Over the past decade, teachers and parents have moved classroom communication beyond letters and homework. From online portals to email, a number of communication tools are now in use, with the most recent new player being instant messaging (IM) apps. The feature that sets this tool apart from other innovative technologies is the ability to receive information in real-time and to have timely, flexible discussions. Subsequently, while IM in the classroom has historically been viewed in a negative light, the technology is now seen as a valuable communication and educational aid.
IM apps like WhatsApp, Classloom, Edmondo, Remind and a host of other, sector-specific options are increasingly being used by teachers to communicate outside of the classroom with older students and their parents. In essence, IM apps are a perfect replacement for classroom circulars or flyers for parents. Teachers and school administrators can send out school or class updates, share assignments with students who missed class, organise class events, and send emergency messages. Parents can also use the apps to communicate student absences, help organise events, and monitor student progress. Advanced uses of IM apps include live updates on events (like field trips), student timelines, read receipts, establishing office hours, and even the administration of short quizzes or tests.
One of the leading reasons that teachers consider using IM apps to communicate with students and parents is the fact that they help increase and sustain parental and student engagement outside the classroom. Active parental engagement, in particular, has been shown to improve student performance in class. “My son’s school uses a messaging system which includes homework, a calendar, news, alerts and contact details,” explains parent Nadine Tavener. “Some teachers have included all parents in a WhatsApp group and used this to send photos of art and craft, and updates and reminders. Parents use it to notify the teacher if they are running late. Messaging apps have allowed parents to work with teachers in improving their child’s education. The more united parents and teacher are, the better the learning environment is for students.”
While parental engagement is positive for all students, it may have a particularly positive impact on students with special needs. A 2016 study indicated that students who need additional assistance in the classroom or have speech delays are helped significantly by regular parent-teacher contact – they show greater academic improvement and communicate better in the classroom.
There are some concerns that emerge with the use of IM apps, one of the primary ones being privacy of the data that is shared. Apps like WhatsApp and ClassDojo require a user to know another user’s personal information and contact information to message them, which protects a user’s privacy to a certain extent. Other apps, like Remind, protect users’ phone and other contact information by allowing users to sign up with class codes and by offering the versatility of allowing users to sign up to various platforms. Some app developers, meanwhile, are being scrutinised for their privacy policies that do not explicitly state what the company does with all the personal information it collects online. Without these boundaries clearly explained, IM apps may be collecting personal information that is not legally protected for distribution.
One of the reasons that teachers and school administrators hesitate to adopt new technology is because of how it could be abused in the school environment, particularly among students. Some of the concerns include online bullying. Proactive measures, however, can be taken to ensure that such abuse doesn’t occur within the classroom. Tavener suggests, “As long as the teacher is the administrator, any disruptive or abusive students can be excluded from the group. It is important to explain the rules of the group and the consequences of breaking the rules before the group is established.” This places the onus of accountability on the students who are using the app and works towards making them responsible for their actions online. This is a valuable learning experience in itself.
There are even examples of apps being developed in an effort to prevent such disruptive or dangerous behaviour. For example, Daniel George, digital experience leader at AstraZeneca, explains, “We are building apps to connect kids with the school to report violent acts on themselves or on others, request academic assistance, and request counselling. Apps provide all types of assistive features that help students reach their potential without unnecessary distractions and help other groups, including parents and school administrators, along the way.”
While IM apps are a fairly recent addition to classroom technology, their utility in student/parental engagement, real-time communication options, and document sharing alternatives makes their adoption a valuable asset within the educational sector.
Ultimately, with a few considerations about information privacy and setting up group policies, IM apps can be an extremely useful resource for teachers, students, and parents alike.
About the author
Nicola Davies is a psychologist and freelance writer with a passion for education. You can follow her on Twitter (@ healthpsychuk) or sign up to her free blog: http://healthpsychologyconsultancy.wordpress.com/