Rummaging around in a child’s school bag almost invariably produces something scary, ranging from a forgotten sandwich to notice of a parent-teacher meeting — two weeks earlier. Schools can’t do much about the sandwiches but they have been increasingly turning to electronic communication to reach parents.
The problem is, not all parents have equal access to technology, nor do they all have the same level of comfort with it. Josée Thivierge, an educational consultant with Le Centre d’étude des conditions de vie et des besoins de la population (ÉCOBES) at Cégep de Jonquière, is leading a study into high school parents’ access to digital tools and how they use them. The project is one of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s Community and College Social Innovation Fund grants.
“Schools are communicating more and more with internet,” Thivierge said in an interview. “But disadvantaged parents may not have a computer. If they do, they may be shy of using it. We are looking for the best ways to reach parents who are not in front of computers all day long.”
In particular, parents who don’t speak French, or parents who have limited formal education may feel cut off from their child’s school if it mainly communicates electronically. They may also be reluctant to send messages, and therefore not ask questions they want answered. That matters, because research shows getting parents involved in education is a major factor in students’ success, linked to increased motivation and academic achievement.
Beyond straightforward messages about individual students, schools often use electronic media to explain important issues to parents, such as the implications of a student dropping math. That one decision shapes their education and potentially their whole life — but parents uncomfortable with searching through links and websites may not be able to discuss the pros and cons effectively and help their student choose. Even parents who have computers, but not much experience with them, or a language problem, may be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information on Google, and welcome some guidance or tailored content on a website.
The first year of the project will be dedicated to exploring the access parents have to digital tools, and how they use them. The second will focus on designing a communications strategy and the tools to implement it so more parents feel at home using electronic tools to support their children through their school years.
Some parents have been excited to watch online video of a class in action — finding it much more informative than a teenager’s grunted answer. Would they like a Facebook page? What about a website that lets them check the schedule (or even if the student is in school). Videos about college could be created — perhaps ultimately the same basic videos can be used by every college in Québec. Thivierge doesn’t know yet: the SSHRC grant has given her the opportunity to explore. “I have a big team in my college for this work. I appreciate the liberty of that, because there is room for innovation.”