assignments) which can help them help their children. But reliance on one method neglects other opportunities for engagement: open houses, having district personnel visit community centers, houses of worship, or libraries. It assumes that the families which haven’t signed up are neglectful or uninterested in their child’s academic life when it could be

  • a lack of understanding of how technology works (due to a language barrier) or
  • a lack of time (working multiple jobs or only having access when support staff are perhaps unavailable) or
  • a a lack of technology all together.
I get the sense that the district is frustrated and feeling discouraged by this lack of participation. I would suggest that they connect with those families who are using Parent Portal and ask them to be ambassadors to the program. Encourage and support public forums where parents tell other parents about how beneficial they have found Parent Portal to be, and then have district staff assist those in attendance on signing up. These meetings can be held at the school during an already scheduled event or at a library or even community center. These parents could speak to Ms. McMullan’s fears about micromanaging a student’s academic life by pointing out that it actually helps create better parent-student communication and partnerships concerning education and the purpose of going to school. By being engaged, having a dialogue and planning together, all family members have an investment in the student’s academic success. Create videos featuring these parent ambassadors telling success stories and again, show how easy it is to sign up and utilize. While it’s great that a Principal or teacher may remind someone to sign up, wouldn’t it be better to stop a parent, take them to a computer lab, and sign them up

Technology without technical support is always going to be a “tech fail” no matter how great the tech is. And the only ones who are truly failed in the process are the students, who need all the support they can get in order to reach their fullest potential.

One thought on “Guest Post: Did the Tech fail or was there a failure to connect to the Tech?

  1. From my educator perspective I can tell you that many campuses and districts do a very poor job of informing parents of the tech tools that are available to them including parent portals. This could be for many reasons including insufficient personnel or family participation not being of high importance in the campus plan. I have had so many parents tell me they had no idea they could check on their child’s grades and attendance at home. In the end, schools need to do a better job about informing parents of technology initiatives but above that parents that are disengaged from meaningful conversations with teachers are unlikely to engage in parent portals either. However, family engagement from afar-usually found in secondary schools, can be successfully implemented using parent portals. Secondary family engagement can be successful using technology such as e-mail and checking in through parent portals because students don’t always want their parents on campus but need the additional support.
    Lastly, as a founder of eJucomm, my tech start-up, I assist our schools in helping market our Family Kinex app to ensure maximum exposure. We try and help every way because we know what it’s like to be on a campus and having 100 initiatives and not enough time. We help our schools so more families can be connected through our app with the most important information for family engagement through tech.

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