Effective Communication and Parent Engagement in a Digital World
School leaders play a vital role in creating opportunities for engaging
and empowering parent involvement in their school communities.
In this article, we look at how technology can expand the possibilities
for effective communication and parental engagement
Brian Coulson & Lou Paonessa
How can school leaders leverage the power of technology to effectively communicate, connect and engage families in their diverse Catholic school communities? The impact of family engagement on student learning and achievement is overwhelming. Research shows that active parental support and engagement contributes to increased student attendance, improved academic performance and a stronger growth mindset for learning.
Today’s 21st century families look to social media, websites, blogs and other forms of communication to stay current and informed. Recent trends show the growing use of digital communication in Canada and across the world. In 2019, approximately 92% of Canadian families reported access to high speed internet with an increasing shift to using mobile devices and social media as a means for communicating, accessing information, purchasing goods online and social networking (CIRA Factbook, 2019).
With technology becoming increasingly part of our social and cultural fabric, Ontario’s Parent Engagement Policy (2010) identifies social media and digital communication as a powerful way to enhance parent voice and “expand the possibilities for communication and parent engagement.”
“Maximizing the use of technology is essential as we approach parent engagement in the twenty-first century.” – Ontario’s Parent Engagement Policy, 2010
Building healthy relationships with parents is at the heart of good communication. Joe Mazza, a principal and well known speaker presenter on community engagement, emphasizes that technology “is not a replacement for personal relationships” but a powerful tool to “enhance those relationships in ways like never before possible” (Marilyn Price Mitchell, Amplify, pg. 1). Social media tools can bolster two-way communication practices that enable school leaders to capture parental feedback and engage parents in collaborative learning partnerships between the school and community.
Digital communication also allows schools to reach out to the broader community more effectively, especially to families who want to take a more active role in their child’s education but face serious challenges due to factors such as language, geography, busy home and work lives. Online surveys and social media tools like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are some of the ways to get more community members virtually connected to their child’s learning, and keep parents updated on school events and important resources for supporting home and school learning.
In his blog, The Principal of Change, George Couros shares many ideas of how we can use social media effectively to bring parents into the learning process. He believes that the thoughtful use of social media can change conversations between parents and students from “What did you learn today, followed by the usual “nothing”, to something much more powerful.” Making learning visible through social media allows opportunities for schools to share authentic learning experiences in real time and invites parents to learn together with their children (George Couros, April 17, 2015, The Opportunity to Bring Parents into the Learning).
“Parents don’t want to be just involved in schools, but engaged in the process of their child’s learning. If you can show how that is possible with real examples, you are more likely to have them excited about the possibilities and more critically, feeling like a partner in the learning process and sharing their expertise on their child with us. That is a beautiful thing.” – George Couros, The Principal of Change, 2013
In the next part of this article, we share the practices and stories of school leaders who are striving to promote student success by engaging parents as partners and co-learners through digital technology.
Tamara Johnson, a teaching Vice-Principal with the St. Clair Catholic School Board, uses twitter, blogs and other digital apps to share their faith and learning stories as classroom and school. Parents receive ongoing twitter posts of students learning as a 21st century classroom and how students and school community are working together as a faith community. Using many different digital formats such as Blogger, Remind and Smore enables her class to “learn out loud” and “invite parents into the conversation “as true partners in our learning journey.” In reflecting on her practice, she says “ultimately, the thinking behind the tool is far more important than the tool. itself.” Social media provides a virtual window for sharing the great things that are happening at the school and a powerful way to promote richer conversations between parents and students.
Gianna Helling is currently a Student Achievement Officer with the Ontario Ministry of Education. As a principal with Toronto Catholic District School Board, she encouraged the use of social media to actively engage the school community in mathematical inquiries. One of her school inquires involved primary students investigating the location for a computer train in their community as part of the proposed Metrolinx project. Parents and other community members were invited to collaborate in the learning through blogs, social media as well as through other experiential learning offered at the school. When the students discovered through their inquiry that “the community lacked information on the Metrolinx project, they advocated for more information and helped organize with their parents and the Trustee a series of community meetings to discuss the project.” Her reflection below on this authentic learning experience highlights the power of technology to build student success through parent and community engagement.
“By posing interesting questions based on students’ lived experience, celebrating the search for answers and giving permission to explore mathematics in meaningful and innovative ways, we transformed learning, not only for students, but for staff and parents as well. The use of technology allowed us to document, monitor and reflect upon our learning, leading to greater student achievement. It also facilitated the exploration and extended the learning by reaching out to parents, and the local community.” – G. Helling, 2016
Schools in the York Catholic District School Board, are engaging parents by having students collect, select and reflect on their learning, via a digital learning platform. Parents are expected to review their child’s ePortfolio twice a year. With the support of their principals, teachers encourage career exploration through the curriculum and empower students to reflect on four inquiry questions:
- Who am I?
- Who do I want to become?
- What are my opportunities?
- What is my plan to achieve my goals?
Not only does this work support the work of the Individual Pathways Plan (IPP), but it makes the learning journey transparent and engages parents in a way that helps to make the curriculum curriculum relevant and supports 21st Century learning competencies. “By making use of G-Suite tool and google sites to curate their artifacts, students are able to reflect on and document their learning in a way that makes the learning transparent and allows their parents, the opportunity to witness their journey through secondary and beyond” (Lou Paonessa, Student Success Specialist with the York Catholic District School Board).
Technology is transforming the way we communicate, learn and interact with one another in our increasingly digital world. Embracing social media and digital technologies not only helps to inform parents and make the good work in Catholic school communities visible and transparent, they can empower parents as co-learners in their child’s education. By engaging our parents in this way, we provide our Catholic school communities with a means to inspire change, provide feedback and come together to improve student learning and achievement.
- CIRA Factbook, 2015, https://acei.ca/factbook/current/the-canadian-internet.html
- Ontario Ministry of Education, Parents in Partnership, A Parent Engagement Policy for Ontario Schools 2010, pg. 9
- Marilyn Price Mitchell, Enhancing Parent-School Partnerships in the Digital Age, 2017
- George Couros, 2013, 5 Ideas to Bring Parents into the Learning Process, https://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/4287
- Tamara Johnson, information shared through personal correspondence, October, 2017
- Gianna Helling, Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Math: Using Technology to Build Engagement For Learning in Math, 2016