Parents As Allies In Digital Evolution: A Game Changer
By Mal Lee and Roger Broadie
Parents have the potential to be one of the school’s, and in particular the principal’s, greatest allies in progressing the school’s digital evolution and growth in a socially networked society. By genuinely collaborating, respecting and empowering parents, distributing control of teaching, learning and resourcing, having all understand the school’s vision and agenda, contribute daily to the growth and standing of ‘their’ school and involving them in the 24/7/365 schooling of their children, schools are not only irrevocably changing their nature, but also are developing powerful allies who will forever complement the efforts of staff.
The scope of that impact is only now beginning to be identified. It is a game changer.
Schooling within the pathfinder schools is markedly expanding its scope and nature, and incorporating into its everyday workings a new and potentially immensely powerful and productive body of expertise and resourcing; that of its families. In collaborating with parents, schools are, via an informal alliance, irrevocably bringing into the room a vast, largely underdeveloped resource that has largely been shut out since the Industrial Revolution.
While there is no obligation for any school to foster the alliance, it is increasingly apparent that those that do not are not only foregoing the opportunity to significantly enhance their schooling, but are also ultimately placing their continued viability in question.
The key is to recognise the change underway, its potential and its continually evolving nature and to consciously factor all aspects of parental involvement, formal and informal, into the growth of the school’s ecosystem.
Related is the imperative of recognising the importance of the home learning culture in student success and that, in a digital and socially networked society, 80 percent plus of children’s learning time each year is spent outside of schools, with the vast majority of schools leaving the use of that time by default to children and their parents.
Parents have always been important. However, in a socially networked school community, where parents are actively – often unwittingly – involved in the 24/7/365 workings of the school, their contribution is on trend to move to an increasingly higher plane and significantly improve their children’s own holistic education.
While the traditional representative parent involvement is likely to remain important, the digital ecosystem allows the total – invariably time poor – parent body to play an appreciably greater and more productive part in both the school’s operations and growth and their children’s education. When all within the school’s community have digital technology in their hands, in a culture that actively promotes collaboration, not only can schools quickly ascertain current total parent opinion, but also readily use digital communications and data to significantly enhance each family’s contribution to schooling and its children’s education.
That change is already evidenced right across the board in the pathfinder schools. For convenience, the following outlines the main areas of parent alliance, but as readers will soon appreciate, the areas overlap, are entwined and, in many instances, parent contribution to the alliance is both informal and probably largely unwitting.
As Lee and Ward (2013) discuss in Collaboration in Learning, parents are slowly but surely being drawn more consciously into the 24/7/365 holistic teaching of their children outside the school walls, complementing the efforts of the school. It is a major new alliance still in its early stages that openly addresses the teaching of key 21st century building blocks. While the school takes the lead and provides the direction, parents are encouraged to provide the in-context complementary teaching.
In genuinely and openly collaborating with parents, the school gates are opened for parents to ally more fully in the personal growth of their children, in collaboratively addressing issues like behaviour, social relations, family dysfunction, mental illness and the like. For many a family, this is a marked change in its relations with the school and the linked agencies.
Ownership and community
As the school furthers its bonds with its homes and community, slowly but surely parents come to ‘own’ their school, to identify with it, to regard it as critical to their community and are willing to go that extra mile in promoting and supporting the school’s operations and growth. In many communities – particularly within new, regional and rural towns – the socially networked school also comes to play the all-pervasive social role once played by the community church, with parents responding in kind.
In identifying with and ‘owning’ the school, in seeing by deed the store the school places on genuine collaboration and social networking, one notes in the pathfinder schools the parents’ and community’s willingness to share and give resources – both material and social – to the school.
As Lee and Levins (2016) identify in their work on bring your own technology (BYOT) and digital normalisation, parents globally are providing their children, from the pre-primary years, the suite of digital technologies they will use 24/7/365 – and if the school permits, will use in the classroom. The family will provide the hardware, the software, the internet access, the care and the maintenance.
Clay Shirky (2012) speaks of the ‘cognitive surplus’ in society – the willingness of seemingly immensely busy people to give freely of their ideas is a feature of a socially networked society. In opening their operations for all to scrutinise and allying with their community, the pathfinder schools soon found the community reciprocated by contributing its own ideas on virtually all current and planned operations.
Closely allied is the willingness of many astute parents to act as critical friends for the school, particularly as the school moves into new and uncertain territory. It is now apparent in setting up the school’s digital communication’s suite that one should adopt the current social media conventions and provide the facility for different types of client feedback. Yes, sometimes the comment can be critical, but if it bids the school to pause and reflect, that is important for growth.
In bonding with its community, the school creates a very powerful political ally it can draw upon when the need arises. This has been particularly evident in state schools where it is expected the principal will follow the dictates of bureaucrats and refrain from entering the political arena. There is nothing, however, preventing the parent arm of the school from so doing. Indeed, the mere threat of bringing the parent power into play is often sufficient to get a central office bureaucrat to rethink a decision. As many a senior bureaucrat has learnt to his/her chagrin, well-prepared parent groups, working with their elected member, can quickly politicise issues and have bureaucrats revise their thinking.
Applied wisely, school leaders can also use parent power to overcome internal blockages, the game changing when escalated from an internal staffing clash to ‘the parents’ wanting the change.
Parents wear multiple hats both within their workplace and the community. In a socially networked school community, there is the ready facility for astute leaders at all levels to make use of those ‘hats’ when it is appropriate, be it to open doors or to secure support.
Similarly, within a socially networked society there will be occasions when the school can profitably reciprocate its support.
The vast majority of parents and their families will be social networkers, who will immediately pass on to their friends, with comment, all manner of digital material from the school, whether it is from a class blog, e-newsletters, a photo of their kids, mention of a great happening or a forthcoming event. Literally within seconds, the material will be re-transmitted via various social networks, invariably promoting the positives of the school.
A primary school of 300 students could easily have 600–700 community members, distributing positive comment on the school daily. It is word-of-mouth advertising that conventional advertisers cannot hope to match logistically, for effectiveness or price.
Simultaneously, an empowered and supportive school community is working as an advocate for the school and promoting its achievements by word of mouth, by social media, within the school car park, at social functions and the local shops.
The related reality is that when schools – like all other organisations – attract a significant number of friends, the algorithms underpinning social media garner supporters and the social dynamics of the online world make if that much harder to criticise the school.
In genuinely collaborating with its parents, in having them as close allies and opening virtually all school operations – in particular its teaching – to daily public scrutiny, digital schools have fundamentally changed the nature of school accountability. The schools are accounting to their clients daily for all their operations and providing the opportunity for immediate and raw feedback. The contrast in efficiency and effectiveness with the current top-down bureaucratic model is pronounced. When the school’s everyday operations are open for inspection and are commented upon daily in social media, the need for the traditional paper-based approach, which requires an expert group to go inside the school walls every couple of years to inspect the school’s workings, becomes highly questionable.
Handled astutely, the school has in its parents and wider community an immensely reputable and powerful voluntary marketing force, extolling the virtues of the school daily. Each week, thousands of word-of-mouth social media comments will be published online promoting the school.
A number of the pathfinder schools have reached the stage where most of their marketing is being done very successfully by word of mouth, with scant effort from the school, and most assuredly without the need of professional marketing staff.
As indicated in Harnessing the Social Networks (Lee and Broadie, 2016), it is highly advantageous to have a powerful, socially media savvy parent body able and willing to immediately defend the school online if the needs arise. While official comment from the school will likely have little impact, the power of a concerted whole-of-school community response can be very effective.
There are other aspects of the parent alliance that could be added and which will become more apparent in time. Suffice it to say that even now it is clear that a close alliance with parents will provide the evolving digital school with a substantial and growing body of expertise, resources and support – in addition to that provided by government – the likes of which traditional schooling has never known. This assistance will further the school’s growth, evolution and productivity.
It is a contribution that, fashioned astutely, will assist in growing a school’s ecosystem and make a school evermore attractive to clients. Importantly, it is a development that, handled wisely, does not appear to place a pronounced extra burden on school staff, but which likely makes their job that much easier and rewarding. It is a major development that needs to be researched, but it is one schools wanting to evolve digitally must capitalise upon.
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Mal Lee is a former director of schools, secondary college principal, technology company director and now, author and educational consultant. He has written extensively on the impact of technology and the evolution of schooling.
Roger Broadie has wide experience helping schools get the maximum impact on learning from technology. He is the Naace Lead for the 3rd Millennium Learning Award. In his 30-plus years of working at the forefront of technology in education he has worked with a huge range of leading schools, education organisations and policymakers in the United Kingdom and Europe.