Direction or Freedom?
Finding balance between freedom and direction can be difficult for a teacher and it can be even more daunting for an administrator – especially where technology is concerned. I remember one of the first technology committees I ever served on. It was the late 1990’s (I’m old) and I was teaching middle school at the time in a rather large private school. Since I was a relatively-young, technologically inclined teacher, I was asked to be on this brand new committee which would focus on technological issues the school needed to address. Back then one of the major issues was getting all teachers to use e-mail to communicate with parents. It was a big step for many at that time. Internet plagiarism was another big problem – especially since not all teachers had internet in their homes yet (it was a simpler time). But as I was reflecting on this Module 3 – “Model digital age work and learning”, I thought of a particular incident. As I said, I was one of a number of technologically inclined teachers selected for this committee and we wanted to tap into the promise of technology to assist us in our jobs as teachers. The late 90’s were still the early days of the internet – especially in education. Amazon.com wasn’t created until 1994 and Google wasn’t invented until 1998, so it should come as no surprise that the school had no learning management system (LMS) or learning content management system (LCMS). This stuff was practically science fiction. We all kept grades in our quaint paper grade books and we manually calculated scores at the end of every quarter. But some of us on the tech committee came across a few early online LMS programs. These were essentially grade book and assignment-posting programs. We marveled at what they represented: not only would our grade calculations become infinitely easier, but we could post assignments online and students and parents could keep track of their grades in real-time! This was just what we were looking for – a way to open the channels of communication by with students and parents like never before. We were very excited as we presented this idea to the administration, essentially asking permission to utilize the online grade book program. And we were equally crestfallen when the administration essentially told us “no.” What they told us, actually, was that while we were not specifically prohibited from using the program, we were not encouraged to do so either (a classic no-decision decision); nor would the school officially adopt it. When we asked why the school didn’t want to go ahead with this, we were told the school was afraid that (and I’m totally serious here) teachers might spell words wrong on their page. Also, since these were commercial third-party sites, they were afraid of what advertising might appear on the page (a more reasonable concern). Thus ended my first foray into trying to utilize an LMS. The school couldn’t control it, therefore we weren’t encouraged to use it. This wouldn’t be so bad, except the school offered no alternative at the time. Freedom (and progress) was sacrificed for the sake of administrative oversight.
This sacrifice, this conflict, was on my mind as I looked at ISTE Teacher Standard 3, “model digital age work and learning.” I thought about indicator C which calls for us to “communicate relevant information and ideas to students, parents, and peers using a variety of digital age media and formats” (ISTE #3). In 199x, the school where I was teaching was actively discouraging this idea. I realize it’s not really fair to blame the school since this was fairly early-on in the tech age, but I think it’s a useful example to frame the discussion. Today, of course, we’re somewhat horrified at such shortsightedness, but in some ways we’re not that much better off. Today’s teachers generally have a great deal of latitude in utilizing technology – schools have encouraged and adopted everything from Edmodo to Facebook to Twitter, which is fantastic, but sometimes this comes at the cost of consistency, clarity, and purpose – not to mention the amount of teacher time that has to be invested in each one. In short, we have more tools at our disposal, but often don’t use them effectively. We lack direction. My question for this module focuses on the ISTE3c goal of “communicating with students, parents, teachers and peers,” but what I want to better understand are the processes by which the “digital age media and formats” are selected and implemented – and much of the discussion seems centered around the balance between freedom and direction.
My search for a resource to answer my question took me all over the map. The most helpful sources I came across seemed to fall into one of two categories: software-based sites devoted to LMS’s and LCMS’s, which would include corporate sites promoting their specific products as well as tech sites reviewing various school software programs, and general postings on education sites about parent-teacher communication.
Software Sites – LMS’s and LCMS’s
William Fenton’s overview of the best LMS’s of 2017 for PC Magazine is a good place to start. In it, he provides an overview of different features of LMS’s (including what makes something a LCMS) as well as their service plans and relative costs. This is helpful for defining some of the basic terms and comparing different systems, but it is not the truly integrated approach I was hoping for.
Continuing in the software realm, I came across Steve Williams, who wrote a piece for Campus Suite. Campus Suite is provides web hosting services for schools as well as text, voice, e-mail, social media, and app notification systems. Their line of products, “unifies all your school communications into one, simple platform.” In promoting their product Williams writes about the “6 Key School Communication Channels and How to Use Them.” They are:
1. Promotion of school happenings and news (e.g., achievements, events, etc.)
2. Time-critical school information (e.g., school closings, policies, etc.)
3. PTO events and other important issues
4. Leadership and education improvement ideas (e.g., parent resources)
5. School levy and community outreach (including fundraising)
6. Stories and imagery of the school’s impact on the community (cool human interest content, alumni, photos, videos)
This post includes some key communication elements I’m looking for, like news and parent resources as well as community and alumni information, but it’s geared solely for administrators. Not that this is bad, but I want the whole enchilada. I want the system that works with parents, administrators, and teachers. I want to see content, communication, and collaboration across the spectrum of stakeholders. And I would like to see an overarching philosophy of how these systems are to be utilized. I was, quite frankly, a bit disappointed in the division of labor for school software systems. Why can’t the school manage an effective, complete system that allows for all facets of communicating relevant information and ideas to students, parents, and peers using a variety of digital age media and formats? Is this giving too much control to the school?
The reality, though, is that the software sites tend to be more oriented towards to product they are selling (or reviewing, as the case may be) and not geared towards any policy considerations, which, to be fair, is not their goal. To look for philosophy, I would have to look at education-oriented websites.
Ed Sites – The Promise and Pitfall of Parent-Teacher Communication
On the other side of the spectrum, we have the teacher-oriented sites that seek to give advise to teachers and, in some cases administrators, on how to improve communication.
Linda Flanagan’s piece for Mindshift looks at “What Can be Done to Improve Parent-Teacher Communication.” One of her key components for improving communication is for the school to help set the tone and the parameters for communication. She writes, “Despite obstacles, schools can do much to help teachers contact parents, starting with establishing norms for communication that defuse built-in tensions and make allowances for teachers’ time” (Flanagan). I hardily agree with Flanagan and I like that she also included respect for teachers’ time in her analysis. This is often overlooked. More importantly, this is a good step towards the school taking a more pro-active approach to communication; an approach which would, hopefully, increase teacher efficiency and efficacy in communicating information and ideas to parents, students, and peers. Communicating effectively is not only part of ISTE standard 3, it is also one of the six “Deeper Learning Skills” Jennifer Kabaker writes about in her piece on micro-credentialing. This endeavor seeks to track and reward teacher progress on a variety of fronts, one of which is directly tied to this fundamental issue.
The piece that I am using as my resource for this question is Anne O’Brien’s post on Edutopia about “What parents want in school communication.” O’Brien uses a survey from the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) to examine what parents what. She breaks down the topics according to what news they want, how they want to receive it, and when they want to receive it. The chart below illustrates her main points.
I believe the second section proves my earlier point about administrative vs. teacher software systems. Parents expect information from both administration and teachers, so why don’t we conceptualize the system that facilitates the communication as a whole? Why are we separating grade books from e-mail from content delivery from collaboration from school announcements and so on? The demand for unity is there – as is the demand for speed (see section 3 on “when they want it”). O’Brien writes, “As NSPRA President Ron Koehler points out, ‘Consumer needs are changing. The backpack folder is no longer the primary source of information for parents. They want and prefer instant electronic information. … [T]he data demonstrates parents and non-parents alike turn to the web when they need information, and they want it now.'”
So is more support, guidance, and oversight from schools the answer improving teacher communication? Perhaps partly, but direction comes at a cost. Any administrative oversight comes at the cost of limiting the freedom teachers have to implement systems of their choosing and communicating in their own way. Nicole Krueger’s piece on the ISTE website addresses the issue of teachers’ resistance to administrative meddling with regards to technology, “A frank conversation with just about any teacher will reveal that classroom innovation is often hampered — if not suppressed entirely — by school or district policies. Policies that restrict cell phone use, social media or other emerging technologies may have made sense at one time, but it’s getting harder to justify keeping these powerful tools out of students’ hands.” (Krueger). The lag between what is happening in the classroom and the discussion, debate, adoption, and implementation of administrative policies can seem enormous – especially given the speed at which technology changes. More involvement from school administration will undoubtedly hamper some creativity and flexibility, but the question remains, is it worth it for the sake of uniformity and consistency?
Flanagan also points out a number of difficulties in schools establishing norms for school communication. Although she advocates more frequent “light touch” communication from teachers, she acknowledges the problems. “’Implementation barriers’ are the first hurdle, Kraft says, including defunct email addresses and phone numbers, language barriers and outdated address books. Even more troublesome is the absence of norms, in most schools, on the frequency and content of teacher-parent communication. ‘There’s no clear expectation on best practices, or what that communication should look like,’ he explained. The limitations of the clock also factor in: Teachers in large public schools who might be teaching as many as 150 kids a day are hard-pressed to find time for meaningful one-on-one communication with parents” (Flanagan). Several points from this quote stand out to me. The first is time. I “only” have about 100 students a day (far less than many teachers). If I was, let’s say, required to send an e-mail to each one every month – even just to drop a note of encouragement, and if each e-mail took only 5 minutes to write, that’s 500 minutes, which is over 8 hours! Would the school provide an extra paid work-day once a month for me to write students? Is it worth it? Where does the time come from? I don’t have any answers, but nor does anyone else it seems. The second issue I find even more discouraging and it’s the “absence of norms” and the lack of any best practices. Flanagan is quoting Matthew Kraft who carried out much of the research relating to parent-teacher communication she uses in her article, and he hasn’t found any. His position is that it’s needed, but it doesn’t really exist right now. It’s shocking to think that we have so much technology – so many choices – but so little direction.
It’s hard not to walk away a bit discouraged from my question. The search for a comprehensive view of how to “communicate relevant information and ideas to students, parents, and peers using a variety of digital age media and formats” is elusive. The various media formats to be used are numerous and diverse, but can lack unity. Best practices, on a school-wide level, seem difficult, if not impossible, to find. Perhaps it’s not the job of the school but the individual teacher? Maybe every teacher should just do their own thing? But that seems antithetical to what we in digital education leadership are trying to achieve. The school should be working to facilitate this communication, not leave it to chance. Teachers should be encouraged and supported in this endeavor. Technology should be adopted and implemented in such a way that the message from all facets of the school program is easily accessible and consistent. Norms should be established and best practices should be promoted. In some ways this can be seen as discouraging, but in another way it’s optimistic. I can’t help but think back to that first tech committee I was on. We had no idea what we were doing and the administration wasn’t really on-board with using computers for communication. That has changed. There’s plenty of freedom, but not much direction. The norms and best practices are yet to be written. We’re only now just starting to ask the questions and we have the opportunity, as digital education leaders, to help write the answers.
Connecting to ISTE TS #3, reflect on a tool/resource your school and/or district uses for communicating with colleagues, parents, etc. What makes it effective? How could the use of this resource be improved? (Be sure to use your leadership lens) 2 paragraphs.
I’ve used numerous communication tools/resources in my 20+ years of teaching. In fact, part of why I entered this program was because of my frustration with the inadequacies in this area. Fortunately, the LMS we are using at my current job is pretty good. We are currently using Rediker (https://www.rediker.com/). It combines a number of elements that makes it makes it an effective and efficient system. It has a portal for student and parent access, a grade book for teachers, and it also has some content capabilities. For example, I can post an assigned reading as a document to the class files page, enter that assignment in their “upcoming assignments” on the portal (which also adds it to their calendar) and simultaneously add it to my grade book. If I need to send an e-mail to a parent, I can click on their name in my grade book and it automatically opens Outlook with the parent’s e-mail address filled in. It’s a pretty effective system.
I think the biggest advantage for the system is transparency. Students can see their grades right away, see what’s coming up, and access content all in one place. It helps eliminate mistakes – on both ends. One time I entered the wrong number of points possible on a particular assignment (I entered it as x/100 instead of x/20 – or something like that) and the next day I had a dozen or so angry students wondering why they all failed the last assignment. I was embarrassed and quickly fixed the error, but it was good to know so many kids were keeping tabs on their grades. One last testimony to the effectiveness of our system comes from a scenario where someone missed a day of class because of an appointment. She had an assignment due the next day but she didn’t do it because she said she didn’t know about it. “Did you check the student portal?” I asked. “No.” “Did you check the calendar?” – “No.” “Did you see the reading on the class files page?” – “No.” Having run out of excuses she said, “I don’t like this new system. We don’t have an excuse to not do our work anymore.” Maybe that’s the best endorsement of all.
Flanagan, Linda (November 17, 2015). “What Can Be Done To Improve Parent-Teacher Communication?”. Mindshift. Retrieved from https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/11/17/what-can-be-done-to-improve-parent-teacher-communication/
Fenton, William (March 28, 2017). “The Best LMS (Learning Management Systems) of 2017.” PC Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2488347,00.asp
ISTE (2008). “ISTE Standards for Teachers.” International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/standards/standards-for-teachers
Kabaker, J. (2015). Supporting deeper learning in the classroom. Retrieved from http://www.digitalpromise.org/blog/entry/supporting-deeper-learning-in-the-classroom
Crompton, H. (2014, July 24). Know the ISTE Standards-T 3: Model digital age learning.
Krueger, N. (2014, June 28). “3 barriers to innovation education leaders must address.” ISTE. Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/explore/articleDetail?articleid=98&category=ISTE-Connects-blog&article=3-barriers-to-innovation-education-leaders-must-address
O’Brien, Anne (2011, August 31). “What Parents Want in School Communication.” Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/parent-involvement-survey-anne-obrien