Simple Communication Tools for Schools

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This is a follow up to my blog post at the end of November urging educators to improve communication with their students and their families. I contend that publishing basic class information gives parents a window into your classroom and helps students get digitally organized. It’s now easier than ever as a plethora of tools exist to help people publish without a lot of technical steps. Creating and maintaining a class web site also does not have to be a time consuming chore.

Now that holidays are over and schools are back in session, perhaps now is a good time to explore a few recommendations of simple communication tools for schools.  The following are a few that are popular with educators; start playing with one tool that appeals to you and see where it leads!

One method of publishing is through bloggling. Blogs are made up of a series of linear posts.  The following blogging tools share many of the same features which include posting by visiting their website, through mobile devices or by emailing posts. They have design templates which are generally customizable and support the embedding of media such as links, photos, and videos. A few to try are:

Many teachers prefer wikis which are easily editable web pages. Wikis tend to provide more flexibility than blogs in terms of design. Most wiki providers give you a choice of templates and allow for the embedding of widgets which provide additional functionality. For instance, if you are a Google Docs user, you can embed documents in a Wikispaces wiki or you could use Google’s own wiki tool, Google Sites, to do the same thing. While you can usually assign multiple authors to a blog to create individual posts, wikis are better suited for collaborative purposes as you can invite others to edit your entire wiki. A few wiki services to try are:

To see how other teachers are using blogs and wikis, browse through the nominations and winners of the 2010 Edublog Awards and through CASTLE’s list of blogs by discipline and wikis.

Keep in mind that Blogger and Google Sites can be used by themselves or within Google Apps Education Edition if your school has adopted this platform. Wikispaces and PBWorks also offer no cost ad-free wikis to educators and Glogster also has a version for educators. Edublogs is also geared towards school audiences. Education versions of Web 2.0 tools usually give you more security options so that students can use them as well.

Edmodo is another tool worth a look and it defies categorization as a blog or wiki. Designed specifically for schools, Edmodo promotes the concept of micro-blogging and teachers can post easily to their Edmodo space on the web or using a mobile device. Calendars, assignments, links, files, and polls can be shared with students. Groups can be created, and educators can also connect to colleagues.

The selected resources mentioned in this blog post were picked for purely their ease of use and my intention was not to create an overwhelming list that might be interpreted as intimidating. However,  if you are interested in trying additional tools, read on.

Via Twitter, I asked other educators for suggestions of simple to use publishing tools and VoiceThread, Animoto, Wallwisher, and Audioboo were mentioned. Also, Larry Ferlazzo recommends various tools within his great list of his blog posts geared toward tech novices.

If you have any additional tools or strategies that you recommend, share them in the comments of this blog!

One Simple Thing

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One thing teachers can do immediately to benefit students is to communicate electronically with students and their families. There are many options for doing so, and depending on how much autonomy you have within your school, you might want to explore a variety of tools to find the best fit for you and your classroom.

As a former teacher and current learning consultant and parent of two school-aged children, my experiences tell me that clear and regular communication with families is really important. This may seem like a no-brainer, but in this day and age, it’s even more essential. Busy families rely on technology, particularly cell phones, for communication, and papers tend to get lost in the household shuffle.

At my house, we appreciate frequent electronic communication because my sixth grader has a mild executive functioning learning disability, meaning that she has difficulty with organization. As Julia begins junior high, I need quick access to her assignments and grades to make sure everything is running smoothly for her. While I hope I am not “a helicopter parent”, I do know that I have to be in tune with her school life. As a typical pre-adolescent, she’s not always forthcoming about such details!

Given that she’s my kid, it’s not particularly surprising that Julia thrives in a digital environment, too. I decided a few weeks ago that I would help Julia get organized electronically as she received an iPhone as a birthday gift. Experimenting with a web-based tool called LiveBinders, I wanted to organize her teachers’ web sites in one place so that she could quickly access course material on her new device. Much to my surprise, only a couple of her teachers had currently updated web sites. One was published, but contained the original Latin placeholder text that comes standard with Apple’s iWeb software. The teacher had yet to fill in sections of her web site with her own content, and Julia thought her teacher’s web site was in Spanish when she saw this!

I’m uncomfortable publicly criticizing schools where my children attend, and I have to say that in all other ways, we are really happy and impressed with Julia’s school. Her teachers are energetic, love teaching, and care about our daughter. I do wonder why more of her teachers aren’t utilizing the web more efficiently to help kids and their families, though. At her previous school, Julia regularly accessed the web site of her world language teacher who posted assignments, handouts, and audio files to support student learning and it made a huge difference in helping Julia learn to help herself.

It’s always been a struggle to get teachers to see the value in communicating with students and families via the web. People don’t have time, don’t see the point, and don’t readily see the benefits for publishing a web page. Some teachers I’ve known believe that posting assignments enables students to not accurately keep their traditional assignment notebooks.

When this issue came up with my daughter’s school, I felt that it was not my place to dictate what teachers should do, and thought perhaps I was missing something about this debate. Thus, I posted the following question to my Facebook page, and trusted friends and acquaintances from all walks of my life responded:

Do you think teachers should keep an updated web page to communicate with parents? Is it really that difficult to post a minimum of information to keep parents (and kids) updated?

The responses varied, but all agreed some sort of communication was essential. One teacher noted that she had less parent phone calls and email because everything was clearly posted on her class website. Another said she kept a blog, and the parents loved it, while a third indicated, “My parents, over the years, have come to depend on updated information available 24/7 as well as a way to connect with other parents.” And another teacher friend wrote, “When my son was in middle school, the teachers posted all the homework assignments to their district web pages each day. It made a HUGE difference to us! My son has ADD and having that information available 24/7 helped keep him on track. Now that he is in HS, there is nothing like that available and I really miss that.” Even a university professor shared how she’s utilizing the web in her courses, “I regularly use email, wikispaces, university course management software, and so on in my classes. I even use blogs to ‘channel’ student questions and discussion. I’m not the world’s most creative person, but even I can take advantage of these tools to make my teaching better.”

On the negative side, another friend who’s involved in the PTA at her daughter’s school wrote, “I can’t even get my 3rd grader’s teacher to answer an e-mail….The teachers in our district were all given websites a few years ago, and were expected to use them. I have yet to see one who does it…..I do the website and e-mail for our PTA, and have been able to track how well we are actually staying in touch. Very few parents check our website; site visits are virtually nonexistent between e-mail messages. In other words, they only go if I remind them, AND usually only for something they really want or need to know. In middle school, parents are expected to get online daily to check on their children. However, there seems to be no expectation that the teachers will update in a timely and accurate way–I am very disappointed in the fact that we’ve invested so much in technology, and this is the best we can do.” This opens up another can of worms in terms of expected norms and accountability in the use of technology in schools.

Finally, another educator added to our Facebook thread with a creative spin around the student role in communication, “What I do instead is frequently write lengthy newsletters and updates; I’m a familiar name in the parents’ email inboxes. I try to give the overall perspective on what’s going on, but not details about assignment due dates, etc. (unless it’s a really big assignment and parental involvement would be helpful). Every other week or so, I assign my students the task of taking their parents on tours of our class online network. There the parents will see descriptive student essays (blogs) on recent activities, photos, reviews of books, and the like. They’ll be able to look at recent conversations the kids and I have been having.” How about this approach for promoting student autonomy!

At any rate, to answer my original question, there really is no right or wrong way to communicate with parents, just as long as teachers do it on a regular and consistent basis. Giving parents a window into the life of your clasroom is beneficial for so many reasons and it doesn’t have to be difficult.

In a follow up post sometime in the next few weeks, I’ll suggest some ways for getting started if you want to go the electronic route. In the meantime, I hope that teachers who are already leveraging blogs, wikis, and other kinds of web spaces will share their sites in the comments in order to inspire others.

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