Please join me in welcoming my guest, Brent Thurrell. Brent is the CEO of Scholabo Ltd a company he founded to help his children’s school reduce their reliance on paper and move their communications strategy into the 21st century. What started as a small project rapidly developed into a passion to help strengthen the relationship between schools and parents everywhere. Before Scholabo, Brent worked in the world of information security and identity management across multiple projects in sectors from global finance through to government and defence.
Brent saw an article I wrote for Innovate My School entitled How to integrate Web 2.0 tools into the classroom and contacted me to chat about social networks in schools. When I heard his thoughts, I asked if he’d share his vision with my readers. Here are his thoughts:
Unlocking Social Networking for Schools
If you read the title of this article and the blood in your veins runs cold at the mere mention of ‘social networking’, chances are you’re probably a teacher. Don’t worry though– this is a very common reaction and this article has been written to ease your now elevated heart rate and, hopefully, give you a new perspective about how the ‘principles’ of social networking can be applied to positive effect in your school.
To start with, we are not going to be talking here about social networking involving any form of pupil participation – that should have you relaxing already! Instead we will be focussing upon exploring the role it can play to support Parental Engagement initiatives and bridge the growing communications gap between Schools and today’s Parents.
Increasingly the Primary or Junior School parent is a Generation Y’er (born after 1979); children of the hyper-connected Internet age. Longer working hours, increased commuting time and two income families mean that personal interactions between Gen Y and schools are limited. Almost all, no-matter what their profession, use smart phones as if surgically attached to their hand. Indeed 96% of Gen Y relies (yes – relies!) upon social networking to communicate and stay in touch with friends, family and colleagues, higher than any other age demographic. Social media has become their weapon of choice in helping them to cut through the sheer volume of information and data that they are bombarded with each day, to tune out the noise and be presented with only the information of importance to them.
So, given the undisputed global trend toward social networking and the clear desire of the parent of today and tomorrow to use it, what role does it play in the way that your school currently engages with its parent community? The answer in the vast majority of cases is – “it doesn’t”.
It must be said that this absence has been for good reasons too. The global ‘open social networks’ such as Facebook, Myspace, Google+ and Twitter etc present a whole host of issues for schools such as ownership, control and moderation not to mention concerns around security and privacy.
The challenge therefore is how can schools address the growing communications gap and provide parents with pertinent information via a medium that is relevant to them? There is also the additional challenge of how this can be achieved without increasing workload and complexity for teaching staff.
For some schools, the answer has presented itself in the form of ‘Private Social Networking’ or specifically, in a service named Scholabo (www.scholabo.com). Scholabo uniquely marries the usability and flexibility of social networking tools with the privacy, security and control that schools require in order to communicate and collaborate effectively with their parent communities.
Working on an invite only basis, the school controls who has the ability to access their Scholabo site ensuring that it remains a trusted and secure environment in which to share information, classroom updates, private messages, documents, photos, events, news, homework assignments, learning and reference materials.
Parents select which teachers or classes they wish to receive updates from, meaning that they only get presented with and are alerted to, the information that affects them and their children directly. Schools using Scholabo report seeing an average of 80% of families sign up within the first two weeks of launch with most reaching a plateau around 90% to 95% take-up within the first couple of months.
It is clear therefore from the adoption of the service that parent communities are responding well to being engaged with in this way (testimonial feedback supports this too), but what of the impact on the teachers and staff members that are on the other side of this communication equation?
We can start to answer this by examining the common reactions that teaching staff usually have when first informed of the planned adoption of this type of communication vehicle, balanced against the reality of their experiences.
How much of my time is it going to take up?
A teacher’s job is of course to teach, so the less time a ‘non-core’ activity takes, the better. Schools using Scholabo reported in a survey that their teachers find communicating with the system has actually saved them a significant amount of time each week. Activities which have been eradicated or streamlined include printing, photocopying, distributing, collating permission slips and the need to repeat conversations to multiple parents at the school door each morning– the list goes on.
Yet another ICT tool I need to learn how to use!
There will be a good proportion of staff in any school that will be reluctant to want to invest the time in ‘yet another new IT system’; “if it takes longer than a break-time to master – forget it!”. The same maxim goes for parents too. Scholabo consequently provides the point and click, what you see is what you get, interface synonymous with social networks that creates immediate familiarity for the user no matter what their IT competency. As a consequence there is no requirement for formal training of any kind meaning that adoption into school life is rapid.
Isn’t ‘online’ communication dangerous for schools and teachers?
We have all read horror stories about what happens when the school gate chatter goes online and spirals out of control. This is one of the major pitfalls of open social networks, no moderation and unclear ownership of comment. Scholabo moves the school closer to engaging with the modern ‘vocal’ parent on their own territory, but this time in a controlled, moderated fashion. Schools have found that potential issues have been avoided simply by providing an outlet for parents to express their views privately, online, which may have otherwise spiralled out of control and unchecked elsewhere. It is also worth noting that Scholabo allows schools to control the level of interaction available to their parents, for example; disabling private messaging or forum posts.
With the main concerns alleviated then, what are some of the realities and associated benefits that schools have found by using private social networking to communicate? Well, there are many which have been evidenced but here are the four most common benefits that schools have experienced:
Eradication of school communication bottlenecks
How many people in your school are responsible or have the capability to update the website with the latest newsletter or issue a text message to a group of parents? The answer is probably only a few; in most cases it is one! By leveraging a devolved social networking model, Scholabo empowers teachers to control their own messaging, documents, photos etc, without the need to rely on a central figure.
Parents become more involved
By streamlining the way in which parents receive updates about all things relevant to them through a medium which is accessible 24 hours a day 7 days a week, no matter where that parent is in the world. As a consequence parents feel better equipped to direct conversation around school life and class activities at home further consolidating the child’s learning. Some schools have also extended the reach of their Scholabo site to provide the PTA, Governors and other school groups an online voice to connect with parents, further strengthening the school community.
Parent response rates improved
Schools using Scholabo have reported that on average parent response rates to information requests jump by as much as 40% within the first two months of use. The “it wasn’t in the book-bag” or “I never received the letter” excuses disappear and teachers report a significant improvement in the timely completion of homework tasks.
Ecological and Financial benefits
A Primary / Junior school with 190 pupils on roll will use around 60,000 sheets of paper per year on school to home communications, equivalent to one tonne of carbon. The financial savings schools have experienced by shifting to online communication rather than paper, print and copy range between a few hundred to a few thousand pounds per year.
So, the evidence presented here begins to demonstrate that whilst the tools of the past have not necessarily been the right ones for schools to use, the underlying principles of social networking and web 2.0 do in fact have a place in a modern educational setting. With heavy emphasis on control, privacy, security and moderation, schools can and are beginning to engage in an online dialogue with parents to involve them in and inform them about school life to a greater extent than ever before.
Brent can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org