Communication: In the information age, keeping students and parents informed should be easier than ever before—never more so than when the gateway to all this information is portable.
iPad as a complete class communication tool
Every school is quick to tell parents that communication is paramount, but finding a vehicle for that communication which is both accessible for the student and readily updatable by the teacher is not so easy .
Traditional student diaries tick the “accessible for the student” box, but cannot be updated by the teacher remotely; school intranets can be updated remotely, but the student can only access them when they happen to be in front of a PC, Mac or laptop.
It’s the combined fact that iPads are not only online, but also constantly with students that make them so uniquely suited for class-wide communication. This confluence means that students don’t need to do anything out of the ordinary to stay informed—excursion details, homework requirements, permission slips, reminders, cancellations, rubrics, extension activities and more can all be right there on the one device, in a format that’s accessible, searchable, and (as long as they know where their iPad is) impossible to lose.
Ticking three big boxes
Whatever the technology used, a school communication system has to be able to work with three fundamental types of information:
Notifications of the tell-everyone-at-once type, such as information about an upcoming excursion; archives, where students can expect to find any past communication that they need to reference. (Just what were the details for the end of semester assignment?); and messaging, which is essentially a two-way conversation between teacher and student, or teacher and parent.
iPad covers all three elegantly…although you do need to be aware of a couple of quirks.
The group email obstacle
For many years before iPad appeared, one of the most efficient ways to digitally communicate with an entire class has been to send a group email. Your students can’t misplace what you’ve sent; when they ask yet again about what to bring for the zoo excursion, or where the brainstorm notes from last Friday’s class are, simply point them to their email inbox.
One of the limitations of the iPad operating system though is that it doesn’t allow for group sends of emails(!)—I cannot for the life of me think why something so self-evidently useful would be overlooked—but until hopefully a future update to IOS rectifies this, there’s an app that gets around the problem. Mailshot allows you to set up your own email groups, and populate them with whatever names and email addresses you need, so that you’re ready to send messages to everyone in each of those groups.
This is important, because as a teacher, you’ll normally be responsible for more than just your class. You might create one group with all your students, another with all your parents, another still for the school swim squad you manage, and one more for the English Extension group you run on a Tuesday afternoon. Communication is then as simple as choosing your group and then sending your email—Mailshot is smart enough to take care of the multiple addressees.
Rethinking the need to meet
In an age when both parents in a household are usually working, finding a time for a parent/teacher interview can be challenging enough that some meetings simply don’t happen at all. If you’re also prepared to engage parents using Skype or FaceTime though, then this barrier to entry is removed—they can contact you from their office, or car, or wherever, making it much more likely that the appointment happens in the first place.
FaceTime is built into every iPad, but does depend on the parent having either an iPad, iPhone or Mac (but their child has an iPad, yes?). If that’s an issue, Skype is cross platform, and should work no matter what sort of computer or mobile device they have to hand.
Teacher-to-student communication handled this way is a little more fraught with ethical concerns, but you (preferably with your entire class very obviously in shot) should be able to use the same technique for a quick “get better soon, we’re missing you” or “good luck at the National Fencing Championships” or “hello from all of us; can’t believe it’s been two months since you went to France” message to students. You could just send a card instead, but the built-in video conferencing ability of the iPad is a compelling and immediate way to maintain ties with students who are otherwise temporarily removed from your class group.
We’ve looked many times throughout this book at DropBox as a means of students and teachers being able to exchange documents, but a shared class dropbox folder is also an easy way to create a help-yourself document archive for parents.
So, for example, instead of handing out notes with details of what items are recommended, what’s required and what’s forbidden for an upcoming school camp, simply save the details as a PDF, upload it to the shared folder, and email parents the link. Parents won’t be able to misplace the note; nor will they be confused about where to get it in the first place.
Another option is to use Evernote—any notebook you create can be shared with anyone you choose, whether they have an Evernote account or not. So you could create a “Documents for Parents” notebook, email all your parents with the link, and they now have a Document Central of their own.
Plugging into a schoolwide system
A tour of the various commercially available school intranet systems is beyond the scope of this book, but if your school runs an iPad program, whatever intranet is in use has to be iPad friendly, for all the reasons outlined at the start of this chapter. There’s no point in students having a login portal if they’re compelled to use Windows Remote Desktop to access it (don’t start me, my daughters’ school has this requirement)—apart from locking out all your Mac using students, you’ve also removed iPads from the equation entirely.
iPad friendly means more than just “can be logged into from an iPad”. Students using iPad are used to an interface that has been put together by graphic designers and usability experts—unfortunately though, a lot of school intranets have simply been assembled by software engineers, with an interface that’s dumped on the screen like it’s been tipped out of a cereal box. If your school has to run multiple training sessions just so teachers and parents can figure out how on earth to do basic things such as send messages, or view the calendar, then that’s a heads up that you’ve got the wrong intranet.
I mention this in this book only because if the system your school is depending on is not immediately both engaging and self-evident to use, students and parents won’t use it. It won’t matter how brilliant the iPads might be in their own right if they’re simply a gateway to a dogs’ breakfast of an online interface. (The designers at Apple are among the best on the planet, but they can’t automatically tidy up other people’s messes like that.)
Setting up your own class website
Obviously you’ll need to clear it with higher authorities at your school, but blogging platforms such as WordPress make it easy for non-tech people to create and maintain websites. To get started, simply go to wordpress.com and sign up for a free account.
From there, you could create an information portal for your class that can rival much of the big commercial systems: what’s coming up, highlights from the week, student of the month, homework details, rubrics, band rehearsal changes, student work showcases…whatever you need, and nothing you don’t. And if you ever need to make changes, all you need to do is log in, update the info, and save—the new information will instantly be visible at your site.
Getting your head around it all might take an evening or two of fiddling, but once you’re done, it’s actually a lot faster to update your website than it is to have to assemble an email explaining the changes you want to whoever is responsible for updating the school intranet…it’s so much easier just to do it yourself.
Like a school intranet, information is then very easy for students and parents to find, as it’s all in one place. Better still, they don’t have to wade through all the notifications that are not relevant to their child—so, for example, the co-curricular information you list would only be for teams that students in your class are actually in.
Just bear in mind that while it’s possible to password protect pages, the information on your class website is visible to anyone with web access, so you might need to be careful about the sort of information you post.
Make changes using your iPad
Making this all much easier is that WordPress has a dedicated iPad app that allows you to make changes to your website whenever you need. This means that as soon as you get off the phone to the museum education liaison officer, instead of simply putting the details of the upcoming excursion in your diary, you could add it to your class website. It actually takes about the same amount of time to do this as it would have to add it to your diary, but now the information is available to everyone in your class.
Likewise, if you’ve just found out that a student finished second in the State Chess Championships, then you could post it in your Student Heroes section of your site. By the time they next visit the site, your congratulations note will already be there, together with well-wishing comments from other staff and students…
…the possibilities are endless, and the whole thing can be set up, edited, and then viewed on iPads.