Sunday, 11 May 2014

BYOD in schools - Part 6: Engaging parents

One of the most important factors in moving forward towards a roll-out of any form of mobile learning school, whether it be iPad 1:1, or BYOD in our case, is getting teachers, students and parents on board with the process simultaneously. Try shooting five basketballs towards a basket at the same time: It's more or less the same exercise. Or planning, teaching, marking, answering a thousand e-mail requests for paperwork and having any sort of life outside of school, for that matter.

I've dealt elsewhere with our general strategy and rationale for the roll-out , and looked specifically at the issues of staff training, student engagement in the process and the part played by Digital Leaders in this process, so forgive me if I don't revisit old ground here. We developed our strategy, worked out how we could train teachers gradually, and interviewed and trained our Digital Leaders to help us with our class trials. But now the big step to a whole-school roll-out looms, and we really need to get ALL of our parents on-board, or they won't allow their students to bring their devices in in the first place.

These are the key points we need to communicate to them, in my opinion:
  • They need to understand that this is not a gimmick to engage students: There is a clear educational rationale behind the move, which we consider will help improve the performance of our students on a long-term basis. In other words, they have to understand that our move is fundamentally about teaching and learning, and that the use of mobile devices in lesson will occur when there is a clear way in which it can augment, modify or redefine the learning in that lesson, and not otherwise.

  • They need to understand why we have decided not to specify a particular device (often iPads in these types of schemes), or indeed pay for the roll-out ourselves from school funds. Essentially there are two key reasons for this move, which are economic and pedagogical. Economically, we as a school cannot afford to pay for them ourselves (£70000 every three years?), and if we passed the cost on to the parents, many of them may not be able to afford it either, especially in times of recession, economic insecurity etc. So not only are we saving ourselves money (three more teachers potentially to help their students?), we are also saving them money, as 99.6% of our students already own devices which they probably bring in to school on a daily basis. Pedagogically, much as I am a fan of the iPad itself, I can't pretend that other devices are not catching them up quickly. Each new iPad seems less of an education game-changer than the last, and yet the premium is still charged. More importantly, I think there is real benefit to be had from giving students and parents the choice of what to bring in, and getting them to discuss issues of what each phone/tablet can and cannot do in the context of teaching and learning, rather than mere functionality (my graphics card is faster and bigger than yours, sort of thing).

  • We as a school need to address insurance worries head on: Many parents could quite reasonably object to their children being asked to bring mobile devices into school on the grounds that they could get damaged or stolen. But what if they currently allow their child to bring their phone into school at the moment? Then there is no change in the situation. The phones can still be insured as part of household contents insurance or, as many people already do, can be insured as discrete devices. Having said that, we as a school do also need to make it as secure an environment as possible for our students to bring their phones and devices to school safely. That means addressing potential areas where students might have to leave their devices unattended (changing rooms for instance), and ensuring that we are vigilant at all times, and have water-tight security systems in place to protect student property. To my mind, we should be doing that already. Similarly, in this new digital learning environment, we as a school ought to be pressing the insurance industry for easy, cheap and viable schemes which will allow us to protect our students' devices without costing the earth. Already, some financial institutions are beginning to respond to these requirements.

  • Finally, I think it is imperative that parents can SEE the enhanced learning which occurs as a result of using mobile devices. They need to see it in action: We should be inviting them to watch model lessons with students, with a debrief showing how it has enhanced the learning, the students' organisation, their motivation and the differentiation which devices can enable. They need to see these enhancements to lessons in order to understand just how much difference mobile learning can make to their child's education. If we can accompany these sessions with Q&A at the end, with both the teacher and the students involved, (as happened here when I taught a lesson in front of colleagues from across the city using the same techniques as part of a rolling programme of CPD observations "for real"), then I think parents will be a lot more positive about the use of mobile technology as an integral part of their child's learning experience.
My ideal way of organising this would be as follows: A festival of mobile learning. As part of this, the school would perhaps need to be open a day at a weekend (and perhaps have a day off as recompense?), and invite parents and members of the local community in to see a variety of activities in action. We would have different subjects running workshops on some of the ways in which they use mobile technology as part of teaching and learning and explaining how it works in an open session for all students and parents. We would also have several "show" lessons occurring simultaneously which parents could visit, look at the teaching, look at the types of activities students were undertaking, and talk to both students and teachers about how exactly the mobile devices are enhancing teaching and learning. You could even invite local companies connected with mobile devices and mobile learning to come in and sponsor the event, and use it to pitch the benefits of their products to parents, showing them the possibilities.

A fundamental building block of this strategy would be the involvement of students who already use mobile learning, and Digital Leaders in particular. Alongside the teacher-led workshops and model lessons, the student leaders could lead "Genius bar" style sessions including videos of other lessons throughout the year, the students' own thoughts on mobile learning, and the advantages it gives them over other learners. They would be able to show how they themselves support the process in school, answer technical queries, and could also talk to parents knowledgeably about the different sorts of devices they have used, the advantages and disadvantages of each for different subjects, and they could blog about this afterwards so that this advice is permanently there for parents to refer to, with direct links from the school website.

One of the other things this type of festival would facilitate is for other teachers who are less confident about tech use in lessons (from other schools, or from within our own) to get the same information, to interrogate the possibilities for themselves, and to make their own first steps. This would be great CPD for all involved, sharing best and next practice widely, and also enabling schools like ours to clearly demonstrate our role as a support school to those in the wider community. In fact, I think it would be great to follow this up with an hour's TeachMeet at the end of the day for teachers to share their best apps and resources, divided into different categories (AFL, BFL, differentiation and personalisation, etc), so teachers can get what they want out of it. That would act as a great summary of everything which has been shared that day, and really send people away with lots to think about.

After an event like that, I think very few parents will be in any doubt about the school's rationale for using mobile devices to enhance learning, and I would hope that teachers and students would be enthused, and that the wider community would be able to see just what a forward-thinking institution this was...

If we don't engage parents, and show them the realities of modern education, and the potential mobile technology brings within that environment, we risk them not understanding what we are trying to do, and we all know where that leads...

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